Friday, January 3, 2014

Some Things Aren't Funny & They Never Will Be

My two older kids, Paden (11) and MJ (9), talked in the backseat of the car about some show they had been watching. I can't remember the show (Lego, Disney, or whatever), but suddenly my kids relayed a joke from the show about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was so concerned about this that I stopped the car to talk to my family for a minute. Our discussion centered around one simple idea; somethings aren't funny and they never will be.

Our culture lost sight of that fact a long time ago, and I am as guilty as anyone else at finding inappropriate jokes funny. But lately I have been missing holidays. Let me be clear, I'm not saying I miss extra days off from work. I miss reverence for great ideas, great people, and great events. Our combined need to outwork everyone and prove our irreverence leaves us with a fast paced life rich with entertainment and distraction but lacking important context and meaning.

One of the reasons that I love Washington D.C. so much is the presence of so many memorials and monuments to American historical events and heroes. You walk amongst the massive structures and eternal flames and remember what others did to protect the idea that is the American dream. You feel the importance of the contributions of great Americans to our way of life. Arlington National Cemetery moves me in ways that it is difficult to describe, as does the Vietnam Memorial and the World War II Memorial. You are continuously reminded that there are sacrifices, deeds, and events that are so important we must take pains to remember them always. They must forever be a part of our self understanding.

When God led the nation of Israel across the Jordan, Joshua commanded each tribe to elect a strong man to walk out into the dried river and grab a large stone. They were to carry those stones, one for every tribe, on their shoulders to the place where they made camp that night. Why? To serve as sign:

“In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off, These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

Reverence must be taught and it must be protected. We don't have holidays in the United States as much as we have predetermined days off from work and school. Honoring both Lincoln and Washington required too much time off from important things, so let's have a President's Day and act like all presidents are worthy of the same honor. After all, Lincoln and James Buchanan held the same office so they deserve the same respect from the people of the United States. What is the real difference between George Washington and Herbert Hoover? They were both President. It is not like anyone was really taking the day to honor those men. Reasoning from our irreverence, a flaw in our national character, not only diminished our appreciation of Washington and Lincoln but diminished us as well.

What personal pains do we take to honor MLK Day, Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, etc. They are long weekends, big movie openings, and chances to shop. Those days off are a needed chance to enjoy recreation in the midst of long work hours, but we are missing something important when events that formed us as a nation become the punchlines to jokes on children's shows.

This is nothing new. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Thomas Hibbs wrote Shows About Nothing, where he demonstrated the nihilistic nature of TV shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld, in 2000. Scholars like Postman, Hibbs, and many others have been warning us that our need to be entertained combined with our reduction of all things to the same level of triviality (a la Seinfeld) would have a dramatic impact on our public discourse. It is only now becoming clear how right they were.

Russel Brand talked about an incident that got him fired from a British TV comedy show. The day after 9-11 he did a sketch where he portrayed Osama Bin Laden. The joke was he was asking the American people to get over it. After all, that happened yesterday. It is time to move on now. Brand admitted the skit was a terrible idea and that he only did it because his heroin addiction made him incapable of conceiving of how painful his “joke” must have been to others. I've done my own share of hurtful stupid things, so I'm not slamming Brand. In fact, the interviewer most confused me. She repeatedly made comments about the “bad timing” of the joke.

I would tell her the same thing I told my children in the car. There is no good timing for jokes about things that are not funny. There is no comic gold to later mine in tragedies on the scale of 9-11 or the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth shot one of the great U.S. presidents in the head as he sat next to his wife watching a play. There is no sufficient time to pass that we can see these things in a humorous light.

Our desperation to be in on the joke must end by an act of discipline. There will always be people that look to show their bravery by their irreverence. (I recently saw Leonardo DiCaprio referenced as courageous for being willing to violate himself with a candle on camera for The Wolf of Wall Street. Courage indeed.) They aren't held back by things as common and provincial as courtesy and respect. A  university professor I know recently posted his shock on Facebook at finding a website hosted by young Christians with the sole purpose seemingly to prove that they could be as disrespectful and dismissive of objectively important things as anyone else. Apparently they accomplished their worthy goal. Well done!   

And just like my kids in the car, there will always be well meaning people that laugh at them. So then, there must always be adults willing to teach their children that some things aren't funny even if that means enduring the scorn of the perpetually irreverent that are so often celebrated in our culture.

