Is it just me, or are we all talking about technology far more than ever? It might be just me. I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon I have experienced a few times. It comes time to replace a vehicle, and I start doing a whole bunch of research, eventually zeroing in on one make and model. Suddenly I am noticing them everywhere: parking lots, streets, and even zipping by in the opposite direction on the highway. They were always there, but I never noticed them. Attention is a mysterious thing.
Last week I was at the last T4G in Louisville, KY, without Twitter, and so I spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things. I’ll admit I felt a little bit like this:
With impeccable timing, Chris Martin wrote a piece titled “Things Are Real Even if We Don’t Share Them.” Ironically, I am sharing that piece with you now, dear reader. But not on social media. Unless you post thispost on social media, in which case we will have achieved maximum self-referential absurdity and the fabric of the universe will unravel.
I plan to write some more on my time at T4G, so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I have been pondering the whole idea of natural and creaturely limits as well as technology’s endless quest to transcend and transgress those limits. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic tension than the project of transhumanism. It was with great interest then that I read this piece by Wesley Smith at First Things: The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism.
The following is the text of a short reflection I shared at my church’s Good Friday service.
‘After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”’ (John 19:28).
Is there any more universal human experience than to feel thirsty? Jesus, the all-glorious second person of our triune God, humbled himself and took on flesh. God became man. And as a man, he experienced a truly and fully human life.
As a newborn baby he thirsted for his mother’s milk just as every other human baby has since the days of Adam and Eve. And here we see that at the very last moment of his earthly life, this all-too-human experience of thirst drove him to ask for a drink, fulfilling the Scriptures that had foretold and foreshadowed his coming. How striking that thirst was the first and last experience that our Savior had during his human life upon this earth.
But all through Scripture we see that thirst is also spiritual. And each of us knows this, do we not?
David’s soul panted for God as the deer pants for flowing streams. In the prophets we are told: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” And what are those waters? Jesus said that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” and “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Like the Samaritan woman, I find myself saying “Give me this water.” Do you?
Before coming to Christ I found in myself a deep and profound soul-thirst, although I may not have called it that. But I had been trying to quench that thirst with fleeting pleasures and religious good works, with the poison of pornography and the hypocrisies of church attendance and Bible knowledge. The Bible calls these ‘broken cisterns,’ vessels filled with putrid water that can never satisfy our thirst. I sought in them what can only be found in God, who is that fountain of living waters.
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” I find myself saying again: “Give me this water.” Do you?
This comes from the Spirit’s work deep in our hearts. So we pray: Lord, do this in me, do this in us.
We cannot quench our own thirst. We must go to Him who hung on that cross, and suffered so horribly for our iniquities and sins, our rebellion and our hypocrisy, and our misguided attempts to quench our soul thirst with anything and everything aside from the living God. And as we come to Him, our crucified Savior, and drink in his grace and mercy for us, we find our souls are truly satisfied.
Jesus endured the cross, and the thirst, so we would not have to. And through His thirst, we are given a fountain of living water.
Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie (audiobook)
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (You’ll see variations on this memorable quote by Blaise Pascal because it was originally written in French: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”)
This book is in some ways an in-depth historical exploration of that statement and the truth it contains. The author, historian Alec Ryrie, states explicitly that he seeks to counter the prevalent narrative that atheism and secular humanism arose from changes in philosophical reasoning and intellectual beliefs. Rather, he argues that two powerful emotional currents – anger and fear – animated unbelief for centuries before it ever emerged as a coherent set of beliefs. In order to make his point, Ryrie garners evidence from across multiple centuries and the whole of Europe (with a special emphasis on England).
The historical work seems sound to this layman. Ryrie has unearthed dozens of fascinating first-hand accounts. Whatever issues one might take with how Ryrie summarizes the meaning of all the material, I think it’s undeniable that he’s onto something really worthwhile here. There really does seem to be a powerful emotional current at work in so much unbelief both in the past and today.
I found myself wishing he would apply these insights more thoroughly to our own day. But this was not his stated goal so I cannot fault him for anything except failing to write precisely the book I would have preferred. He does however make some interesting comments in the concluding chapter which are worth repeating and reflecting on.
