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Muscular Christianity

Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, made the news this week with his suggestion that physical pain was an appropriate way to correct effeminate behaviors in boys, as a way to stop sexual immorality before it began. He has since issued a clarification and a public apology, but as one of his more recent tweets suggests, nothing will be sufficient to stem the tide of controversy his sermon unleashed.

In my most recent article for Modern Reformation, I argue that biblical views of complementary gender roles are not only being rejected on the left, but assimilated on the right to a reactionary cultural ideology of caricatured stereotypes. Tragically, feminists and the LBGT community need these parodies of the traditional family, just as right-wing extremists need visible targets of social breakdown to justify their reactionary calls to arms. Both are unbiblical and deeply destructive of human identity and community.

It is hardly a newsflash that we’ve been living through an era of upheaval in gender roles. Churches have been divided over the role of women in ministry. In “Young, Restless, Reformed” circles, a new generation is discovering Jonathan Edwards and “masculine Christianity” in one fell swoop. Weaned on romantic—even sentimental—images of a deity who seems to exist to ensure our emotional and psychic equilibrium, many younger Christians (especially men) are drawn to a robust vision of a loving and sovereign, holy and gracious, merciful and just, powerful and tender King. As David Murrow pointed out in Why Men Hate Going to Church (2004), men are tired of singing love songs to Jesus and don’t feel comfortable in a “safe environment” that caters to women, children, and older people. His critique is familiar to many: men don’t like “conformity, control, and ceremony,” so churches need to “adjust the thermostat” and orient their ministry toward giving men tasks (since they’re “doers”). Men don’t like to learn by instruction; they need object lessons and, most of all, to find ways to discover truth for themselves.

I get the point about a “soft” ministry, especially worship, with its caressing muzak and the inoffensive drone of its always-affirming message. It’s predictably and tediously “safe.” Get the women there and they’ll bring their husbands and children. Not only has that not worked, it’s sure to bore any guy who doesn’t want to hear childrearing tips or yet another pep talk on how to have better relationships.

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Miller (Movie) Time!

You can follow Anthony Parisi at https://twitter.com/#!/anthonyparisi.

Legendary film director Orson Welles once said that “there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Portraying the complexity of our spiritual lives in a visual medium like film is a daunting task. Most stay away from dealing with religion at all while others try and fail. While we’ve been blessed with some incredible exceptions (think Andrei Tarkovsky or Terrence Malick), many sub-par, exclusively message-driven efforts by evangelicals dominate the attention of the American public.

Enter Blue Like Jazz, the newly released film adaptation of Don Miller’s popular book. Longtime musician Steve Taylor directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Miller and Ben Pearson. Their goal is not to offer gospel proclamation or heroic moral triumph but tell an honest story about the conflict of faith in the modern world. The book’s autobiographical introspection has been condensed into a simpler, coming-of-age narrative.

The story begins with young Don in his Texan Southern Baptist church. A smarmy youth pastor leads a prayer circle that quickly devolves into bowling watermelons and group games. Don is warned to avoid brainwashing by the “liberals” at college. In the next scene his deadbeat, hippie dad inversely laments the loss of his mind to the church. Later, a cross-shaped piñata showers communion cups on disappointed kids as a gospel illustration. These scenes culminate with a revelation that the (very married) youth pastor has been sleeping with mom, something the trivial atmosphere of the church hasn’t equipped Don to handle. He quickly snaps and flees to his dad’s alma mater, the famously liberal, agnostic Reed College. Here he begins to openly mock his faith as he considers leaving it all behind.

Amidst the fun, anarchic campus life Don encounters a diverse array of new friends. There’s a lovesick lesbian, a militant atheist in full Papal garb, and a (sometimes naïve) activist with a heart for humanitarian issues. Even though the satire is heightened, there’s enough nuance to stomach the clichés and uneven filmmaking. Self-aware of caricature, the film even invites discussion on archetypes and stereotypes as students debate the definitions in literature class. At the Q&A session following a screening in Irvine, Miller actually pointed out that some of the most suspect extremes (Reed’s mocking ceremony that crowns a campus Pope, a girl using the co-ed urinal, an atheist purging dorm room of religious books) were all from real life.

The filmmakers have a clear affection for each character. No one is unfairly demonized and everyone is given a voice at the table. This is a very rare quality. We meet hypocritical Christians and gracious, faithful ones. Churchgoing Penny fights for social causes but later admits to abandoning her suffering mom in an hour of greatest need. Agnostics air their jabs at religion but aren’t given a free pass either. On campus we see the champions of “tolerance” being anything but. As Don’s dad mocks the church he’s reminded that the congregation paid for groceries when he ditched the family. Taylor juxtaposes banal Christian bumper stickers “Are you following Jesus this close?” with their mirror image, “Abstinence makes the heart grow fondlers.” I can’t think of another movie that has captured just how sloganeering and prejudicial current talk about religion is. Moving past the hysterical put-downs, we’re shown how personal experience and emotion is often more formative than a reasonable argument.