Some things aren't funny, and they never will be.  

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Talk Titles We Hope We Never See

After the joy of ETS and The 5 Words Conference last week in Maryland, my wife and I discussed titles of talks at apologetics conferences. This Thanksgiving, I offer 5 terrible titles of talks we hope we never see at any apologetics conference or offered as a paper. Feel free to offer your own.

1. Let God Sort 'Em Out: Reconsidering a Non-Evangelistic Approach to Apologetics

2. Leave None Alive: The Advantages to Scorched Earth Engagement with Atheists

3. Yell Louder; Yell Last: Abandoning the Overrated “Courtesy” of Listening

4. Bang the Lectern: Dominating Dialogue with Emotion and Anger

5. Heck No! We Won't Know!: Asserting and Sloganeering in lieu of Arguing

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Westley Defense (Part 1): Nice Guys with Mad Sword Skills Get Listened To

My family recently watched The Princess Bride as my daughter's welcome home movie after a week a way at Camp Kudzu, a camp for kids with Type 1 diabetes. Her choice thrilled my wife and I, as I suspect it would most parents our age. My kids repeated the lines over and over before, during, and after, and repeatedly hearing the lines I was struck with an aspect of the movie I hadn't previously appreciated. Westley, Buttercup's true love and the hero of the film, is the very model of how we should engage people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Greg Koukl wrote the book on how to have a productive conversation. Literally, it is called Tactics and if you don't own it, you should. Greg gives a tactical approach to arguments through a series of questions while highlighting common mistakes in how we frame our positions. With the wealth of information in this book, one line impacted me more than any other. Early in the second chapter Greg gives a rule of his: "If anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose." (Underlining added)

He goes on to write:

"When you get angry, you look belligerent. You raise your voice, you scowl. You may even begin to break into the conversation before the person is finished. Not only is this bad manners, but it begins to look like your ideas are not as good as you thought they were... You begin to replace persuasion with power...

What if you are able to keep your cool, but the person you're trying to persuade isn't? You lose in that case, too. People who are angry get defensive, and defensive people are not in a very good position to think about whether or not your ideas are good ones."

Let me reiterate what Greg says in the book; a knowledge base is essential to arguing well. That said, the longer I do this work the more convinced I become of the importance of respectful dialogue. As I present, I emphasize that what most led to my change in views on both God and abortion was good arguments from good arguers. Both components were vital and neither took precedence over the other.

That rubs some people the wrong way. A philosophy major at one university I was visiting told me, “That is all well and good, but I like to mix it up. I enjoy the heat of battle.”

I gently responded, “If your goal is to enjoy the heat of the exchange and bludgeon others with arguments in order to score rhetorical points then your approach is fine. If you hope to convince someone that they are wrong it is almost guaranteed to fail. By allowing the emotion and challenge of the argument to move front and center, you make the discussion about you and not the ideas in play. Now the person isn't even hearing your ideas because they don't like you, and there is no way that they are going to listen.”

A representative of a school I will soon be visiting called me to ask about my style. He apologized for the necessity of the conversation but as he explained, “the last pro-life speaker we allowed into our school was mean, didn't interact with the students but merely dismissed them as obviously wrong, and did a lot of damage to the pro-life views of our students.”

It looks like I am going to get the chance to work with that school to help them get past the last guy, but listen to what he said. The man's attitude toward the students and the discussion did damage. The speaker didn't offer bad arguments as near as I can tell, he just argued poorly.

I don't like bad arguers. Michael Ruse participated in a debate with a Christian apologist that shall remain unnamed. An atheist friend of mine attended the event with me. Ruse was warm and engaging. He did not shy away from his disagreements with Christianity or the apologist he shared the stage with, but he cloaked his disagreement with cordiality and respect. I watched him interact with the lay audience. Even when some well intentioned soul talked to Ruse like he was stupid or engaged him a little too enthusiastically, he politely excused himself and moved on without incident. All I know about that man as a person is what I saw that day. He may be a scoundrel every other day of his life, but I remember him as a charming guy and I enjoy reading his works more as a result.