Ryrie argues that, since WW2, Adolf Hitler now functions as the universally agreed fixed moral point. It is now unthinkable to praise Hitler just like it used to be unthinkable to criticize Jesus in centuries past. This manifests itself in another interesting way also. In the 17th Century, the argument-ending slander was to call someone an “atheist,” and Ryrie made clear in previous chapters just how endlessly that insult was hurled from one group to another. Today the argument-ending tactic is to call someone a “Nazi.” Lastly, in terms of imagery, the most potent moral symbol in past centuries was the cross. Today it is the swastika.
I might wish it was different, but this argument strikes me as correct. Modernity and subjective moral reasoning have chipped away at all the shared moral points of reference and really there are not very many left, of which Hitler and Nazism seems to be the one that has the most purchase across the breadth of our society.
These reflections are especially timely for us Canadians as the Freedom Trucker Convoy in the first couple months of 2022 led to some significant political and cultural turmoil, including endless talk about swastikas and accusations of Nazi-sympathy. It is interesting to step back and see that, in a time of massive moral transformation (one might even say revolution), this is indeed the one fixed moral point. Whatever else we believe is right or wrong, everyone agrees that THAT is wrong. And all ends of the political spectrum seem unable to resist the temptation to weaponize that moral certainty to score political points in our troubled age.
Something unusual is happening. A little over a week ago I penned an article that seemed to boil up from my heart when I first heard the Quebec government’s announcement that churches would have to implement vaccine passports, excluding the unvaccinated from their worship services. I received a large amount of feedback from all kinds of people in all kinds of places. And although my piece had to do specifically with the situation in Quebec, readers connected from all over the globe, including sizable numbers from New Zealand. I don’t know anyone in New Zealand. Clearly the topic struck a nerve.
In this follow-up, drawing on the many conversations I have had with church leaders here and there, I would like to ‘think out loud’ as a way of advocating for wisdom, courage, and balance. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all option that captures biblical faithfulness for each and every church. That being said, I believe some things are out of bounds, which was the point of that first article.
What I Said, What Happened
On the question of vaccine passports in churches, I landed decidedly on “No!”. This resonated with quite a number of people, though certainly not all. One’s response to my argument against vaccine passports, it seems to me, has a lot to do with how one understands the seriousness of the health crisis and the wisdom of public health directives thus far in the pandemic. Those who reached out to me to share their disagreement generally had more to say about those matters than Biblical principles.
This gets at one of the most pernicious aspects of this whole Covid moment. For those who see it as akin to a meteor hurling towards earth, no cost is too high and no freedoms are too precious to escape this threat and live to see another day. And this makes a lot of sense if that is more or less the nature of the threat. Others see a public health and media establishment always catastrophizing and assuming the worst, and regulations being enforced which seem more like theatre than anything based in data. And the difference between these two paradigms has a lot to do with where you get your news. In my first post I purposely avoided getting into such epidemiological details, knowing that it would only distract from the main point I was seeking to make.
What was that main point, you ask? It was simply to argue that this latest regulation was categorically different than all the previous regulations imposed on houses of worship. My point was this mandate crossed a line that had not yet been crossed in this province. I sought to ground that argument in the Scriptures, as I was writing primarily to fellow Christians. If I were to write an open letter to the government I would base my argument on other grounds, of which there are plenty to choose from.
It was my hope that houses of worship across the province would unite in defying this decree, applying enough immediate pressure to cause the government to rescind it. That has not happened. It was also my hope that Christian pastors and elders would be agreed upon the conviction that to install such a system in their church would be a stain upon that church’s witness, such that whatever other options were considered, this one would be set to the side as a non-option. This has not happened either.
And so we find ourselves in a situation where we are faced with dire choices, none of which are ideal. What are we to do? How do we go about weighing these options? Many pastors and church leaders are facing decisions which may prove decisive for their future ministries and for the continued existence of their churches. The stakes have never been higher in our lifetimes.
Many have noted that social media tends to amplify those voices which are on the extreme ends of any given question. This has something to do with human psychology but also with the kinds of algorithms that control the dials for what gets shown to who. One of the things I have noticed in the course of this pandemic is how this dynamic has played itself out. Needless to say, rare is the social media post dealing with any of these covid-related issues that actually builds bridges between opposing sides. One of the results of this is we become reinforced in our way of thinking.