Steve Taylor’s comedic sensibilities help steer the story away from melodrama. The personality that characterizes his songwriting is also felt here. At times the humor falls flat or grows tedious (like a sequence where a bear-costumed thief destroys Don’s bike) but the consistent energy enables Taylor to portray an inner, spiritual struggle in a strong and unique way. Knowing where Don has really come from and what he’s wrestling with gives the college wackiness a striking dissonance. All the fun, partying, and prank “activism” are colored by the lingering question: what will he do with God? The contrast of the upbeat soundtrack echoes how our externally happy lives often distract from or mask underlying turmoil.

The second half of the film grows somewhat disappointing, which is a real shame given all it has going for it. It’s often hard to believe that Don (who months ago was happily serving his church) would go to the extremes that he does. He gets increasingly mixed up with the Pope and his anti-religious antics, even helping place a giant condom balloon on top of the local Episcopal church. When he begins to realize how his behavior is beginning to hurt Penny and affect others, we’re never quite clear why Christianity remains existentially powerful enough to keep him on the fence.

A theism debate hints at our need for truth, love, and meaning that the strict materialist can’t account for. Penny’s passion for social justice inspires him. But we don’t see what’s specifically Christian about any of it. Don’s voice-over tells us that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.” Unfortunately, this is what we’re not quite shown. The best Penny can express is that she “likes Jesus” but we don’t really hear who he is or why she should. If Jesus is just one more guy who wants us to love each other, then what’s the big deal? Why not a thousand other prophets or self-help gurus, religious or secular, telling us the same thing?

In the end we hear Don describe how he tried to ditch God but can’t because “it’s like he’s following me around.” But some of the vagueness of Don’s wrestling with God undercuts the story. While it’s great that the movie doesn’t suddenly switch into sermon mode, a fear of being preachy or judgmental seems to hold it back from providing a more penetrating vision of Don’s journey or Christ himself. In interviews about the film, Taylor and Miller frequently talk about their intention to not be that kind of Christian movie. While I’m grateful they succeeded, I think this self-conscious defensiveness prevents the movie from rising to its full potential.

There also seems to be something of a generation gap going on. Younger generations are coming from a postmodern, pluralist context more than a fundamentalist one. At the evangelical college I attended, the common issue wasn’t judgmental ferocity but spiritual apathy and feeling-based mushiness. Throwing off the previous generation’s legalism sometimes led to biblical illiteracy and lack of serious discipleship. It was all “deeds not creeds” and “relationship not religion” but baby Jesus often got thrown out with the bathwater. After visiting a friend’s church where we took off our shoes and sang Coldplay for worship … I knew something had gone very wrong. Because of the changing landscape of evangelicalism, I feel Blue Like Jazz appeals to my generation but may do little to challenge it.

Still, it’s fantastic to watch a film about Christianity that’s characterized by grace and humility. The reverse confessional scene at the conclusion of the story is the film’s best. After a wild night where Don is crowned the new campus Pope, he finally stops wavering and comes out of the closet. Instead of hearing the student’s ironic confessions of sin, Don decides to apologize for himself and the ways fellow Christians have failed to be faithful witnesses for God. He takes the former Pope into the booth and admits to him that he believes in God, Jesus, “the whole deal.” He explains, “I came here to escape it because I was ashamed of it. But it turns out that I’m not just ashamed of my strange church or its political views or all the hypocrites. I’m ashamed of Jesus. I’m ashamed of Jesus because I want you to like me.”

Taylor delicately directs the scene and both Marshall Allman and Justin Welborn give vulnerable performances. I was struck by how moving it was. You can feel that here is the heart of Don Miller and the moment rings with authenticity. Like many of us, his criticism of the church can often go hand in hand with trying to be relevant, likeable, and fit in. Here we see that the movie isn’t a cheap shot at conservatives or secularists or hypocrites. It’s a personal confession.

In the book, Miller writes of a moment where we stop “blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority” and start to face ourselves. He admits, “I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” Here is our age-old struggle to confess with the apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of who I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

As someone who doesn’t much care for the book or Miller’s writings, I expected to be unimpressed by this movie. Instead, I found a decently entertaining two hours at the multiplex. Even with its flaws and hang-ups there’s a lot to appreciate. In a pop culture world filled with cynicism and bitterness, Blue Like Jazz manages to express humility and open an inviting space for conversation. It’s a rare and welcome sight to see.

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Blue Like Jazz

When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.

The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.

It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.

Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.

Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.

Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.

Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.