The Christian apologist, on the other hand, was rude during Q & A, made repeated references to his credentials, and bizarrely threatened to “come after” one of the panelists. We all have bad days, but this behavior was so off putting that, whatever the strengths of his arguments may have been, my atheist friend completely dismissed him. Thank God for the charming and articulate panelists that genuinely impressed my friend. I extend that man grace in recognition that I have no idea what was going on with him, but I must admit that I have had little interest in his work since then in spite of his obvious intelligence. I say that knowing full well that there are people out there who feel the same about me after I mishandled conflicts in the past.

There is little to add to the brilliance of Greg Koukl's Tactics, but in light of how crucial I believe this aspect is to our successful engagement, I am going to do a series of posts on arguing well. I want to take Greg's rule from Chapter 2 and tease it out with illustrations in what I will call the Westley Defense.

I'm writing this for me as much as anyone else. In Romans 12:17-18 Paul tells us, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” In my life I have been quarrelsome, aggressive, and hateful. Being respectful and courteous is a discipline I adopted because it both makes me more the man I ought to be and because it aids in accomplishing the goal of winning people rather than arguments. It does not come natural to me. I work on it.

In The Princess Bride, Westley is confronted with sword fights, hand to hand combat with a giant, a battle of wits to the death with a rude Sicilian, and the efforts of an evil prince to separate him from his true love. Though not lacking in strength or will, almost every engagement is peppered with wit and warmth. Even in his more terse and threatening exchanges with Prince Humperdink, his aggression is constrained by the necessity of the situation. It offers a good picture to evaluate our own exchanges in the impossibly charming light of Westley the stable boy turned Dread Pirate Roberts.

Part 2 will be focused on coming out of the starting gates well or in Westley talk, “Look I don't mean to be rude, but this isn't as easy as it looks, so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't distract me.”

Friday, August 2, 2013

Rachel Held Evans and The Millennial Exodus [Part 2]

Anthony Bradley may puzzle over her popularity and I've barely heard of her, but there does seem to be a group of people that identify with Rachel Held Evans and share some of her concerns as articulated in this article.

Ms. Evans seems nice. I say seems because, as smiley as her picture appears, her patience and goodwill are selective. She and the generation she identifies with are armed with data, studies, an appetite for the high church traditions, a refined BS detector and an overwhelming desire to know Jesus without compromising their intellects. The simple church leaders respond with lattes, edgier music, hipper worship services, and a distressing commercialized homophobic science hating lack of Jesus. That's balanced.

Whether intentional or not, this characterization is dishonest. Her own narrative betrays that fact. Why exactly are all of these people inviting her to come and talk? The same reason that so many books have been written about this subject. The same reason that para-church ministries work hard to engage the younger generation while equipping youth leaders to answer tough questions. The same reason that some of the best minds in the Christian family devote themselves to giving college students the intellectual grounding they need to grow in their faith as opposed to away from it. All of these people genuinely care about the needs of the Millennial generation. They hardly resemble the shallow clueless buffoons she paints in her article and certainly offer a good deal more than pathetic attempts at being cool.

However earnest these efforts may be, it is entirely possible that all of these people miss the point and that Ms. Evans possesses insight that will help. Unfortunately, rather than an informative article offering her vision to reach Millennials more effectively, she chooses to offer a piece that morphs into an awkward manifesto with Ms. Evans as the de facto head of the movement.

I'm not a huge fan of her pervasive use of the pronoun “We.”. No single person speaks on behalf of all  Christian Millennials. Given even the most cursory look at possible motivations in my previous post, there are simply too many reasons that one would leave the church for a single person to talk like this. It is to her credit that she passionately identifies with a group of people that she discusses quite a bit, but this style gives the false impression of a unified movement with a clearly stated set of goals. As if we could meet her demands and then she could deliver the Millennial Christians back to us like a modern day Pied Piper  That's not what is happening. There is no organized en masse walk out. It it looks more like a massive disorganized wandering away.

Ms. Evans obviously strikes a chord with a particular group of people, so she can't be dismissed because I'm not a fan of the way she expresses herself. A desire for productive engagement demands that we give serious attention to her list of concerns to see if the meat of her article can be found in there. I am adding numbers and emphasis for my own clarity.

1 -We want an end to culture wars. We want truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for; not what we are against.

