“That’s what I choose to believe…”

                I saw Prometheus in 3D while I was in San Diego for a conference. The movie pretends to ask deep philosophical questions about the origin of humanity (aliens) and one phrase that comes up a couple times is “That’s what I choose to believe.” This is the protagonist’s (Elizabeth Shaw) retort to the android (David) when asked something about finding dangerous aliens who engineered humanity and blah blah blah (I can’t remember). Her reply is based on repeating what her dad said when she was a child asking him about whether or not deceased mommy was in heaven—or something like that. The point is that Shaw retains some sort of faith in God despite evidence to the contrary—as if her choice to believe something is virtuous and shows her optimism in the face of an existential crisis.

                Well, I’m sorry…that doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t matter what you choose to believe if what you believe isn’t true. Try that after these pronouncements: Texting and driving is safe (…”that’s what I choose to believe.”). We were created by aliens (“…that’s what I choose to believe.”). Everyone else is a figment of my imagination (“…that’s what I choose to believe.”). God is a flying spaghetti monster (“…that’s what I choose to believe.”). Not very satisfying. What is satisfying is to have rational beliefs chosen on the basis of supporting evidence.

This may seem obvious and trite—until you consider how often modern 21st century humans spout this nonsense. When asked about her faith someone recently told me “I try to be a good person. I think that’s what God wants.” I’ve heard it a lot—expressions of belief that take the form of “…I think this.” No evidence is given, and the assumption is that the belief is a fair and reasonable choice. Well, it doesn’t matter what you choose to believe if what you believe isn’t true. That is, what people think is not a fair and rational choice if they are making it up or choosing it blindly. People who say these things have almost never sincerely investigated evidence for the existence of God. In fact, it feels like a cop-out; a refusal to seriously consider the implications of any spiritual statements being factually true, and not just matters of personal opinion.

The Vanity Games

If you haven’t heard of the Hunger Games (Susanne Collins, 2008, Scholastic), you soon will. The movie comes out March 23rd. It will be the most anticipated movie of the year (until the Hobbit comes out in December). Go read the trilogy, then come back, because I’m skipping the review/synopsis to get to the point (think reality TV’s “Survivor,” for kids, meets Ridley Scott’s Gladiator starring Russell Crowe, but as an emotionally tumultuous teen girl instead of a Roman general).

The Hunger Games is remarkable in many respects, and the themes will be widely discussed. There’s the warning of a dystopian post-apocalyptic North America where humanity is reduced to possible extinction, the “bread and circus” metaphor explicitly spelled out by the author in the third book, the coming-of-age during war saga, and the confusing feelings of a center-of-the-universe princess courted by two princes (why is it that the heroine of teen books is always somewhat ordinary, yet headstrong and quirky, and nevertheless earnestly desired in a non-sexual manner by every male character? Hmmm…).

The theme I find most fascinating is the theme that isn’t there…at least not on purpose. The books never mention religion. There is no faith, no religious customs, no priests, no priestesses, no pagan gods, no emperor worship, no animism, nothing. With one drug-induced exception, there is absolutely no mention of any afterlife. In contrast, the Gladiator’s General Maximus Decimus Meridius understands that “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

It’s as if we’re seeing Suzanne Collins unwittingly accept the secularization hypothesis, that as nations modernize the societies abandon religion. After all, Panem is North America in the distant future. Probably she’s just trying to leave religion out of a children’s book, but this makes it terribly unrealistic. The premise that children offered as tribute to a tyrannical government must fight to the death is more realistic. Things like that have happened. But there has never been a secular society. Not even communist Russia or China, which were officially atheist states. Remember that China during the Cultural Revolution outlawed all religion, but ended up with weird emperor worship instead, as well as a lot of illegal religions. Like the 100 million Christians that sprang up from seemingly nowhere.

So on the one hand, there are very few atheists (perhaps 4-5% of Americans), and no possible world in which faith, religion, and afterlife are not a driving force in culture, society, and people’s lives and motivations. Which leads to my second point: Hunger Games unwittingly echoes Ecclesiastes. By creating an future North America with no religion, Suzanne Collins writes a tale of life “under the sun”—that is, life without God. Life without God becomes meaningless, and the trilogy can easily be viewed through this lens. Katniss learns near the end that her allies are no more virtuous than the dictatorship she fought to overthrow. There is no ultimate purpose to any of the suffering. Love of family is held up as the ultimate ideal and motivator, but even a cursory examination of this “bedrock assumption” finds it groundless (e.g., “family” is just an accident of time and biology, and what about adopted children? Or friends like her “cousin” Gale?). This gaping hole in the plot thus rips the rug out from under any true meaning to the struggle, and results in a hollow victory (read the Epilogue!). On the other hand, this accidental Ecclesiastes provides a great launch pad to discuss the ultimate futility of every endeavor in a world with no God.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

The “Red White and Blue,” the Black, and the Gray Religious Markets

An Iranian pastor arrested in 2009 was convicted of “apostasy” for turning from Islam to Christianity. He was sentenced to death because he would not recant his faith, and he may already have been executed before you read this blog. In Afghanistan, NATO forces burned some library books from a detention center because they contained hand written extremist notes. They were trying to prevent Taliban extremists from communicating to incite violence during their detention, but unfortunately some of the burned books were copies of the Quran. This mistake so offended the Afghan people that 4 Americans have already been killed, and possibly more by the time you read this blog, despite an official apology by the president of the United States.