[i] pp. 18, 180, 52, 81 and 231-232

[ii] p. 124

[iii] p. 238

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Horton & Olson conversation with Ed Stetzer

Last month, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research interviewed Dr. Horton and Dr. Olson concerning For Calvinism and Against Calvinism on his The Exchange broadcast. The video is below:

To purchase For Calvinism click here.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 2)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on some of the concerns surrounding youth ministry as it is often practiced in Evangelicalism today. To read part one click here.


Some Practical Suggestions for Ministering to Youth

For those who may be weary of the extraordinary and want to invest more energy in rethinking how we engage in the ordinary ministry for all generations, including the next, here are a few suggestions. I’m sure others, more experienced than I, can come up with others.

  1. Turn the youth group into a nursery for faith. In our culture, the “youth culture” is in the driver’s seat, with the goal even of older people to be “forever young.” According to the Scripture, though, sanctification is all about joining the rest of the church in “growing up in Christ” as our head, through the ordinary ministry of pastors and teachers (Eph 4: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:10-15). In The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers notes how children learn at first by parroting. This stage is perfect for rote memorization, building the stock of Christian grammar that they will use the rest of their lives. Then they begin to question things, looking for the logical connections between different beliefs and reasons for them. (We call this being a teenager!) Finally, they enter the “rhetoric” stage, where they understand, express, explain, and live the faith for themselves. We shouldn’t let our culture’s child-centered educational philosophy keep us from emphasizing rote memorization. However, we also should be ready to accept and even to encourage the questioning stage, so that they can embrace Christ and his Word for themselves.
  2. Are we preparing younger believers for the communion of saints? When do they actually share in the public service, learning in growing stages to participate in the corporate prayers, confession, praise, giving, hearing, and receiving the Supper? When we include them in the service from the earliest possible years, they grow from fidgety toddlers to gradually appreciate what is happening and that they are equal sharers in it. We should not create alternative services for different age groups during the ordinary worship service, but bring them into the service and worship of the Triune God with his people.
  3. In the teen years, supplement engagement with the catechism with serious apologetics. What we believe, why believe it, and why it matters for our lives: these are always the coordinates that we have to keep in mind together especially as people enter emerging adulthood. If we show them why these questions are important and invite them to press us on the reasons, they won’t even wonder why there isn’t any pizza and they haven’t gone to Six Flags in months.
  4. Don’t inculcate in them a fear of the world, but show them how their faith encourages them to engage widely and deeply in the arts and sciences, to reflect on the way technology shapes their lives, to open their eyes to the needs and opportunities in the world. If they go to a secular college—even many Christian colleges—they will be surrounded by a naturalistic worldview. How do you work back from that eventuality to where they are now? Don’t ignore now the challenges that they will certainly face when it comes to questions like creation and evolution. Are Christians afraid of science? How they answer that as college seniors will depend in large measure on how such topics were treated in church and at home. Engage these issues without simplistic and dogmatic assertions. And while exposing the irrationalism of a naturalistic worldview carefully and over time, be wary of basing the Christian faith on precise conclusions about matters on which orthodox Christians differ among themselves. Too many college students have given up their faith at least in part because they were told that Christianity stands or falls on the age of the earth!
  5. As they become more interested in sharing and defending the faith that they now own for themselves, offer concrete “courses” in how to do it. A great resource is Greg Koukl’s Tactics, where he provides a masterful way of explaining Christian claims and exposing the inconsistencies in alternative worldviews in a winesome and persuasive manner.
  6. What are the priorities our children have seen in our own lives as they were being raised? When we moved, did we consider where we’d plant ourselves in a local church? Did we go with anticipation, expecting the Father once again to meet us in holiness and grace in his Son and by his Spirit? And did we take this faith seriously enough to commit to regular patterns and habits of family prayer, Bible reading, and catechism in the home?
  7. Above all, we trust in the Triune God to fulfill his promises to us and to our children through the ordinary means of grace. No more than Finney’s “new measures” can the ordinary means of grace be treated as magical techniques that work simply by doing them. God is sovereign. Covenant heirs, richly bathed, fed, and clothed with the gospel each week may disengage for a while. Some may not return. However, we cling to Christ’s promise to work through the means he has ordained and to bring wandering sheep back into his fold. Pastors, elders, deacons, parents, school teachers, youth leaders, and fellow church members have their distinctive role to play, but only the Spirit can bring sinners to repentance and faith through the Word.

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Generation Me and Youth Ministry Today (Part 1)

From books like Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, we were led to believe that this generation born after 1982 was more altruistic and socially-minded than baby boomers and Gen X’ers.

Not so, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education

The study by sociologists Jean M. Twenge, Elise C. Freeman, and W. Keith Campbell shows that there is actually a decline in civic interest, concern for others, and being a part of something larger than themselves. If anything, Millennials are more individualistic than their boomer parents.