Let's say - for the sake of discussion - that what you stand for is the value and dignity of all human life. Wouldn't that then make you against actions that disregard or abuse human life? Once you stake the position that you support (are for) the dignity of human life you are going to naturally oppose (be against) things like abortion, sex slavery, euthanasia, eugenics, and perhaps capital punishment. They go hand and hand. 

Frederick Douglass wanted freedom and equal dignity for slaves (for) which made him one of the greatest abolitionists the world has ever seen (against). The distaste others felt for the bad feelings created by his opposition to slavery led him to say the following:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.

Simply by virtue of being for something; you are right smack dab in the middle of a culture war. We are now at a crossroads. You can be for things and do nothing, or you can be against things by virtue of your principles and contribute to efforts to stop injustice in a respectful and impacting manner. Of course tension always arises when one group tells another that they are wrong. The greater the wrong, the more tension will be created by confronting it. It must come. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

I am curious about one thing. Does Ms. Evans not see her own criticisms of Evangelicalism as being against those views? Aren't her highly public efforts to change things a part of the culture war? Why are her own views and actions exempt from the Millennial angst that drives her to demand others to stand down?

As for the desire for a truce between science and faith, if she can get Dawkins and Dennett to dial it down a bit then more power to her. If not, then it seems a bit odd to ask others to not respond to attack pieces casting all those who believe in a Creator as stupid. (e.g. Dawkins' The God Delusion or Hitchens' god is not Great)

Has she considered that asking people who respectfully contribute to the debate like Jay Wesley Richards, Alvin Plantinga, or William Lane Craig to stop because of some desire for a truce would diminish our public discourse? The conflict forces us all to revisit our presuppositions and clear out any intellectual garbage. Some of the best material to read was written by those who disagree with us in response to theistic arguments. Forget the truce, however she envisions that. We need to learn to expose the ad hominem attacks and focus on the genuinely productive conversations.

2 – We want to ask questions that don't have predetermined answers.

If this is a general complaint against pat answers then I am in full agreement. I hate hearing someone ask an honest question and get in response what is affectionately referred to as a Sunday school answer. Ditto that on ramblings that fail to hide the fact that the person talking hasn't the slightest clue what they are saying.

Here is the thing, though. Questions either have answers or they don't, but sometimes people don't want answers. They want to wallow in mystery or subjectivism. I encounter this quite a bit with both young people and adults. They make a statement that is factually wrong or ask a question that is easily addressed. They are then offered the correct answer or an accurate correction, and they respond with “We'll just have to agree to disagree.” This happens all the time. 

One guy kept insisting an issue that was settled at the Council of Chalcedon was a matter of my opinion. His reasoning was thus: (1) he had never heard of Chalcedon and (2) he was allowed to let the Spirit communicate truth to him directly from scripture without the traditions telling him what to believe. This isn't wisdom. These kinds of people don't want answers at all. They want the appearance of depth and introspection without honesty.

As challenges arise in my life, it is a comfort that great men and women offer their wisdom down through the ages to anyone willing to do the work to find it. That fact is encouraging; not distressing. Nothing under the sun is new to man, so why should anyone expect the questions they wrestle with to be unique to the human experience? Our doubts, fears, and struggles have been addressed before. Refusing to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our elders smacks of arrogance and conceit; not depth.

I agree that honesty is needed with regards to tough questions. It doesn't undermine the truth of Christianity or the kingdom of God to answer, “I don't know.” It's a good habit to develop. As G.K. Chesterton said in Eugenics and Other Evils, we can't be a specialist on the universe. There are always going to be things we simply don't know.

Conversely, we need to train young people to abandon the internet fighting mindset that believes if the guy in front of me can't answer right here and right now then there is no rebuttal. That may be a good way to bicker, but it is not arguing in good faith and does nothing to draw us closer to the truth.

3 – We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

OK. Then start one.

Not that I concede this point correctly characterizes churches. It certainly misses the mark on my own church and our pastor. My pastor, Bryant Wright, was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, so he is no minor figure in Evangelicalism. Anyone who characterizes him as anything other than fully committed to the kingdom of God over politics or nationalism is a liar who doesn't know the man. Ms. Evans and her friends perhaps disapprove of his stance on insisting that homosexual sex is a sin, but you can't question his character or grace when he sits down with representatives of Christian homosexual advocacy groups to emphasize that he loves them. 