It’s easy to forget that not all nations allow religious freedom. America is a free marketplace of religious ideas, and consequently is very religiously pluralistic and politically secular. In contrast, the majority of countries on earth are what Fenggang Yang calls religious oligopolies (in which specific religions are legal or preferred by the state) or monopolies (in which only one religion is privileged or “official”). Dr. Yang’s recent insightful book “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule” (2012; Oxford University Press) details some of the surprising fallout of religious oppression in China, and advances a theory to account for what he (and others) observed.

First, most early theories in the sociology of religion assumed that “supply” drove “demand,” so that a reduction in religious offerings would result in lower religious vitality in secular nations. Thus, the “secularization hypothesis” argues that religion will decline in modern nations. This is supposed to account for the very low levels of religious activity in Western Europe. However, this did not happen during the modernization of America or China. America apparently has more religious vitality than ever, despite an increasingly secular public square. China outlawed religion completely from 1966-1976 during the Cultural Revolution, all in the service of promoting an explicitly atheist Marxist state. However, religion would not go away. After the expulsion of all western missionaries and the closing of all churches, somehow Christianity grew from a small group to about 100 million people in China today. Some optimistically argue that there will be 300 million Chinese Christians in 30 years. What happened? Apparently demand for religion cannot be suppressed, and even the most severe shortage of supply for religious information and expression does not eliminate demand, which leads to the second point.

Yang describes “the Red, the black, and the grey” markets for religion to advance a theory of what happens to religious faith when the state regulates religion. The Red market is the context for officially state-sanctioned religions, which are legal but understandably tainted by the state’s agenda. For example, duly ordained (by the state) ministers in China must officially teach their flock to love the state (i.e., communist party) and God—in that order. This can be distasteful, which leads to an expansion of the black (illegal) and grey (semi-legal) markets. During the Cultural Revolution, the personality cult worshipping chairman Mao flourished, because it was the only legal form of “religion,” even though it looks like a perversion of religious faith. After the Cultural Revolution, more religions are legal, but there are strict controls. Thus, the black and grey market expanded. The black market would include illegal house churches and the grey market would include a “legal” minister engaging in illegal practices like proselytizing outside of church property and baptizing people who do not have a state-approved application for baptism.

I’ll skip the predictions and nuances of the theory (read the book!) to get to some implications. First, it is incredible that Christianity flourished in China under heavy regulation by the state. I hope that there are lessons America can learn from China, as most churches in America struggle to grow, despite high levels of religious vitality in this country. Second, although America does not have much of a Red market for religion, I’d like to suggest that we have a “Red White and Blue” market for religion. By this I mean that the state and culture exert negative influences on “officially sanctioned” religious faith. The Red market metaphor is supposed to mean that legal religions allowed by the state become polluted by the state’s agenda. In China, where religion is highly regulated, the effects are clear. For example, it would be wise for a Chinese minister to allow his or her theology to absorb the teaching that a Communist society is a utopian ideal shared by both the state and the religion.

Religion is not as regulated in America, so by Red White and Blue market I mean that Christian groups in America are under more subtle pressure to accept our culture’s definition of “respectable.” That is, churches must own property, hire paid professionals to do the work, engage in sedate worship services, accept the ideals of materialism and radical individualism, refrain from proselytizing (e.g., in the high schools, on the university campus), and denounce unpopular truth claims. For example, to join the Campus Ministers Organization (CMO) at a university you must sign a pledge not to derogate other religious groups, however heretical they may be according to your theology. You do not have to join the CMO, but you want to so that you can park and have an ID and otherwise avoid harassment by the university while on campus. However, Christian teaching will necessarily critique the teachings of other religions like Islam, Mormonism, and Buddhism. This puts the minister in the Gray market, as certain aspects of their exercise of religion would be frowned upon by the administration.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, the gray market expands when the state regulates religion. To the extent that the state and our culture persecute Christianity, this is quite conducive to authentic Christianity. So, if Fenggang Yang is correct, I hope that we can learn to embrace the gray market in America. Some evangelicals view the rapid growth of the house church movement in China with great admiration and envy. If the Red market can pour fuel on the black and grey markets in China, can we find a way to learn from China in the Red White and Blue market of America?

Atheism 2.0 is Vintage Ignorance

I’ve been watching TED talks recently—those “Ideas worth spreading.” Recently Alain de Botton gave a talk called “Atheism 2.0” with the tag line “What aspects of religion should atheists (respectfully) adopt?” Alain de Botton suggests a “religion for atheists” — call it Atheism 2.0 — “that incorporates religious forms and traditions to satisfy our human need for connection, ritual and transcendence.”

See it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0.html

I had to watch. I was dumbfounded. It was spellbinding. Here is an atheist acknowledging that atheism leaves a lot to be desired in the areas of meaning, love, and morality, and that the best place to get some of these things is in religion.

But the most fascinating thing was the logic of the argument;

  • Given that there is no God and religions are false,
  • And atheism is a poor foundation for meaning, morality, etc.—that which makes us “human”
  • Let’s import these things from religion!

In philosophy the first premise is called “begging the question.” It’s assuming the truth of a position with no evidence, sweeping away the very need to discuss the matter because “it’s so obvious.” From an epistemological perspective, it’s equally valid to say “since God exists…(duh),” or “since all unicorns are purple,” or virtually anything. That is to say, not valid at all.