Jean Twenge published a book on the subject, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. In fact, she discussed her conclusions in this book on the White Horse Inn a while back. “I see no evidence that today’s young people feel much attachment to duty or to group cohesion. Young people have been consistently taught to put their own needs first and to focus on feeling good about themselves.” They’ve been raised in a culture that places “more focus on the self and less focus on the group, society, and community,” according to Twenge. “‘The aphorisms have shifted to ‘believe in yourself’ and ‘you’re special,’ she says. ‘It emphasizes individualism, and this gets reflected in personality traits and attitudes.’” Individualism certainly encourages more tolerance, but it undermines a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself. “‘Having a population that is civically involved, is interested in helping others, and interested in the problems of the nation and the world, are generally good things,’ she says. But Ms. Twenge does not believe this is happening. People are ‘more isolated and wrapped up in their own problems,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t bode well for society in general.’”

There is always a danger in carving society into generational niches and stereotypes. However, these findings are substantiated elsewhere and it’s evident in church trends.

Back in 2007 USA Today (8/6/2007) reported a study showing that “7 in 10 Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30.” Reasons? “Many don’t feel engaged or welcome.” LifeWay Research’s Ed Stetzer reported that those who stay or return later in life had several things in common: they were raised by parents had both been regularly involved in church, there were meaningful and engaging sermons, “and church members who invested in their spiritual development.”

‘Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza,’ Stetzer says…These findings fit with those by other experts. ‘Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt,’ says Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow…Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are ‘significantly less likely to believe that a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.’

Over the last two decades, self-identifying Protestants (mainline and evangelical) have fallen in the US by over 10%.

In 2006 the Barna Research Group reported its findings. The most startling among them was that of those reared in committed church-going families, 61% were “disengaged” from church. Only 20% of churched teens are “spiritually active” by 29, although three-fourths say they were involved in some sort of pagan spirituality (“witchcraft”) in their teen years. As many as four-fifths say they attended church for at least a 2-month period as teens, but evidently did not find it compelling. This matches similar findings by others (here and here).

According to Barna director David Kinnaman,

Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twenty-somethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ They are also significantly less likely to believe that ‘a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.’ These attitudes explain other anomalies of twenty-something spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twenty-somethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.

In terms of beliefs, affirmation of key evangelical tenets falls steadily with each generation: 12% of those over 40, 6% of twenty-somethings, and 5% of today’s teens. And yet, 44% of those over 40 say they’re “born again,” with 36% of young adults fitting this description.

From the data, Kinnaman concludes,

Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.

Ministering to Youth vs. “Youth Ministry”

Youth ministry is about 150 years old. Arising at first as a way of reaching out to troubled teens especially in highly industrialized urban centers, parachurch ministries like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sought to provide safe activities and education in basic reading along with evangelism. Throughout the nineteenth century, parachurch organizations mushroomed. Attempting to create a Protestant Empire that transcended confessional differences, the Bible societies and Sunday School movement increasingly supplanted the ordinary structures, resources, and content of particular church traditions. According to the movement’s leaders, it’s what all evangelicals profess that matters, not what distinguishes Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, and other denominations. Of course, there had always been catechism instruction for the young and new Christians. Now, however, Sunday school increasingly isolated the younger generations not only from the older but also from the wider confessional tradition to which they belonged. The Sunday school curriculum shared by all Protestant youths, not the catechism, shaped faith and practice. The “youth group” emerged as its own “church-within-a-church,” distinct from the public ministry and worship.

And so it has become increasingly easy for one to go from the nursery to children’s church to youth group and on to college ministry without having actually belonged to the local church. Young people may still drive with their family to the church campus, but from the parking lot they scatter to their own target-marketed groups. For many, the church is more a cafeteria of ministry offerings than a communion of saints. So is it really surprising that a good local church doesn’t figure into things when deciding upon a college and many don’t even join one because, after all, they have their campus ministry? I know of some instances, in fact, of such groups holding their meetings during the regular time of Sunday services.

From childhood, many have never know what it is like to go from catechism to profession/confirmation and first Communion with all of the privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Their memories of church are actually recollections mainly of youth-oriented (i.e., fun, exciting, entertaining) substitutes of the ordinary public service that their parents and grandparents attended on the same property. Is it any wonder that they feel alienated from the church, that they sense a lack of investment by older people in their spiritual growth, and that they do not know what they believe or why they believe it? Are they really dropping out of church in their college years? Or did they every really belong?

“Generation Me” is alive and well in our churches. Narcissism cuts across the generations, of course, but if in our own churches and families we are worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community—with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures, then should we really blame them? I don’t think so.