It is wrong to conflate the fact that many Christians are vocal Republicans with a larger judgment that "the Church" is part of a political alliance. Bryant Wright will not let politicians address our congregation at all. Including Pastor Wright in this charge of misplaced allegiance, or anyone else for that matter, without substantive evidence to support the claim is nothing short of a mawkish character attack.

David French wrote this piece on the misperception that Christians are overly focused on abortion and homosexuality. The evidence he supplies seriously undermines this complaint. Christians, both church leadership and laity, give an incredible amount of time and resources to the rest of the world. Their generosity just doesn't get recognized for various reasons.

That said, new churches are planted all of the time. If you have a vision for a new church go and do likewise. Put some action to those complaints and show us all the model you wish to see enacted more broadly. Otherwise this falls into the category of empty whining.

4 – We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith community.

As has already been pointed out elsewhere in this piece by Anthony Bradley at Acton, the United Methodist Church already does this. You will also find no shortage of churches in the Atlanta area that are welcoming to homosexuals. 

When asked by a college student last weekend how I felt about denominations. I quoted my pastor and told him that I'm fine with denominations but I abhor denominationalism. I fully support people finding a body that worships in the manner that makes them feel comfortable and helps them connect to a community.

On the other hand, it is arrogant to insist that all churches and church bodies adopt your view of scripture. For those who believe that the biblical admonitions against homosexuality are clear and applicable to our modern world, you offer only a dictatorial command that they fully accept your view against their conscience. I obviously believe that we must love our homosexual brothers and sisters, but I am not convinced that loving them means accepting either that (to borrow from Andrew Wilson in this great conversation with Rob Bell on “Unbelievable?”) Paul and Jesus and the prophets were all fine with homosexual sex or that Paul and Jesus and the prophets were wrong about homosexual sex. I deeply love all sorts of sinners already, and as a sinner am deeply loved by others including God. I can both (1) believe that homosexual sex is condemned as sinful in the bible and (2) deeply love and respect homosexuals.

If their LGBT friends feeling truly welcome in our faith community is predicated on everyone endorsing a specific view of homosexual sex then this demand isn't even attainable. Not because Evangelicals are homophobic (a weak ad hominem I detest) but because our tendency to disagree on important issues is precisely the reason we have denominations. We can't agree on Calvinism vs. Molinism vs. Arminian/Weslyanism, translations of the bible, orders of worship, divorce, capital punishment, and infant baptism, but you expect us to monolithically agree on homosexual sex being OK? Good luck with that.

A final note on this. The rise of the homosexual rights movement and the incredible speed by which it has progressed is routinely recognized as unprecedented. We have never seen anything like this. As a result, it should be expected that good well meaning and loving Christians are searching for the proper response to a world that changed in the blink of an eye. There is no doubt that bullying and hatred exist, as there is no doubt those things are contrary to the teachings of Christ. However, for all the talk of tolerance, it is the epitome of ungraciousness to malign others for struggling to discern the appropriate position to adopt in this new reality while balancing the love of Christ with the what they see as clear biblical prohibition.

5 - We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

One of the most conservative and financially successful families I know bought a home in the Dominican Republic. They spend several weeks a year there providing surgical assistance and dental care to the poor for free. Another friend travels every year to Romania to help take care of children in overcrowded orphanages. I know people who have spent time ministering to and loving prisoners in some of the most horrifying prisons on the planet. The list of my wealthy friends that give genuinely admirable amounts of time and money to caring for the poor and oppressed is too long to print and almost all of them did their work in response to a challenge from the local church.

In my ministry career working at a local 501.c.3 and consulting numerous other ministries on their development, I saw firsthand how church giving impacts my home town. There are two North Metro-Atlanta churches that pour millions upon millions of dollars into our community to help the poor and struggling through hundreds of local ministries. They are both routinely criticized as obnoxious mega-churches by people who haven't the slightest clue what they are talking about. These churches help the poor, contribute to clean up efforts, counsel relationships, restore families torn apart by sexual sin through loving care, and support the efforts of thousands of individuals to better our world. These massive organizations challenge their members to get active while offering free classes on how to live more simple lives emphasizing giving and avoiding needless debt.

All that to say, this particular objection addresses a perception and not reality. Are too many Christians materially obsessed and living in accordance with the culture around them? Of course. But at my own church, they do so in spite of the teachings of our pastor and not as a result of them. Prosperity ministries may be easy to find on television, but they aren't the embodiment of the word “church.”