Furthermore, it appears to be self-defeating to import meaning and morality from something that is not valid. If there is no God and no religious truth, then how can any moral truths be “stolen” from religion, as Alain suggests? It is equally valid to say:

  • Given that there is no God and religions are false,
  • There can be no meaning in life, no moral truths, etc.
  • Let’s shed ourselves of the illusion of meaning and morality!

This is the position at which many atheists have arrived. It is the most epistemologically honest. Of course it was used by the Marquis de Sade, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the Nazis to justify their crimes against humanity, but nevertheless it is honest. I think that Alain de Botton is trading on someone else’s capital…borrowing from one worldview to support “virtue” in another worldview, but in a manner that is entirely ad hoc!

Then I realized that Alain de Botton is living in post-modernity, in which positions advanced need not be rational or valid. It is true that there is nothing wrong with stealing good ideas from religion, for the atheist. Since nothing is really “wrong” they may as well steal. Of course, what is “right and wrong” are useful fictions, and history has shown that the final arbiter will be power (not truth). I don’t think Alain de Botton is powerful enough, so when the next iteration of Nazis come to execute the intelligentsia, he’ll have no good defense for why they shouldn’t take his head.

Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Over the weekend I watched a fascinating “debate” that featured William Lane Craig, Doug Geivett, Rabbi David Wolpe, and atheists Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins.

The topic was “Does the Universe Have a Purpose.” It took place in Mexico and was moderated in Spanish in front of a large audience and about 2 million viewers via television. You can see the whole thing here:. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6tIee8FwX8

I’ve never seen a debate between 6 people speaking from a podium in a boxing ring with 6 minute “rounds” followed by 3 minute “rounds,” but the most interesting part was the development of the argument.

Craig was the first theist to speak, and he essentially made the claims that whether or not the universe has a purpose is logically “downstream” from whether or not there is a God. That is, if there is no God there is no purpose to the universe and vice versa. That sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes to me—everything is meaningless if there is no God. Lots of philosophers understand this (e.g., Sartre, Nietzsche).

The only defense that the atheists could muster was to assert that there is still meaning and purpose for individuals, and that there is in fact no purpose in the universe taken as a whole. There was a lot of distracting talk about whether or not there is a God and other rabbit trails (e.g., insulting Christianity for being “unscientific”), but ultimately their thought boiled down to “of course the universe has no purpose…most of it is stars converting hydrogen to helium…it’s just a physical system…” and “but you should be a good person and whether or not there is a God has no bearing on whether or not you can find purpose in your life.”

I take issue with the second argument (the first is valid given the premise). It appears that the atheists are left with “local meaning” that is not rooted in “ultimate meaning.” To me, this is very unsatisfying because it is admitting that purpose, value, meaning, etc. are culturally constructed or mere value judgments by individuals that aren’t rooted in anything. Doesn’t this make them merely useful fictions? If you find meaning in work and love and family, is this because they are ultimately meaningful? Or a lie you tell yourself to feel better or confer a survival advantage to your DNA? An alternative explanation is that they are actually meaningful, and that people can discern this whether or not they believe in the God that gives the universe a purpose and meaning. This is what the Bible would argue, and this “image of God” we possess is very hard to reason away.

Maybe this is clearer in the area of morality. If there is no God, then there is no good or evil. Everything just “is”—it is not “wrong” or “right.” Within a person or culture there will be wrong and right, but this isn’t rooted in anything and you can imagine cultures with opposite morality. There have been cultures in which eating people, killing, and child molestation were “good.” There is no defense against the argument that whatever I define as “good” and “evil” is valid for me and my people, given that there is no independently true moral reality to which we can appeal or to which definitions can correspond.

This rips the rug out from under the atheists’ arguments. Why claim that people should understand that there is no purpose in the universe other than that which we make for ourselves? If nothing is really meaningful or endowed with any purpose, is this debate even a worthwhile endeavor? Is it important to be correct on this topic? What purpose does that serve? To recruit people to your culturally constructed definitions of ‘value’ to bolster your useful fictions against the threat of dissenting views? It doesn’t make any sense. Why insult the theists for being silly or ignorant or unscientific? Those things are neither “good” nor “bad” but rather they just “are” in the atheist worldview. Yet the moral tone, the value judgments, the purpose behind the atheist argument betrays that they also live their lives as if there is good and bad, meaning, and purpose.

If you can’t live a life that is consistent with what you are arguing, that isn’t good. They essentially argue that the universe has no purpose but that they live every day in pursuit of pro-social goals that give their lives meaning—but it’s arbitrary fabricated meaning that isn’t really true by any standard beyond themselves. If your arguments are logically inconsistent with your assumptions (e.g., it’s morally wrong to be ignorant—but “wrong” and “right” are not real), doesn’t that invalidate your argument? Didn’t you just argue that useful fictions are good enough “meanings” for an individual? Then why are my useful fictions (which is what you claim they are) any less valid than yours? Is there a survival advantage to having this useful fiction instead of that one? If so, we’re not talking about “correct” and “incorrect” anymore, but just the utility of arbitrary values.

Ultimately, this line of reasoning degenerates into meaninglessness, as every value judgment and claim to meaning or purpose by the atheists is inconsistent with their atheism, betrays their lack of a coherent belief in atheism, and uncovers the futility of the atheist worldview. Sounds like Ecclesiastes again. Without God, nothing is meaningful and there is no purpose.