Nor can we place all of the blame on youth ministers. Some are doing a terrific job. Besides, it is as lazy for us to drop our children in their lap and expect them to do all of the Christian nurture that families and churches provide. Yet, it’s not just that we are not operating here on all cylinders, but in many cases, not even on one.

We are living off of the legacy of the Second Great Awakening. Believing that salvation is in our hands, Charles Finney naturally thought that the only criterion for the methods we use is “whatever is fit to convert sinners with” or “excitements sufficient to induce repentance.” As Sunday school replaced catechism, Finney’s “new measures” replaced the ordinary means of preaching, sacrament, and pastoral care. Once upon a time, the pastor (his name doesn’t matter—it was his office that counted) taught you catechism, made regularly-scheduled pastoral visits to the home, dropped in on Grandpa at the hospital, married and eventually buried you. I realize that a lot of social factors make this “so yesterday”: we are a more mobile society. The realities of life and work uproot us from the network of extended families and communities. However, revivalistic evangelicalism has made uprooting a spiritual imperative. Now the model for ministry was the efficient revivalist. Extraordinary “new measures” invented by clever entrepreneurs, not ordinary means of grace commanded by our Lord, became the new normal.

Writing against the “new measures,” John Williamson Nevin—a Reformed pastor and theologian contemporary with Finney, pointed out the contrast between “the system of the bench” (precursor to the altar call) and what he called “the system of the catechism”: “The old Presbyterian faith, into which I was born, was based throughout on the idea of covenant family religion, church membership by God’s holy act in baptism, and following this a regular catechetical training of the young, with direct reference to their coming to the Lord’s table. In one word, all proceeded on the theory of sacramental, educational religion.” Nevin relates his own involvement in a revival as a young man, where he was expected to disown his covenantal heritage as nothing more than dead formalism. These two systems, Nevin concluded, “involve at the bottom two different theories of religion.” .1

Like the revivals of Finney and his successors, the “new measures” of the church growth movement have been treated by many as science, like the law of gravity. Those who fail to adopt these new models of ministry will be left behind in the spiritual marketplace. It is a small step to the view of Christ’s sheep as “self-feeders” who need a “customized work-out plan” and, finally, to George Barna’s celebration of the “Revolutionaries”—those now who seek their “spiritual resources” online, at Christian concerts and conferences, and in specialized groups rather than the local church. Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism converge in a spirituality that is not only worldly but is unchurching the church.

In the next post I offer some suggestions for ministering to youth. Click here to read part two.


1. John Williamson Nevin, The Anxious Bench (London: Taylor & Francis, 1987), 2-5. [Back]

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Mystery Through Manners

We’re heading up to Irvine tomorrow for a screening of ‘Blue Like Jazz’, so we put our resident film critic, Anthony Parisi , to work and asked him to share his thoughts on the film, fiction, and Christian interaction with art.  He also threw in some Flannery O’Connor references for good measure.  You can follow him online at twitter.com/anthonyparisi.

 

A film version of Don Miller’s popular book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, is hitting theaters next month. The trenches already seem to be forming between more conservative Christians and an evangelical subculture championing what they see as more honest, open-ended talk of faith. Director Steve Taylor, a longtime CCM artist and music producer, recently announced the indie film came under fire from Sherwood Baptist (Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous) during production. Now the distributor of October Baby is working to ensure the trailer will not play before their film.

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Mike Cosper has written an interesting primer on the film. He explains the background and tries to identify some of what attracts burnt-out evangelicals and why. While not wanting to let Miller off the hook for his bad ideas (of which there are many), he is sympathetic to what he finds and urges Christians to approach the film as descriptive rather than prescriptive, believing we should address any issues we may have at “an almost personal level—understanding that Miller is just a guy with a writing gift, telling his story, and the stories around him.” We should be receptive to the fact that Miller is giving voice to real problems and experiences in the evangelical world.

This prompted some great discussion in the comments. Matthew Anderson brought his characteristic insight, pushing for more options than this framework. While Miller’s storytelling is descriptive, “therein lies the problem: stories aren’t exactly a neutral medium, as I would bet good money Mike already knows. How we describe things renders certain approaches to the world more plausible than others. The Book of Judges is some pretty hot narrative—and an apologia, it seems, for a monarchy. Even if Miller isn’t self-conscious in this, it still matters.” A simple prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy makes “patient, confident, and appreciative critique” more difficult.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. What seems to be missing is that while some Christians may be offended at depictions of “bad behavior”, others (like myself) find some of Miller’s embedded perspective problematic. Like any writer, his descriptive storytelling is necessarily bound up with specific ideas and beliefs. This kind of concern is different than the pious grandmother offended by scenes of dorm-life debauchery. Unfortunately, they can too often be lumped together.