As for the crack about the lattes, we do have a coffee bar at our church. It isn't in place of the Gospel or sound teaching, and if any church out there thinks they can disciple through coffee they are off their rockers. This particular jab does expose an underlying self-centeredness to this article. Why is the church offering lattes? Because they think that will win me over. Really? It couldn't just be that people like lattes and the church thought they might enjoy them? It has to be some false gospel of legal addictive stimulants?

If you think the accusation of self centeredness is a bit overstated I counter that this line provides evidence to support the charge:

...we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.
Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.”
We all want Jesus. Every generation wants Jesus. The problem, as seen through the eyes of Ms. Evans, is that however much the generation that preceded her wanted Jesus, they just don't have him. He is not there in their worship and churches and as a result her generation must go elsewhere. Poppycock.

In the interest of disclosure, I admit that I once talked something like this. I disliked and distrusted the church and getting me to go at all was a feat. As critical as I am of her points, I absolutely agree with her that we need to sit down and engage the members of our congregations to help them find their place in the body of Christ.

Ms. Evans and her constituency might be surprised at what cured me of my distrust. I got heavily involved in the work of the church. Sundays may often be populated with quasi-Christian tourists, but Monday through Saturday draws some of the finest people of all ages you will ever be blessed to meet.

As I said in the previous post, collaboration is messy. While participating in various projects I have been drawn into silly quarrels, started fights, and been insulted more times than I can remember. I also learned it is difficult to see the person working side by side with you as some out of touch relic of a previous generation. You learn that with age often comes wisdom. People that you would never talk to and that you have little in common with are suddenly revealed as genuine heroes of the faith serving the church with anonymous dignity.

Of course there is a lot wrong in the modern church. There is also a lot right. Despite what Ms. Evans asserts, I see Jesus clearly present in churches all across this nation. The challenge for us all is to roll up our sleeves, get past ourselves, and get focused on the good work of the church. To be able to do things we can't do alone, we need everyone's input on what that good work is.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Millennials Leaving the Church [Part 1]

In the spirit of disclosure, I know very little about Rachel Held Evans or her work. Most of what I know of her comes from watching her dialogue with John Stonestreet on Facebook. (I am a shameless lurker.) In this article at, Ms. Evans addresses a question that concerns a lot of my friends and coworkers in the Christian community. It seems an undisputed fact that many young people raised in Christian homes are struggling to maintain that faith once they leave for college; if not abandoning it altogether.

I've read a good bit of the published work on this and am grateful for the insight as to how these young people are processing the decisions they are making, but I want to address the whole thing in the simplest terms possible in order to set the stage for interacting with Ms. Evans article. Let's focus on the central question at hand, why would someone leave the faith of their parents behind?

The first and easiest answer is that they simply don't believe Christianity is true. I've dialogued with young people around the country over the last two years, and this easily rises to the top of the list of the reasons students give for struggling. Elements of the Christian faith are fantastic if the person in question isn't previously disposed to believe them. As a young unbeliever I understood that dead people stay dead, virgins don't give birth, burning bushes and donkeys and snakes don't talk, and illnesses aren't caused by demonic possession. Back in high school, a single conversation with me profoundly shook up a fellow student who had attended church her whole life with her devout family. Her long held beliefs sounded obviously silly when framed from my perspective. This same thing happened time and again in lectures and conversations at the university level.

Of course neither the critics at university nor I balanced our assessment with the problem areas of naturalism or non-theistic worldviews. The brilliant atheist Graham Oppy once conceded in a Facebook conversation with Matthew Flannagan that we all have our bullets to bite. We rarely see the flaws in the views we are gravitating towards as we become disenchanted with our traditional beliefs . The new view answers our immediate problems and that is that. It takes time and persistence to fully examine the strengths and weaknesses of a given worldview and none of them supply easy answers to every question. Perhaps I no longer have to explain a virgin birth, but I am left with a doozy of a problem of consciousness. And staring down things like Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism or the Moral Argument is no picnic either.