Bart Ehrman Speaks at KSU

Bart Ehrman, billed as “one of the world’s leading authorities on the Bible,” spoke at Kent State University on January 20, 2011 to a standing-room only crowd of maybe 350. Ehrman’s speech was titled “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them),” which is also the title of his latest book. Dr. Ehrman is the James A. Grey Distinguished Professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although you might think that a distinguished professor of religious studies would be, well, religious, you would be wrong. Bart is now agnostic, having renounced his evangelical Christian beliefs after studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thus, the strange tension of being a distinguished professor in an area of scholarship which he believes produces no valid knowledge about the topic. Could you be a distinguished professor of medicine if you believed that diseases were all caused by evil spirits? Or a professor of psychology if you believed that mental illnesses were variations on the theme of people faking problems in order to get attention? How about a professor of physics who believes that the natural world is merely an illusion created by our imaginations? What would these professors study? Physics “as art” to be appreciated for elegance and beauty, although no matter is real? The kinds of acting abilities necessary to successfully fake mental illnesses? Ways to exorcise the spirits causing diabetes? This is the situation Bart finds himself in, but for the field of religious studies apparently there is no problem studying the subject matter as literature, history, sociology, anthropology, etc. with no expectation that any religious knowledge is valid.

Bart would probably not find this analysis amusing, as the tension he came to discuss was the tension between historical facts and Christian commitment. He argued that there are numerous contradictions in the gospels caused by authors who made things up (“redacting history”) in order to make theological points. For example, whoever wrote the gospel of John (Bart says “not John!”) wanted to emphasize the theological point that Jesus is the lamb of God, and so altered the time of Jesus’ death to correspond to the time when Passover lambs were slaughtered. Matthew and Luke (well…the anonymous educated people who wrote these books, and in Bart’s view certainly not the illiterate uneducated apostles for whom they are named) inserted Bethlehem into Jesus birth narrative in order to match the expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, when in fact Jesus was “clearly from Nazareth.”
This continued for an hour, and getting to the point of this very entertaining lecture, Bart argued that the gospel narratives should not be combined to provide a comprehensive account, because the discrepancies reveal that they are different documents that cannot be reconciled. Rather, these discrepancies help to reveal insights into the authors’ goals, theological musings, etc. To combine the gospel narratives violates what Bart calls “authorial integrity.” This is my favorite comment of the evening. It conceals his true motive, it sounds virtuous and scholarly, and yet it is hopelessly confused.

First, consider the virtue of preserving “authorial intent.” If the gospels are fraudulent, who cares what the author intended to say? If you want to study the gospels as literature or source documents of religious anthropology, that can make sense. But if the gospels are supposed to reveal spiritual truth, which is what the authors claim, then fraudulent documents cannot accomplish that aim and authorial intent is irrelevant. The value of authorial intent for works of fiction is different from the value of authorial intent for say, a computer manual or biology textbook. If a work of non-fiction is forged or altered to obscure the truth, then the work is practically worthless. That is to say, the gospels are designed to communicate good news, which is not so good if it is a lie. We might as well read Harry Potter novels and throw the bible in the trash.

Second, consider his argument that the gospels should not be combined to get a full picture of what happened, given that comparisons reveal irreconcilable differences. The gospels allege to describe historical events. Thus, it would be absolutely valid to compare the gospels in order to get a full picture of what happened, even when this involves combining the narratives. This is precisely what historians do. At Kent State, the events of May 4th, 1970 were characterized by conflicting reports regarding whether or not there was an order to fire, whether there were additional gunshots fired before the volley that killed four students (new evidence from 2010 suggests there was!), etc. To understand what happened, you would absolutely interview students, members of the National Guard, the faculty, the police, and the photographer (and FBI informant) who apparently emptied his .38 caliber handgun 75 seconds before the National Guard opened fire. Discrepancies in the testimonies do not suggest that the events did not happen. Same thing for the assassination of JFK, the holocaust, etc. Lack of complete agreement of accounts is not evidence that these events were fabricated by dishonest authors. Similarly, apparent discrepancies in the gospel accounts does not mean that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

Finally, consider Bart’s motive. He came to highlight the tension between Christian commitment and historical knowledge (he said so). This essentially means that he wants to undermine Christian commitment by showing that Christians are ill-informed, stupid, intellectually dishonest, and naïve, and ought to give up their faith to be consistent with reality. This brings us full-circle. Why does Bart Ehrman teach New Testament to large classes of undergraduates (300 in a section!) many semesters at UNC Chapel Hill? Why does he teach anything in the Religious Studies department? Why does he write so many books attacking Christianity? Well OK, he must like notoriety and money, but the over-arching goal is to attack and undermine the Christian faith. Again, this is like a physicist teaching students that the natural world is an illusion created by our imaginations, or a professor of medicine explaining which evil spirits are responsible for cancer, heart disease, and AIDS. On the face of it, this is absurd and shameful—unless you understand that this is normal in secular universities religious studies departments. They are stacked with God-hating faculty whose goal it is to strip away whatever faith students have. No one in the university cares because, after all, according to the secular world view, there is no spiritual truth or knowledge that could be taught.