Cosper went on to elaborate some of his thinking that begins to get at a clearer way forward. He explains that he wanted to “illustrate that the way we engage stories is fundamentally different from the way we engage prescriptive and didactic works.” I think this complex reality lies at the heart of why Christians often talk past each other about fiction and art more generally. In conservative circles it’s common to see reviews reduced to a tedious game of Worldview Whac-A-Mole. Some of the worst film criticism I’ve read has come from theologians and pastors. The story is dissected into a simple “message” or worldview at the expense of the whole work and the empathetic engagement that culture exists to foster. While we can (and should) thoughtfully discuss and critique the ideas that live in stories, this has to be done in a different way than analyzing a logical theorem.

Novelist Flannery O’Connor can be a great guide to thinking about the nature of storytelling. In her brilliant essay, “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (worth reading in full here) it’s clear that there is nothing new under the sun with these kinds of discussions among Christians.

O’Connor sees a fiction writer as someone who is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in concrete life. She points to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that a work of art is good in itself. This can easily be forgotten by our pragmatic impulses. “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists. He must first of all be aware of his limitations as an artist—for art transcends its limitations only by staying within them.”

As Christians, we can have a very hard time with this idea. It’s easy to feel that fiction only has a place if it has some sort of moral uplift or pedagogical value. Unfortunately, “Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying.” Certainly we know people who seem to have profited from a “sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better.” But this is true because God uses plenty of poor things in this world for good purposes. We need to leave that up to God’s sovereignty and not let it impair our judgment. “God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being.”

What is required of the writer is to create “the illusion of a whole world with believable people in it” and ensure that truth “take on the form of his art” and becomes “embodied in the concrete and human.” Mystery and meaning must be put into manners—made incarnate in human life. Here is where a Christian will begin to feel some friction. We live in a fallen world full of corruption and sin. How can we reproduce this? Shouldn’t we tidy it up to show what it ought to be? O’Connor asks, “Just how can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and to the absolute?”

More fearful yet, there is the possibility that “what is vision and truth to the writer is temptation and sin to the reader.” Is it better that a millstone were tied around his neck? This is a serious concern for the artist “and those who have felt it have felt it with agony.”

Thankfully, we are free of ultimate, redemptive responsibility and shouldn’t burden ourselves “with the business that belongs only to God.” A Christian artist is free to observe God’s fallen creation and must feel “no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe.” To put it a another way: we are not bringing in the kingdom by our cultural activities. Art can glorify God because of the intrinsic good of creation, not because it has some transformative, redemptive power to usher in spiritual redemption. Instead of laboring under the burden of a salvific agenda (which Christ accomplishes), we are to focus our attention on producing a work of art that “is good in itself.” This is to be done for God’s glory and out of love toward others.

For O’Connor, the solution to all this “leads us straight back where we started from—the subject of the standards of art and the nature of fiction itself.”  Holding an artist to that standard is not at odds with moral or theological judgment. Why? Because the medium is (or at least is inseparable from) the message. Any moral or ideological failure will be bound up with an artistic one. A problem of vision or truthfulness manifests itself in the quality of the art. She writes, “The fact is that if the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, a work that is good in itself, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to this central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”

A current illustration of this is the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. This movie by the standard of movies may have failed to embody the moral sense needed for its proper, devastating effect. This article argues that there is an aesthetic failure to capture the brutality and reality of death. Restraint on violent imagery ends up downplaying the horror of the killing ritual. The hyperactive shaky-cam and rapid editing style distracts and derails necessary focus to the evil of what‘s happening. The director doesn’t frame the image of rising child warriors, thus missing his chance to startle and unnerve. The “manners are failing to embody the mystery” and so both end up being compromised.

What does all this mean for discussing Blue Like Jazz and movies more generally?

I think it should remind us that art is effective and compelling at the particular, incarnate level—not an abstract, didactic one. After having sat in over a hundred screenings of his film, Steve Taylor is convinced “the reason it’s resonating so strongly with audiences across the country is because, like the book it’s based on, it reminds us of our own experiences.” This is important to understand, especially for any of us who might be critical of certain ideas within the film. We need to interact with movies not as theological disputations but as works of fiction. Everyone connects with movies in emotional, personal, and experiential ways. Through concrete imagination, not abstract ideology.

How we discuss an artist’s ideas must proceed accordingly. Sometimes we can be in such a rush to “critique theology” that we miss our opportunity to learn and sympathize with another person. I think this is at the heart of what Mike Cosper was getting at. Culture arises from our great need for commonality, empathy, and shared understanding. Let’s be careful not to ignore the aesthetic, human, “real life” aspects that draw us to art in the first place. Otherwise we forget, as Flannery O’Connor puts it, that “we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.”