The temptation is to view anyone more critical of the government as extreme and divisive, and anyone more compliant to the government as cowardly and terminally compromised. When these temptations are indulged, the resulting rhetoric rolls off the tongue – or off the keyboard – with uncanny ease. It is very easy to do, and it feels good too. But I do not think that it is ultimately all that helpful for anyone.
The reality in Quebec is that there are a lot fewer evangelical churches per capita than anywhere else in North America. This means that, by and large, there is more diversity inside those churches than might be the case elsewhere. Why? Because instead of having six churches to choose from in a given town, there is one, maybe two options within reasonable driving distance. The kind of sorting according to personality types and political leanings that can happen in places with a higher density of believers has not happened here to nearly the same degree.
This diversity means that unity in the church requires constant effort. For many pastors faced with this government mandate – which, due to emergency powers, legally has the force of law – the question of unity is a critical one. In many churches where there is a wide diversity of opinion, there are two options which are guaranteed to cause a catastrophic split in their church: 1. Imposing a vaccine passport system in compliance with the mandate, or 2. Holding services without a vaccine passport system, in open defiance to the mandate. Either of those options will instantly alienate a large percentage of their members, making it impossible for them to continue worshipping there. Some zealous folks might say “Good riddance! Let us be rid of them, and separate the sheep from the goats.”
But the pastors I know facing this exact situation are good shepherds. They know that despite whatever deep differences of opinion, these are genuine believers that need to be vitally connected to a local church. They also know that some of them need much pastoral care, prayer, and counseling. And so the question inevitably becomes: Is this decision worth splitting the church? Is it really the only faithful option?
Many are choosing to avoid either of those options, which we might call the two far ends of the spectrum. Among the middle options I have heard floated are the following:
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services.
Close in-person gatherings and live-stream services to small groups of congregants gathered in homes.
Practice “righteous deception” in the way of the Israelite midwives, purporting to live-stream services while actually meeting in person in a discreet location.
Nobody landing on one of these options would consider it ideal. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t much to be preferred over a permanently damaging church split. In a situation as fraught and complex as this one, it may be that the best outcome we can hope for is a course of action that nobody really loves, but that everyone can at least understand and support without violating their convictions. Such a decision will require that everyone lay aside their personal preferences. It will show that what unites us in Christ is stronger than what divides us in the flesh. And this, I believe, can be a wholesome, faithful, God-honoring path to chart for many churches.
But not all churches. There are some that have a unity of conviction among the leadership, with a congregation eager to follow their lead. Some of these are opting to openly defy the passport mandate while continuing to take all other precautions to reduce risk. Indeed, the risk they are taking is in the form of hefty fines and legal troubles. There is courage here that does not seek to offend, a gracious refusal to comply. I applaud and support these brothers and sisters in Christ. They are able to stand up to government overreach without causing violence to the unity of the body of Christ under their care.
One of the things I learned from reading the Puritans it that there is spiritual danger everywhere. Sin is ever-present in this broken world, and no course of action is without its own particular temptations. For those churches and leaders who have decided to openly defy the government mandate, it is important to be aware and wary of the ditch along the path. Those who have been loudest in their defiance of what they perceive as government tyranny have at times engaged in rhetoric intimating that anything short of equal defiance was compromise motivated by cowardice. In other words, this is the only faithful option.
What often went unstated however was that such judgments presupposed an interpretation of the epidemiological situation that differed greatly from the mainstream narrative. In some circles, these alternative interpretations of the pandemic were dominant. Fed largely by conservative media from the USA, as well as some other online sources, these views ranged from conspiracy theories (it’s a Plandemic!) to far more plausible ideas like ‘the public health establishment has mishandled this pandemic in a historic way.’
Whatever else we might say about such questions, they are not addressed directly in Scripture. We cannot find chapter and verse to explain to us the best practices for a modern 21st-century nation-wide response to a novel virus causing widespread sickness and death. But some of the voices decrying government actions were loudest precisely on those points where Scripture was silent, taking on at times the ethos and energy of a culture warrior or political activist rather than a pastor or Christian leader.