Review of “the Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life”

 by J.P. Moreland and Klaus Issler

Good “anti” but bad “thesis” 

             My favorite philosopher J.P. Moreland’s 2006 offering (with Klaus Issler) is a brief read that ultimately makes a strong case for the problem, but then offers a wrong-headed solution. Their indictment of contemporary American culture on the charge of being unhappy is spot-on. They argue that people have forgotten how to live lives that result in happiness, and it is certainly true that people are less happy than ever despite gains in health, wealth, and leisure. The problem is that people pursue happiness directly, which recalls the paradox in Matthew 16:25—“Whoever wants to save his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” This alone is a profound point that is very helpful for us to understand.

            According to Moreland and Issler, in America the pursuit of happiness is an obsession. But the ancient understanding of happiness—even up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence in which the pursuit of happiness was an “unalienable right”—was very different than the current direct seeking of positive feelings of pleasure. Happiness used to mean “A life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness” (p. 25). So as a result of our shallow feelings-obsessed campaign for self-fulfillment, we end up with “empty selves” who are overly individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, and passive.

            The key to finding happiness is that happiness is a by-product of seeking something else. My favorite quote in the entire book is: “Feelings are wonderful servants but terrible masters” (p. 23). I started using this quip immediately in training graduate student psychotherapists. So, “when people make happiness their goal, they do not find it and, as a result, start living their lives vicariously through identification with celebrities” (p. 23). The solution? “People literally need to get a life. They need to find something bigger and more important to live for than pleasurable satisfaction” (p. 23). The authors then spend some time contrasting the contemporary (pleasurable satisfaction) and classical (virtue and well-being) understandings of happiness. All this in the first chapter.

            The second chapter is entitled Gaining happiness by losing your life, and it immediately goes awry. Seeking the Kingdom of God—this brings happiness. But how does this work, according to Moreland and Issler? Spiritual disciplines. To quote the authors, “Christianity is an aesthetic religion…whose transforming power is tapped by regular and rigorous discipline and self-denial, done in constant dependence on the filling and power of the Holy Spirit” ( p 39 ), and the rest of the book unpacks this assertion.

            This book came out before Kingdom Triangle (2009), which have already criticized with regards to its treatment of spiritual disciplines (http://jhughes.neoblogs.org/2008/06/review-of-kingdom-triangle-part-2/). In this older (Lost Virtue) book, learning to play golf or the piano through practice and instruction is the metaphor used to explain how spiritual disciplines work. Using Romans 12:1, 1 Cor 9:24-27 (“exercise self-control…discipline my body and make it my slave…”), Colossians 3:5 (“put to death the members of your body”), 1 Tim 4:7-8 (“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”), etc. They assert that the flesh in these passages refers to “sinful tendencies that reside in the body and whose nature is opposite to the kingdom of God” (p 44). Thus, Moreland intends the golf metaphor to be taken literally. We present the members of our “golf body” to the golf instructor to gradually get rid of bad golf habits and replace them with good ones. So, spiritual disciplines are habitual repeated bodily exercises (like solitude retreats), involving specific body parts (like the stomach), which results in putting to death our bad habits by removing the flesh that resides in those body parts and replacing it with righteousness that comes to reside in the members of our body.

            Well, that’s enough of that…it went in a weird direction and the remainder of the book is practical strategies for practicing at spirituality. I don’t have a high opinion of spiritual disciples, as I have said before in my review of Kingdom Triangle and my diatribe against Christian faculty conferences (see the section titled “Spiritual disciplines are stupid” at http://jhughes.neoblogs.org/2008/09/why-i-do-not-attend-christian-faculty-conferences%E2%80%94part-2/).

            To conclude, the book offers an excellent portrayal of the problem of discontent and unhappiness in America, but ultimately offers no workable solution. This is a real shortcoming of the book, in my view. Unfortunately, spiritual disciplines are a big theme of contemporary evangelical ecclesiology. What Moreland and Issler needed instead of self-effort sanctification is a refreshing view of the joy of being engaged in the body of Christ, fulfilling the Great Commission, and generally rampaging around as outlaw Christians living the dream. Now that is an antidote to the modern malaise.

Life is Relationships

At KSU the summer reading project was “This I Believe”–a collection of essays by famous and ordinary people. I made all the students in my class write a “This I Belive” essay. Here’s mine, which I shared with the whole class…

Labor Day weekend camping at East Harbor State Park with 100 of my closest friends is ample inspiration for a “this I believe” essay. The chaotic sprawl of tents and pop-up campers looks like some sort of refugee camp, but not from some genocidal war or natural disaster. Instead, little clots of upbeat people roam around the group camping site, playing volleyball, playing beerski (you use a Frisbee to try to knock water bottles off a ski pole), riding bikes, eating camping food, everybody talking, some smoking, and many drinking out of red cups. Non-alcoholic I’m sure…state law, you know. We have definitely exceeded the maximum occupancy of these sites. Not even counting how many dogs people brought.

Why do we do it? Every year it’s either too hot or too cold, too windy or there’s too many bugs, someone’s car breaks down 100 miles from home, somebody gets hurt and goes to the ER, or someone gets soaked when their tent leaks in the rain. The fishing is frankly not that good. Our trips to Walmart for equipment or provisions seem more fun than in Stow, but Walmart is basically Walmart everywhere. There’s no internet or TV, and if anyone brings a stereo we all get to listen to whatever they chose, more or less. Cooking is more convenient at home, sleeping is way more comfortable in my bed, and I can put together a better campfire in my backyard fire-ring, where the neighbors never call to report a noise violation. Not recently at least.