 

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Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Occasionally, we pull our pastor friends away from their ecclesiastic duties, and through our cunning wiles and irresistible charm manage to wheedle them into writing for us. Today, we have our buddy Brian Thomas, the Vicar of Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California, reviewing Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything.  (If this whets your appetite, check out the Rev. Tchividjian’s latest MR article here.)

Math has never been my strong suit, but Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, Jesus+ Nothing=Everything, presents a liberating equation for troubled sinners. Written in a down-to-earth style, Tchividjian offers a very pastoral confession of how a renewed understanding of the gospel brought him through a time of professional and personal crisis.

Building upon the work of St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis, the book begins by painting a picture of the restless heart longing for everything. Rather than to turning to Jesus, who alone can fill the void, we often turn elsewhere because ultimately we have misunderstood the gospel. Trouble arises when Christians think of the gospel as merely an entry ticket to heaven, the thing that gets us in, while the thing that keeps us in (we assume) is our own effort and performance. In other words, Tchividjian notes “we recognize that the gospel ignites the Christian life, but we often fail to see that it’s also the fuel to keep us going and growing as Christians” (37).

The real issue is not that we blatantly seek to replace Jesus with something else, we simply add this something else to him: Jesus plus self-affirmation, personal approval, social justice, success, power, etc. As the Galatians learned from St. Paul, when we add anything to Jesus, even a good thing, we end up with a sum that is no longer the Gospel (Gal 1:6–10). If Jesus plus nothing is not the ultimate equation in the life of a believer, Tchividjian argues that we have become idolaters, which he defines as building our identity on something besides God (40).

The greatest enemy of the Gospel, as the author contends in chapter four, is legalism, or what the he calls “performancism.” Performancism is what happens when we fail to believe the gospel; it happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game (46). Legalism, as Pastor Tullian confesses, preserves the illusion that we can do this. Unfortunately, as the author laments, so much of what passes for contemporary preaching fuels this legalistic fire by piling law upon law (what we do) without the gospel (what Jesus has done). Tullian writes, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list, strengthening our bondage to a performance-driven approach” (49).

I found the next couple of chapters to be the strongest in the book as they offer a devotional commentary on how Jesus plus nothing equals everything through the lens of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Tracing Paul’s argument, Tchividjian here presents an exegetical and theological presentation of the person and work of Christ. In one of the most simple and yet profound gospel statements I have ever read, the author concludes:

In his law-fulfilling life, curse-bearing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus has entirely accomplished for sinners what sinners could never in the least do for themselves. The banner under which the Christian lives reads, “It is finished” (84).

I must confess that as much as I enjoyed this book, the latter chapters tended to feel a bit redundant as he retraces the problems with idolatry and finding our identity apart from Jesus. It is not that what he writes isn’t excellent—it is—it is just that he’s already said it; and while repetition is often helpful it felt like listening to a forty minute sermon when the preacher has said everything he is going to say in the first twenty. This is likely due to the fact these chapters were built from a sermon series where a level of repetition is necessary from week to week when preaching lectio continua.

In today’s culture, it is rare to find a popular evangelical pastor admit weakness and confess his sins, not to mention write a book about it. Martin Luther described faith as a beggar’s hand receiving a gift. In this book, Pastor Tullian is a beggar pointing the reader to the Bread of Life who alone can satisfy a hungry soul. Here you will enjoy the freedom of the life-giving gospel equation: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything; everything minus Jesus equals nothing” (206).

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International Women’s Day

I live in a pipe culture.  Many of my male friends will spend hours discussing the relative merits of different bowls and stems with the same passion others reserve for rock climbing and Apple products.  There was one memorable evening when my friends Brian and Nigel tried to convince me to try my hand at it – I declined, on the grounds that I didn’t think it ladylike (and I had no idea how to do it).  “Come on,” said Nigel, taking another sip of port.  “Dorothy Sayers smoked a pipe.”  “Any woman who spent that much time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to smoke, whether it was considered ladylike or not,” I responded.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essays, ‘Are Women Human?’ and ‘The Human Not-Quite-Human’.  As someone who loves Sayers’ wry, acerbic style, I feel free to say that I’m very glad the editor of the Eerdmans edition put the latter address first, rather than former.  Adopting an uncharacteristically caustic tone, she launches into a Swiftian tirade against the prevailing male attitude toward women at that time, inviting the reader to imagine the grace with which he would be bear his every action, habit, and taste being commented upon in terms of his gender:

“Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in and day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverential) as a virile member of society.  If from school and lectureroom, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function.  If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence.  If, instead of allowing with a smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all his goings inconformity with that pronouncement.”[1]

In ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ (an address given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society), she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much had been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks.  The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their exclusive confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings.  Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do. 

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end.  While society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are.  That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to hold male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity is judged.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.