After interacting with the student body of UNC – Chapel Hill about abortion for four hours a young man waited to talk to me. He asked me why I was a Christian. I told him because I believe it is the truth and it makes the most sense of the world that I experience. Virgins don't give birth, though I believe one did. The dead stay dead unless God wills it otherwise. As for talking animals and bushes, God as classically understood has the power and authority to do such things without much effort. What seems fantastic at first is comically simple in light of the capacities of such a God. Christianity also accommodates things like objective moral values, conscious agency, universal human rights, and the pervasiveness of evil in this world.

A second reason to leave the faith is that these people simply don't like church. They like the spiritual nature of Christianity, they just don't like the idea that a church defines what it means to be spiritual. They range from genuine committed Christians that feel out of place in the church culture to what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton called in Soul Searching “Moralistic Therapeutic Deist.”

One night after we finished a panel discussion on the Christian worldview there was a small line of young people waiting to talk to me. During the course of the presentation I mentioned that, as someone who grew up outside of the faith, I've never fully been comfortable with certain aspects of the church culture. I both love the church and feel somewhat alien within it. They all told me how much better they felt about their own struggles with church culture after hearing that and asked if we could talk about how I've dealt with it.

I told those young people that I believe that Christianity is the truth. It never occurred to me that my feelings about Sunday morning should in any way take away from my commitment to that truth or drive me away from corporate worship with other believers. When we find ourselves in a particular church with a culture we can't adapt to we should simply find a new church. We shouldn't wander off on our own and let peccadilloes morph into sweeping indictments of whole institutions.

The frequent excuse of hypocrisy grates me a bit. A young man told me how much he loved God but insisted that he would never go to church again. It was just too full of hypocrites and as an institution the church had failed him. I asked a few questions to discern if there might have been some genuine abuse in his background. There had not been, but it is best never to assume. I then responded, “Even if I were to stipulate that what you say about the church is true, what are you doing to help fix that problem by staying away? What are you offering your brothers and sisters other than judgment?” Instead of young people infusing new life into the church and working to make their own distinct cares a part of the culture of the church, they often leave and the church suffers for their loss.

Do you know why we all had to do those irritating group projects in college? Because collaboration is hard work. The theater taught me that lesson better than anything else. As a young college actor, you learn pretty quickly that everyone thinks their ideas are the best. One particular rehearsal, disagreements about character arcs escalated between me and a fellow actor. My frustration grew even greater because the director seemed to take her side more than I liked. He then walked me to the wings and taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. He told me the creative process is hard and that it is even harder when you work on a project as a team. We must be willing to work with others, not in the spirit of compromise, but because by pushing each other we come up with ideas together that we never could have come up with alone. We find ways to do it better. A group magnifies the frustration but it can accomplish things that individuals cannot.

The church as a body has some pretty specific goals. We are to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and hurting world as a means of reconciling them to their Creator and make disciples. This massive collaborative effort is messy because in His infinite grace God allows flawed humanity to participate. As tempting as it is to walk away from group projects because we feel frustrated at a perceived lack on influence we must consider (1) that our ideas might not be the best however passionately we hold them and (2) that the mess of sorting out all the differing tactics may lead us to a better more refined approach we never would have found without working together.

The last of the answers I want to address is that there is a percentage of young people that leave their faith simply because they wish to live a lifestyle outside of the teachings of the church.

Our culture is not even close to aligning with the teachings of Jesus in regards to sexuality, anger, spiritual focus, priorities, and pretty much any standard you can find that Jesus addressed. Our family got rid of cable television for many reasons, but not the least of those was that even when we could minimally control the content of the shows our family watched the commercials were uncontrollable and often far worse in content. How many shows about serial killers are on TV anyway?!

Any serious effort to live a life that honors Christ will somewhat alienate you. I know this firsthand. When I first answered the call of Christ my circle of friends reduced dramatically. At one point reducing to a single friend. When I worked in commercial HVAC sales, I missed out on certain social aspects of our office entirely. My father-in-law shared a story with me from his days as salesman at Monsanto. He found out an important customer of his who was a bit on the wild side came through town without calling him. He asked the customer, “Why didn't you tell me you were in town? I would have taken you out.” His customer responded that he didn't call him because he wanted to have fun on this trip. His idea of fun was strip bars and getting drunk, and he knew my father in law well enough to know that wasn't happening with him.