I think we do this every year because this group understands that life is relationships. Life is relationships, like God is love or war is hell or any number of other metaphors that perfectly capture the full characterization of a thing.

Think about it. You’re born because two people come together, and if it was only a one night stand or random hook up that doesn’t place you in a stable nuclear family, that fact itself can become a permanent scar. Babies die if they’re not loved. The Russians accidentally showed us that with their orphanages. The major goal of childhood is seeing whether or not you can manage to have reasonable relationships inside and outside the family. The older you get the more critical it is to establish non-family peer group to which you can belong, and according to Erickson the developmental task of early adulthood is whether or not you can pull of a successful intimate relationship or whether you end up isolated. For most people, that means marriage.

Having children, if you want to and can have kids, is not for the purpose of making toys or servants or something self-indulgent like that, but rather about creating another life to whom you can relate. As an aside, having children is a time-sucking, money-gobbling, exercise in perpetual frustration and hard work with intermittent “joys” that can still end up in total failure when people disown their children or are abandoned by their adult offspring. There’s clearly no point unless you understand that life is basically relationships, and that the seemingly godlike power we have to start life allows us the potential to have certain relationships sweeter than we could have comprehended in advance. I have three daughters. Trust me.

Everything we do in this life is ultimately in the service of relationships. All “stuff” is for relationships. A house is for living in—with people. Food is best shared. Money is worthless if there’s no economy, and every economy requires at least a buyer and a seller. The motto “whoever dies with the most toys wins” expresses a foolish sentiment because whoever has a lot of toys is often sitting in the sandbox alone wondering who will play with them.

Even spiritual beliefs are for relationships. If there is a God, a foundational question would be how to have a relationship with God—that’s what people believe, ultimately. “Is there a God” followed immediately by “how am I supposed to relate to God?” That is the purpose of every scripture, spell book, ritual, chant, song, and so forth. The major belief systems and religions of the world claim to reveal the supernatural, and to then show us how to relate to the supernatural. Many religions try to control or harness spirits, demons, or gods, in order to obtain power or make sure that humans are left alone. I don’t think it works like that. If there is a God, and if God is a person, then God wants to be related to, not forced to do our bidding or warded off with charms. It’s hard to find a committed atheist in America. Nearly everyone claims to be spiritual, or to at least “not know” (agnostic). I think it’s because being an atheist is kind of an admission that we are truly alone in the universe, so the afterlife for everyone is basically like hell.

Speaking of hell, relationships don’t usually work out, which is truly tragic if life is  relationships. Break ups, divorce, and death all end them. Manipulation, domination, neglect, and abuse are some of the common perversions of what relationships are supposed to be. Isolation and loneliness, or the absence of meaningful mutually-rewarding relationships, are some of the most painful conditions people can face. At a macro level, racism, sexism, persecution, enslavement, and war are all violations of relationships between people groups. Life would be better if relationships worked, and I suspect we all have a sense that they should. When I speak of someone “failing at life,” (and I often do), this is what I’m talking about—someone is unable to establish and enjoy meaningful relationships. Ultimately, nothing else that they accomplish can replace relationships.

Life is relationships, and so is the afterlife. If there is a heaven (and I believe there is), you know it’s somehow similar to Labor Day camping, but with better accommodations and maybe gold furniture. It’s hanging out with lots of people who are supposed to be there, people who are great to relate to.  If there’s a hell (again, I think there is), it’s a place where relationships are non-existent, as if the assholes from all of history are finally alone to be miserable by themselves, having alienated everyone else. In America everyone hates proselytizing. But who was ever capable of forcing a religion or belief system on someone else? I’m never offended when the JW’s show up at my door or someone hands me literature or asks me a religious question. Whether I agree with them or not, I know they’re basically trying to invite me to the party. What’s so bad about that?

Monday morning the Labor Day weekend tent city came down and all the pop-ups were folded back into their trailer shells. Everybody left, mission accomplished. Undeterred by minor camping hassles, we lived together for a short time and related. We did the “relationship thing” as best we knew how, and it was appropriate and good. Whether it’s a three day weekend or the full arc of a long lifespan, that’s what life is. That’s what I believe.

Young adults are less religious

Well, tell me something I don’t know. This story appeared on the front page of USA today or online at: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-04-27-1Amillfaith27_ST_N.htm

“Most young adults (18-29) today don’t pray, don’t worship, and don’t read the bible.”

Thom Rainer, who wrote Breakout Churches, is now a pollster (among other things) with LifeWay Christian Resources. He says: “the Millennial generation will see churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships.”

These results are similar to many other reports (e.g., Pew Charitable Trust, Barna Group, Already Gone, The Last Christian Generation). This crisis is involved in the “Youth Exodus Problem” described by Frank Turek on his website (http://crossexamined.org/problem.asp). About three quarters of Christian youth leave the church after high school. When added to the never-churched Millenials, you end up with a profoundly non-Christian generation.