 


[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 56-57

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Conversion and Conversionism

Mike Horton discusses conversion, the ordo salutis, and the reading list for his recent MR article, “What To Do When Your Testimony Is Boring”.

What’s the difference between ‘conversion’ and ‘conversionism’?  

Conversion is a biblical teaching wherein we learn that we’re not active in our regeneration.  However, activated by God’s grace, we repent and believe.  Repentance and belief are gifts, but we are the ones repenting and believing – this is conversion.  “Conversionism” (the conversionism in the evangelical church, with which we’re all familiar) is reductionistic in two ways.  First, it reduces the field of conversion to those who have no connection with the church.  When we treat conversion as always something radical and distinct from the ordinary means of grace in the covenantal nurture of Christian families and churches, we make void the promise “for you and your children,” (Acts 2:39).  Half of our missionfield—those covenant children already entrusted to our care—is cut off.  They are not Christians; they must become Christians outside the ordinary operations of the church’s ministry, in an event specially crafted to produce conversions.  Second, it reduces the time of conversion to a moment in the past.  In the New Testament, though, conversion is a lifelong process.  The question is not whether I repented and believed once upon a time.  My older brother isn’t walking with the Lord.  Nevertheless, whenever I have raised the question, he assures me that he is “saved” because he responded to an altar call and invited Jesus into his heart when he was 7.  There is no valid profession of faith today, but he was taught early on that none of this really matters.  Conversion—the daily call to die to self (repentance/ mortification) and live to Christ (faith/vivification)—is ongoing.  It is a life of conversion, however imperfect and incomplete, not a moment of conversion, that believers embrace by God’s grace. 

You write about the Arminian “order of salvation” that makes faith logically prior to regeneration – most Christians would agree that one must believe in Christ’s work as sufficient for their salvation before they’re ‘regenerated’ (i.e., ‘born again’).  Where’s the tension?

Years ago, Billy Graham wrote a best-seller titled How To Be Born Again.  The idea is that the new birth is something that we can bring about by following the right formula.  The Spirit persuades, woos, invites, and pleads, but the decision is ours as to whether we will be brought from death to life.  However, Scripture clearly teaches in many places that we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, in bondage to sin and unbelief, willfully suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.  There is nothing in between being dead and alive.  If you’re dead in relation to God and righteousness, then you are actively embracing bondage to sin and death.  If you are alive in Christ, then you are dead to sin as the controlling power over your life and destiny.  This new birth is not just an offer; it is a gift.  To receive it, one must be raised spiritually by God’s grace.  In our fallen condition, we may seek idols: spirituality, various religious systems, moral improvement programs, and philosophies of life.  However, “There is no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11).  No one would embrace Christ in a condition of spiritual death (Jn 3:5; 6:44; Eph 2:1, 5, etc.).

Although they allow that the offer of faith—even the provision for faith—is a gift, careful Arminian theologians recognize that they cannot, strictly speaking, call faith itself a gift of God.  They recognize that this would mean that God grants faith to some and not others—making the new birth dependent on God’s gracious decision rather than our own free will.  However, Scripture repeatedly speaks of faith as a gift of God’s grace.  “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom 9:16).  “While you were dead he made you alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved” (Eph 2:5).  Everything, including faith, “is the gift of God…” (Eph 2:9).

Repeatedly throughout the New Testament we read that faith is given by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel (Mt 4:23; Mk 13:10; Ac 14:7; Rom 1:16; 10:8, 17; 1 Cor 1:18; 9:16, 23; 2 Cor 4:3; 8:18; 10:16; Eph 1:13; 3:6; Col 1:5, 23; 1 Thes 2:4; 1 Pet 1:23, 25; 4:6; Rev 14:6).  Those who accept Christ have no one to thank but God; those who reject Christ have no one to blame but themselves.

This is a wonderful truth for many reasons.  First, it means that the new birth is God’s gracious initiative.  Nothing I did brought it about and therefore nothing I do (or don’t do) can keep it from realizing its goal (Phil 1:6).  I choose Christ because he first chose me (Jn 15:16).  Second, it means that the Triune God not only makes salvation possible and then offers it to sinners, but that he actually saves sinners by electing, redeeming, calling and keeping them to the end.  In Arminianism, God makes salvation possible for everybody, but does he actually save anyone?  Given the human condition, making salvation possible for those who are “dead in sin” is simply not enough for anyone to be saved.  This is a game-changing doctrine.

What books have you found particularly helpful in developing your understanding of conversion and regeneration?

Second only to Scripture in this regard are the Reformed confessions and catechisms.  I’d recommend especially the relevant sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of the Synod of Dort as well as the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism.  In addition, I’d recommend John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and R. C. Sproul’s Chosen By God.  I explore this doctrine in Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (chapter 8), For Calvinism (chapter 5), and The Christian Faith (chapter 17).

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