But still I have been quite sympathetic to such leaders. I respect their courage and the clarity of their convictions. The dangers they decry (the infringement of religious liberty and authoritarianism) are not imaginary, even if we perceive them differently. At the same time, I know my heart is not immune to cowardice. But the spiritual danger I see in such a posture is to run roughshod over those Christians who are fearful and do not know what to believe. Competing narratives seem to offer wildly different accounts of the government’s actions. For some, they are heroes making the tough calls to keep everyone safe; for others, tyrants and authoritarians gleefully stripping away civil liberties from the unwitting public. Who is right? And must it be one or the other? Is cowardice really the only possible explanation for the various paths churches have taken throughout this pandemic?
I find that kind of rhetoric to be reminiscent of the ‘fighting fundamentalists’ of the 20th-century. Certain on every minute point of doctrine, nearly every church but theirs was hopelessly compromised and deceived by Satan. Discontent with co-belligerence, they chose belligerency towards all who differed. But this bred a toxic kind of self-righteousness that was not attractive to unbelievers or spiritually healthy for believers. It led to divisions and schism where they were not at all necessary.
As church leaders face some of the toughest decisions of their ministries, many are crying out for wisdom and guidance through prayer and fasting. May God grant them such graces in abundance, both to lead well and to avoid the dangers which lie inevitably along any of the possible paths. And as friends, family members, and fellow believers choose differently, may the unity we have in Christ enable us to disagree charitably, even warmly.
Loving Our Neighbours (Jabbed or Not)
The Biblical principle most often cited to me to support the idea of vaccination passports in churches is love for one’s neighbour. The questions are perennial: What does it mean to love our neighbour in this situation? And in the words that called forth that great parable of the Good Samaritan, just who is my neighbour? Many reasonably see vaccination as an act of neighbourly love. So far, so good. From this premise many conclude that a refusal to get vaccinated is motivated by a selfishness and lack of love for others. I don’t think that’s true, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that, in Canada as well as many other places in the world, there is a growing hostility towards the unvaccinated that has dark foreboding element to it. In its worst manifestations, the unvaxxed are treated as if they were disease-ridden, unclean, and guilty for the sufferings of others, deserving whatever comes to them. Such scapegoating and marginalization essentially make the unvaccinated a group of societal outcasts. The speed and viciousness with which large portions of our society seem to have “othered” and dehumanized the unvaccinated is one of the most troubling things I have seen in a long time.
But are they not our neighbours too? Do people cease to be our neighbours when they make choices we disagree with? Shall the church of Christ join in the mob calling for them to be shoved to the margins of society? Isn’t the church called especially to those on the margins? What does loving these neighbours look like?
Love, I am told, is patient and kind. It is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. It assumes the best about others’ motivations. Love does not let the categories and divisions of the world tear apart the unity that Christ purchased with His precious blood.
It is a dark day for churches in Quebec, and my heart is heavy. Word came down on the evening of December 16th that houses of worship have been mandated by the provincial government to turn away from their public services those without vaccine passports.
I do not make it a habit to get on my soapbox and declare my thoughts about public policy, but today I am making an exception. I would like to try and make the argument that this new regulation from the government is categorically different than any other regulation that has heretofore been applied to churches, and that in asking churches to do this, the government is asking churches to disobey the teaching of the Scriptures and to betray the essence of being a church.
Elders and pastors have carried a heavy burden since the very start of this pandemic. I know the weight of it, as I served as an elder for the first chaotic year of the pandemic. All the local church elders and pastors I’ve spoken to, without exception, affirmed that they have had under their shepherding care people at both ends of the spectrum (and everywhere in between) when it comes to responding to this pandemic. This government decree has, with one fell swoop, made each of their lives and leadership exponentially more difficult.
Church leaders have, by and large, done their best to thread the needle during these two tortuous years, and have repeatedly had to adapt at the last minute to ever-changing regulations, coming up with new policies for their gatherings. Each of those decisions has been stressful, demanding, and usually criticized by some for going too far and by others for not going far enough. I have immense respect and admiration for these faithful leaders.