I know, this is such old news that it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm to read any further. But my question for today is what is anyone doing about it? The church doesn’t care. Go read Benson Hines e-book Reaching the Campus Tribes and you’ll see that the majority of attempts to reach the 18-22 (read “college”) age group are spear-headed by parachurch organizations and not any particular church. The church mostly doesn’t care. College students leave for school, they don’t give money, they only need a holding pen, and they’re not going to take over when they grow up. Churches don’t invest there. They invest in young families. The major parachurch organizations are not going to succeed. Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, etc. are not going to prosper. They are hamstrung by their “everyone raise support” business model. Raising money from churches and individuals is doomed if, to be crass, the church is losing market share so fast that we’ll be closing churches “as quickly as GM dealerships” (Rainer). Furthermore, they are more likely to gather up and protect the Christian kids than they are to win the lost. For example, at Kent they have no solid numbers on conversion growth—only vague ideas. Sometimes they view the extension of high school “youth group” for a few more years as their role on campus. Finally, Christian faculty are non-existent or preoccupied. The least Christian group in America is University professors. A majority have a negative view of evangelical Christianity (53%). University professors prefer Mormonism and Islam! Mormonism is a cult, and Islamic extremists kill people. Christian extremists don’t fly airplanes into buildings or strap bombs to themselves, but the Christian faith is more disagreeable than Islam? So the “center of gravity” of this group is overtly hostile to Christianity. What about Christian faculty? If they listen to the guidance of Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, etc. they’re busy with spiritual disciplines, integrating their scholarship with their faith, and other navel-gazing time sucks that aren’t evangelism, discipleship, or equipping. What are these things? Personal sanctification? Professional enrichment? Sounds like “fiddling while Rome burns.” Christian faculty have no role in campus ministries except perhaps “faculty advisor” and “guest speaker.” If churches were wiser, they’d comission any of their members who land an academic job as tent-making missionaries, provide some support, and demand a full report! Don’t look to the faculty to stem the tide. I’ve said it before: being on the faculty is so alternately self-indulgent and enslaving that most are feathering their own nest or workin’ that treadmill like a rat trying to survive the experiment.

What is left? Maybe all we have left are the students. Impossible as that may sound, it makes a great deal of sense. When all allies have abandoned a people-group, they ought to take matters into their own hands. Missions groups were forced from China, and the Chinese Christians were forced underground. Now there’s 100 million Christians in China. Maybe this is exactly what the doctor ordered for the American campus—nobody else is going to do it.

Sucks to be you: Review of “Why we love the church”

by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck  

            Top honors in this year’s jaw-dropping title category go to DeYoung and Kluck’s latest “Why we love the church: in praise of institutions and organized religion.” That’s just about the opposite of what we’re saying at NeoXenos. For example, we emphasize how the word revolution captures what Jesus and the body of Christ are all about (and this is not a metaphor, but rather a literal revolution). We eschew the religious (i.e., man made traditions of “sacred” practices, often performed in a formalized or rote manner) and the institutional (i.e., formal organization into structures in the world system that operate according to the principles of the world system) in favor of the organic and relational. So naturally, I had to read this book to see how anyone could possibly be arguing in favor of organized institutional religion.

            Ultimately, I am convinced that this book is an argument against those who abandon the body of Christ in favor of some minimalist gathering that allegedly lacks essential functions of the church, such as body-life, the teaching of the word, and spiritual leadership and authority. This describes the organic/simple church people (e.g., Viola), Barna’s “revolutionaries” (i.e., lone-ranger Christians who belong to nothing and pray in the woods or on the golf course), and many emergent churches. Until reading this book, I was not aware of how widespread the “church sucks” movement has become, and I agree that fleeing the church in pursuit of autonomy, rebellion, and self-indulgence is tragically misguided. Turns out, the “church sucks” people haven’t made a clear case yet. They have an antithesis with no thesis, so it is unclear what constructive solutions they offer.

            However, it still sucks to be Kevin and Ted because they are stuck in the unfortunate position of having to defend organized religion, which can easily be shown to be a kosmos-inspired perversion of the ekklesia.  For example, the best they can do with the Crusades is to say “well, they thought what they were doing was right…some of the individual crusades were successful in taking back Christian land, and you just don’t understand history right…you shouldn’t apologize for someone else’s sins…”  Sorry, not good enough. We have to be able to condemn atrocities committed in the name of Christ, which in this case would involve contrasting what monarchy-controlled organized religious institutions were doing with what Jesus wanted his body to be doing. Turns out we have nothing to apologize for, because the crusades had nothing to do with the body of Christ.

            In preparing this review, I outlined the major arguments of the book, in order to get a sense of their reasoning. However, a point-by-point critique would be cumbersome and tiresome, as it ultimately boils down to three problems. First, they are dishing up reheated reformed/Calvinist theology. Second, they neglect the implications of the doctrine of the body of Christ. Third, they misunderstand the doctrine of the kosmos.


            The authors correctly note that there seem to be two camps forming in the contemporary Christianity landscape; reformed and emergent (NeoXenos is neither).  They are of the reformed theological tradition, so predestination and the absolute sovereignty of God make evangelism somewhat less urgent than it might otherwise be, as our role as God’s co-laborers is minimized. Being from the reformed tradition is actually ironic because that started as a revolt against the Catholic Church (protestant reformation, right?). Now that their organized religion is being criticized, can’t they see that any man-made institution may eventually run its course? Even Christendom’s control of Geneva established by Calvin was lost after his death by the creeping secularization of city government. One missiologist even called “churchless Christianity” the third reformation![1]