When we were mandated to wear masks indoors, we bought masks and wore them. When we were restricted to 50, and then 25 people in the building, we mobilized volunteers and multiplied services, running three per Sunday at one point. We also bought equipment, trained volunteers, and started live-streaming services. When singing was restricted, we chafed and struggled but we sang with our hearts instead of our lips. We did all these things because, as hard as these restrictions were, they did not seem to directly go against the teaching of the Scriptures which we hold as the only ultimate authority in matters of faith and worship.
I will not pretend to be of two minds about this. The announcement from the government marks the start of something completely new. Everything that has come before has been on the scale from mildly to extremely inconvenient. To my mind, the church in Quebec now faces a test not of creativity and flexibility, or of neighbourly love and graciousness, but of conviction and principle.
To be plain: I think it unconscionable for a local church, which is a visible manifestation of the universal church of Christ on earth, to enforce this kind of discrimination. We simply cannot say in our call to worship, “This church opens wide her doors,” while at the same time having someone with a QR-Code scanner shutting those doors on the unvaccinated.
Yes, this new regulation is different. I believe it asks churches to disobey the clear teaching and principles of Scripture that we find in several passages. I will limit myself to two that come to mind, for the sake of brevity and clarity.
First, James 2. In this passage, the church is commanded to not show favoritism by seating a rich person in a good seat and telling a poor person to “Stand over there” or to sit on the floor. The passage concludes by saying to those who behave this way: “haven’t you made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). The principle is simple: favoritism that makes such distinctions among the body of believers is wrong. The distinction need not be between rich and poor, but between any two groups of people within the church body who are not treated the same. More could be said, but we move on to a second passage.
In Galatians 2, Peter fell into hypocrisy by separating from one group of believers (the Gentile believers in Antioch) out of a fear of displeasing another group (legalistic Jewish believers from Jerusalem). Paul rebuked him publicly, for he saw that creating such a division in the body of Christ was tantamount to “deviating from the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). These passages do not mince words – let us heed them and consider their implications carefully.
And although the Scriptural principles are clear, perhaps an even more powerful line of argument is found in the power of symbolism.
So let’s picture the scene: In order to obey this mandate, someone will need to stand at the front door with a device that has some government application on it. And that person will need to take each arriving worshipper in turn and scan their government-provided code, at which point their device will communicate with a government database, exchange some packets of information, and find out if they are allowed to come in and worship the living God in person.
But not so fast – a successful scan will not be enough. A photo ID will also be required to establish that the person is who they claim to be. The ecclesiastical bouncer will need to be ready to turn people away; people who are looking for hope, life-giving truth, and fellowship. Yes, that person will need to be willing to say words to this effect: “You cannot come in to this church, since you do not meet our government’s definition of ‘fully vaccinated.’ You will have to turn around, get back in your car, and go home.” Who is willing to do this work? Are you?
It is a shocking scene even to imagine, but we must imagine it and be clear about what it means. Tragically, I assume it will be a scene playing out at some houses of worship this Sunday and in coming weeks.
While different churches have responded differently thus far in the pandemic, the vast majority have made extraordinary efforts to meet and exceed the safety measures required by the government regulations, even when some of those regulations had awfully thin rationales behind them; the vast majority have sought to honor and obey the magistrates over them. But brothers and sisters, this is not one more rule among many; this is not just a new item on the list. No, this is something we cannot do. Whatever creative solutions and workarounds churches come up with – and there is surely a place for that – this is a line no church should cross.
I earnestly hope and pray that houses of worship of every type and stripe will hold firm to their convictions on these matters and present a unified front of non-compliance. I also hope and expect that those houses of worship will continue to follow all the other recommended safety guidelines even as they disobey this new rule. The posture must be one of gracious but firm refusal: We have bent over backwards, we have stretched, we have multiplied our services, we have taxed our volunteers, we have found ways to make it work, but we cannot and we will not do this thing. To do so would be to cease to be the kind of church we say we are.
The people of God are surely willing to be inconvenienced to a great extent, even to sacrifice much. But we cannot betray those principles and truths which amount to our very obedience to the One who is forever and infinitely above any provincial or national authority. We cannot turn hungry and thirsty souls away from the place where they might hear the words of life spoken to them. The heart of the gospel is the free offer of forgiving and renewing grace to any and all who would come to Jesus Christ by faith. We cannot make such an offer to people who have been turned away because the government told us to.
One feels that this moment is pregnant with meaning, and that much is at stake. The dramatic tension is high. In such a moment, dramatic words are not uncalled for. And I can’t think of any better suited to the moment than those purportedly uttered by the reformer Martin Luther (slightly adapted for our purposes). May this be the essence of the unified voice of the churches of the Lord Jesus Christ in response to this moment:
“Unless we are convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason, we are bound by the Scriptures. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We cannot and we will not enforce this mandate, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here we stand. We cannot do otherwise. God help us. Amen.”
(I think maybe even a Roman Catholic could say “Amen” to that).
I conclude with a word to church leaders, among whom are many dear friends and family members. I do not envy your position. Whatever decision you make, there will be emails, messages, and phone calls to face from those who disagree. And indeed, many churches are led by teams of elders, meaning that there is a diversity of viewpoints on all kinds of matters among them. The final decision may not be what every member (or any one member) of that group desired. And yet, for the good of the church, and the glory of God, decisions are made, policies put in place, and the work continues. I have tried to make my case as plain and clear as possible. And while I see a red line here, others may not. Even in disagreement, may we be known for a remarkable gentleness and humility. We never know all that goes into a group decision. Let us believe the best about each other and seek to preserve that precious bond of unity when all around us is division.
The opening biographical essay sketches the history of the Particular Baptists clearly and helpfully. It also gives the reader a foretaste of Collins’ warm and experiential style. Hercules Collins, though largely unknown today, was an important figure in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist community in the 17th century. These Baptists were part of the Dissenters, a larger group of Christians that, for one reason or another, were not in the Church of England.
I found it interesting that in the body of Collins’ work was an early defense of religious liberty, where he argued that compulsion cannot bring about true spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, force cannot change the heart, and heart change is at the very core of Christianity.
His is a legacy where his teaching is highlighted, underlined, and put in bold by the powerful testimony of his life. Imprisoned for his opposition to the prevailing religious and political authority of his day, in abysmal conditions (two fellow pastors in prison with him died while in captivity), he remained faithful and wrote stirring letters to his congregation while in chains. This harrowing context gave his writing a kind of Pauline grittiness and verve.
The selections, well picked and edited, give the reader a real sense for his style and substance. The length of the book makes this long-departed brother’s words accessible, portable, and edifying. What a gift! How else is a 21st-century Christian going to encounter such material?
For those in ministry and leadership, there were a number of selections specifically dealing with the realities of ministry and the task of preaching. While all the selections were good in content, some of them were simply stellar. My favorites were #s 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 20, 21, 24, 28, 30, 35.
The last selection was actually a poem that Collins wrote. This third stanza I thought was really quite good:
Come haste that blessed break of Light,
Let shadows flee away;
When ordinances all shall cease,
Come on Eternal Day.
Then through a glass shall look no more,
Unless the glass divine;
We shall through human nature see,
The blessed Godhead shine.
I highly recommend getting a few volumes in this series. There is nothing like reaching across the centuries and reading the words of a fellow Christian from another age. There is blessed similarity and blessed dissimilarity. Similar because the experience and convictions of true Christians have a common thread wherever they are found; dissimilar because we have lost much in our day and are blind in ways they are not.
If I was to try and find one thing to quibble with, it might be the title. Having finished the book, I now get it. At first glance, however, it was not a title that drew me in towards the book or piqued my interest.
I’m going back through my old blog posts and tagging them appropriately, categorizing them for the sake of organization. This is forcing me to read over some old posts I had forgotten about. And some of them are better left forgotten, or they feel dated, or fall short for any number of reasons.
But some are not that bad! So I thought I’d recycle some of these a bit and throw them back on top of the pile once in a while.
This interesting and well-written book gives believers and unbelievers alike an opportunity to reflect. It is the story of the spiritual journey of William Lobdell, who went from unbeliever to evangelical to Catholic, worked as religion reporter for a major US newspaper covering the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal among other things, and subsequently lost his belief in God. As a Christian of the reformed and evangelical stripe, I found Lobdell’s journey fascinating, sad, and instructive. Let me take those in turn.