            Still, as the authors are Calvinist, they have to argue that nothing is really that wrong with the institutions of the church, so they insult and spin the statistical evidence in such a way to show that everything is fine. Perhaps this is necessary for their emotional health, because if the God is sovereign and His church is taking over the world, then evidence of massive failure is crushing.  You see, as Calvinists they are saddled with the idea that the institution of the church should seek to reform cultures and societies in order to “redeem” the world. This is based on the idea that God’s sovereignty makes him active in all areas of life; sacred and secular. Given that all of life is religious to reformed theologians, it makes sense that people should be working to extend the will of God into every aspect of culture. Therefore, Calvinists would argue that the church should be promoting justice and mercy in the workplace, in government, and in schools. This leads to a practical theology of the church that includes things like taking over the government (like Calvin did), reclaiming “Christian” lands (like the crusaders attempted to do), or even running a recycling program out of your dorm room (because it’s “good stewardship”). One problem with this theological bent is that it can be a tremendous distraction from evangelism, as virtually anything branded as “Christian” can be labeled ministry. Another problem is that it misunderstands the kosmos, which we will turn to in a moment. Finally, it should be clear that Calvinism requires a strong healthy institution of the church, as the political clout necessary to “take back culture” only comes with well-funded, well-organized structures and systems that rule over masses of people willing to do the church’s bidding.

Body of Christ                                                                                                                                   

            The authors neglect the implications of the body of Christ, into which all Christians have been placed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). They do not define the church clearly, and they confuse definition and function. They also fail to appreciate the importance of the body of Christ, as institutions of men do not easily lend themselves to “body life.”

            First of all, they never adequately define the church, because they confuse definition and function. For example, my wife is the person I married. Some of her functions are to support me emotionally and take care of our children when I am at work. However, any person who I look to for emotional support or trust with the care of my children may not be my wife, unless they are the person I married. In the same sense, the church does have some functions such as teaching the word, serving the poor, and exercising authority (e.g., elders). However, the authors claim that the church must be made manifest (i.e., exercise its functions) in order to “count,” and that minimalist definitions (i.e., 2 or more gathered in Jesus’ name) do not. This confuses function and definition, in the sense that a wife may not be very emotionally supportive and may not have children to care for, but nonetheless be a wife. That is, the Christians meeting in caves in China do count as churches, even though they are not “manifest” as organized visible institutions to the degree that the authors would like. Furthermore, the authors argue that salvation comes from the church to support the argument that all Christians must be “churched” (in institutions), which is simply false. At the point of salvation, the Holy Spirit places the person into the body of Christ, and they are in the church.

            Secondly, the authors do not understand the mystery of the body of Christ. They are angry at the “Barna revolutionaries” who have abandoned fellowship in order to play golf, but their complaint is designed to call them back to the institution. A more biblical view is to warn Christians about the sheer folly of failing to have consistent, enduring, and meaningful involvement with other Christians. There are perhaps 50 passages in the New Testament describing the relationships that Christians are to have with one another. These are the “one another” passages (not surprisingly!) and they include words that reflect deep involvement like “submit,” “admonish,” “encourage,” and “comfort.” I suspect that many of the members in good standing of the authors’ church organizations do not have meaningful relationships with their fellow Christians at the level called for by the New Testament. To these commands of scripture you could add the protective function of the body of Christ. For example, 1 Peter 5:8 states “Be sober and alert. Your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, is on the prowl looking for someone to devour” in the middle of a passage about living in the body of Christ. The implication is clear; it is suicidal folly to wander away from the body of Christ. To willfully refuse to live out the “one another” passages is a most heinous sin. So the authors are correct that those who abandon fellowship are misguided, but their answer is more programmed, structured, religious organizations against which the revolutionaries are rebelling. That is not what scripture teaches, as the clear teaching of scripture is that the church is the assembly of people “called out” from every nation, race, age, and gender to comprise an organic, relational group of people built up in love to be inhabited by the Spirit of God.


            This brings me to my final critique, which is that the authors misunderstand the kosmos. The church is called out from the kosmos, which is the world system inspired and controlled by Satan. The authors’ misunderstanding likely stems from their Calvinism, as the absolute sovereignty of God could be construed to imply that there is no part of the universe where His will is not possible. However, the New Testament teaches that the world system is under the authority of the devil, and that the Kingdom of God will be replacing the world system, not winning it over incrementally. There are powerful admonitions against love of the world system (e.g., 1 John), and compromise with the world system is likened to spiritual adultery and enmity towards God (James 4).

            Actually, the authors disrespect for the kosmos betrays them. They do dislike the shallow “meet and greet” in the church service that remind people of shallow impersonal business meetings, they don’t like singing songs from the Christian ghetto that are clearly an attempt to “Christianize” contemporary music, and they oppose middle-class American greed that is obviously compromise with the devil’s system. Furthermore, their forefathers rebelled against the Catholic Church, so why is it so bad that the youth today want to rebel against the traditions of any institution insofar as the traditions are detracting from scriptural ecclesiology?

            So ultimately, the authors do not like the kosmos but are blind to the ways in which it has infiltrated their religious organizations. However, the basis of the “church sucks” movement is that the church has been compromised by man-made traditions inspired by the world system, such as the lust for power of church leaders trying to influence national politics, greed and waste (e.g., so much of the budget goes to preserve the worship service cavern and equipment), and the whole-hearted pursuit of the “American dream” by all the pew-dwellers at the expense of cultivating the loving relationships described by the scriptures.


[1] Ralph Winter. “Eleven Fronteirs of Perspective,” International Journal of Fronteir Missions, 20, 136-141