Lobdell is an experienced writer and that comes through on every page. As one who has struggled through many a book full of good ideas and poor writing, this was a nice surprise.
I did not expect Lobdell’s move from the shallow evangelicalism of his conversion and early Christian experience to the Catholic Church, but it does make sense in hindsight. Nothing seems to drive Protestants to Rome like the rootlessness of contemporary evangelicalism, which so often puts emotion and experience in the driver’s seat, despite the fact that emotion is a terrible driver and experience an even worse navigator. With them in control, there’s no telling where you might end up: Rome or somewhere worse. I will return to the roles of emotion and experience in the last section.
The quality of Lobdell’s storytelling comes through in the middle section of the book when he really starts to dig into the underbelly of the corruption of institutional religion. This made for riveting and stomach-turning reading. The two main targets of his investigative reporting are the Catholic Church and the Prosperity Gospel industrial complex. Now while I have a measure of appreciation for the Catholic Church, despite fundamental and important differences, I have no appreciation at all for the prosperity gospel and its preachers, those misery-sowing peddlers of a false and damning gospel. Ahem. Where was I? Oh right.
This brings us to the book’s sadness. Lobdell has his heart and soul crushed by the steady willful evil of a cold church bureaucracy and the unfathomable suffering of many innocent, vulnerable people. I felt the anger welling up as I read the stories of these atrocities; I can’t imagine what it would have been like to sit with these victims and hear their stories. I don’t know how anyone can handle that emotionally. So I have a lot of compassion for how hard this would have been.
What is also sad is how theologically unprepared he was to grapple with these realities. It seems, from a distance, that the kind of Christianity Lobdell was discipled into was very acclimated to the comfortable affluent Southern California world. This is probably the norm, but it does leave one totally unprepared to relate to the majority of Christians in the world today, not to mention the majority of Christians throughout the ages, who have and who are suffering in all kinds of ways. Oh, and the Bible, which in many ways is a pretty brutal book.
From very early in his journey, Lobdell expressed doubts about the character of God as revealed in Scripture. However, he never seems to doubt the certitude of the moral assumptions that give rise to his doubts and questions. There is a lot of sentimentality there. The justice and judgment of God, which the author found so hard to accept, are the very things that would have anchored him in the face of such unimaginable evil as he encountered. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who hails from the Balkans and has seen his share of human evil, is right that without a God of judgment, the cycle of violence goes on and on, because only earthly justice is left. Likewise the sentimentalist is utterly unequipped to face the depth of evil humans are capable of. The imprecatory Psalms are an embarrassment to the sentimentalist, but they are a lifeline to the victim or troubled bystander of injustice and evil.
To return to my previous point, the assumption that emotion and experience are fundamental arbiters of truth is never questioned: ‘If I experience something, then my interpretation of that experience is true.’ Near the end of the book, he even says something about “his truth.” Oprah couldn’t have said it better – and it has all the objective solidity of an overcooked spaghetti noodle.
These are deeply modern (even post-modern) assumptions, shaped by the prevailing philosophy of our time and culture. Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor famously calls ours a Secular Age, in contrast to previous ages. Where once it was well-nigh impossible not to believe in God, given the available explanatory frameworks, now we are 200 years downstream from the enlightenment and it is, culturally speaking, pretty well impossible to believe in God. Unless one is able to zoom out a bit and see these things as the passing fancies that they are, it can be extremely disorienting and even destructive to one’s faith, as in Lobdell’s case.
In the last portion of the book, the author makes some attempts to voice his doubts and see if anyone can give him satisfactory answers. The questions and problems he raises however contain deeply embedded assumptions that again are never questioned. He decides to weigh the truthfulness of Christianity in part by measuring the moral quality of those who identify as Christians. In America. I almost laughed out loud.
This approach might work in Afghanistan or in China, where there are no massive cultural incentives to identify as Christian. But in America, even twenty years ago, Christianity was such a cultural expectation that these studies are basically useless. The shortcomings of these famous Barna studies were known even at the time, although perhaps not widely enough.
Consider what has happened since: the fastest growing religious identification is the “nones”, as in, no identification. The ‘mushy middle’ of cultural Christianity, which was made up of mainline denominations and weak evangelicalism, basically hollow and doctrinally and morally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, is quickly evaporating. What we are left with increasingly is a hard secularism on one side and a committed convictional Christianity on the other. It is even more like this in countries where secularism is more advanced, such as Canada where I live. Not too many people left here still claiming to be Christians if they aren’t personally committed to Christ. More recent and better-designed studies measuring the moral behaviour of believers has yielded different results, but I would still argue that this is a pretty terrible way to go about deciding if something is true.
Regarding the nature of prayer and of God’s providence, Lobdell again makes an assumption which renders the question essentially impossible. He assumes that the pattern of answered prayer and the observable fortunes and sufferings of people’s lives should immediately reveal to any observer the validity of God’s existence by vindicating his claim to love his people. In fact he seems to demand that this be the case. It’s difficult to know where to begin with an assumption like this, other than to say it is utterly foreign to the whole thrust of the New Testament, but utterly consistent with a very unreflective North American way of thinking.
His friend John, a Presbyterian pastor, hits the nail on the head with this comment on page 239:
“The fact is that [God] has not chosen to reveal everything to us. I can whine and complain that He hasn’t, demanding that God make it possible for me to understand everything. But when I do that, I’m getting pretty close to self-worship, lifting myself to the position of God, or perhaps even to a position superior to God, demanding that God function on my ground rules instead of me, humbly in worship, functioning on His.”
And that more or less describes what is going on in this book. In the end, Lobdell opts for a kind of unbelief that happily keeps all the moral and ethical capital of a Christian worldview while rejecting the Source of that morality and ethic. And since it can take a couple of generations for those fumes to dissipate, it’s quite possible he will live on borrowing happily and thinking all is well. His is a very Christian kind of atheism.
I am sure that many unbelievers and questioning believers will take encouragement from this book. It is a very human thing to find comfort in companionship. As a believer, I think it is a clarifying and revealing tale for anyone concerned with the state of Christian discipleship.
The culture of celebrity is so pervasive that we have forgotten and lost something very important and obvious.
We tend to think that the very best example of a given talent or discipline will be found in the person who is the most famous for it. But this is a very irresponsible assumption to make.
Someone of greater or equal talent to the celebrity may have decided that they were going to make family and privacy a priority. Other talented people don’t have ‘the look’ and therefore can’t create an image that will sell. Still others simply haven’t been discovered yet, and many never will. They will simply continue to write and perform and sculpt and cook and paint and sing in your communities, your coffee houses, local art galleries, your churches, always being less in our eyes because they have none of the waxy sheen and glitter that we wrongly associate with true greatness. The case in point for this is the true story of the world-class violinist who played in a subway for 45 minutes while hundreds upon hundreds of people walked by without ever noticing.
And I think most of us are guilty of ‘not noticing’ all kinds of wonderful talent and greatness all around us. It’s a darn shame is what it is.
This holds true in the spiritual world as well. The church has bought into the celebrity culture so completely that it has forgotten there was ever an alternative. Our worship bands are good but they aren’t exactly Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, or Michael Gungor. Our preachers may be good but they aren’t (insert favourite preacher here). If only we had someone in our church who was a spiritual giant like so-and-so, who could pray like other-so-and-so. But the fact is we are looking at the waxy sheen instead of the substance, and the truth is that there are fantastic preachers in your town, and probably your church.
The truly great prayer warriors and spiritual giants will never be celebrified, and they abound in the quietest of corners in most churches. The music can be as much of a distraction as a help. The North American worship experience has been profoundly and perhaps irrevocably knocked off balance by the inappropriate elevation of the rockstar worship leader, the conflation of worship service and concert, and the confusion of emotional effusion for spiritual power.
What I’m saying is that the celebrity pastor most worth your time is your pastor, the celebrity worship leader most worth your voice is your worship leader, the spiritual giant most worth approaching for advice and prayer is that sweet older person who sits two rows back and to the left and smiles at you when you walk in.
It’s simply the way God has always done things. Greatness comes in the most ordinary vessels.
“Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are as good as anybody else, but underneath the conscious level there is a deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, church members will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.”