My father-in-law was the best salesman in his field. He evaluated himself by different standards; professional standards. I lived a wild lifestyle and saw the effects of doing what you want with no restraint in my own life and the lives of the people around me. The decision to opt out of those social circles came easier for us. It is another thing altogether for a younger person who gets a great deal of their identity from their peer groups and is living in a world that has normalized truly despicable things to such an extent that we live amongst (to borrow from Bill Bennett) the death of outrage. It is the way of the world, and Christian morals are often seen as bizarre, prudish, and a thing of a bygone era.

I sat at a table and talked to a young man that had left the faith of his youth. He told me what other people have told me before. That giving up old concepts of right and wrong liberated him. He said, “I have never felt so free as I did when I gave up my belief in God.”

I responded, “I have no doubt that is true. Now let's talk about the price you paid for that freedom.” What followed was a long and respectful conversation about where objective moral values come from and how impossible it is to honestly evaluate our world without them. The most important question for evaluating the world we live in is not, “What belief system will allow me to live as I desire?” The most important question is, “What is true?”

It is important to remember that people change their minds slowly. Loving and prayerful work in the lives of the people we meet can make a difference. We should not believe given the complexity of human personalities that there is any universal response that will fix the problem of young people leaving the church.  Nor should we assume that the source of the problem resides entirely on the shoulders of one group.  Whether it is selfish self centered young people (there are certainly an abundance of those) or greedy shallow churches with misplaced priorities (also not rare), to declare for all the world that we see this problem so clearly we have THE ANSWER is hubris.  There is a lot of hard work to do, but that is always the case.  To paraphrase Wesley in The Princess Bride, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.  

With all of that in mind, in the next post I'll address the list of demands from Ms. Evans directly.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Nika Asks me about Mary

I once read that a father can undo a world of damage done during the day with a good last few minutes at bedtime. As a dad who makes more than his fair share of mistakes, I jumped on this like a get out of jail free card from Monopoly. In addition to using the Jedi mind trick on the kids making them forget bad daddy from earlier (this isn't the daddy that yelled at you), we have some genuinely interesting conversations about God and life.

Tonight I was laying with Nika. Nika recently decided her mother and I do not need a full night's sleep and that the only way for my precious 4 year-old to deal with her “bad dreams” is to wake us up and either sleep in our bed or enlist one of us to return to hers with her.

She shared how she needs someone because she is scared when she wakes up and sees things in the night. We make her feel safe. I asked her, “Do you know who watches you every night while you sleep?” She shook her head no. “God watches you, and your brother and sister and all of us and keeps us safe.”

She looked a little confused and asked, “I thought he slept at night like all of us.”

“No, honey. God is not like us. He does not sleep and nothing is hidden from him. He never stops watching you.”

She thought about this for a moment. “What about Jesus? Does he sleep?”

“Well he did when he was here, but now that he has gone back to the Father he is like the Father and always aware. He is God and he never stops watching.”

She chewed on that and I started to run my next answer about the Trinity as it looked like we were headed that way. She threw me a curve ball.

“What about Mary?” She just smiled at me with the expectant look and gleam in her eyes that said handle that smart guy.

A few non words leaked out of my mouth as I mulled over how to approach this question. I am a Protestant that has many Catholic friends and if my daughter was already fostering an appreciation for Mary I didn't want to undermine that. At the same time, I didn't want her to get confused about Mary's role and place in the Christian belief system. Preparing myself for a deep and carefully navigated discussion with my daughter I took a deep breath and said, “Mary huh?”

Without missing a beat she replied, “Yes. Mary. With the lamb. The little lamb. Does she sleep?”

She giggled and laughed at how funny she is. I just let out a sigh of relief and assured her that neither Mary nor her lamb were watching her while she slept.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What is True vs. What we are for or against

After hours of engaging the student body of a major US university on the issue of abortion and the value of human life, a young man who had previously been coming after me pretty hard held back and waited to talk alone. His demeanor had noticeably changed and he asked just one question. “Why are you a Christian?”

The answer I offered him is the only answer I can think of that makes any sense. “Because I believe it is the truth.”

I understand the emotional issues discussed in Brian McLaren's piece at The Huffington Post (Why We're Leaving the Church: A Report from the Nones) on why young people are leaving the church. This phenomenon is a preoccupation for me and my friends working in Christian apologetics. Students, parents, and friends frequently share their struggles regarding their faith and so many times – not always to be certain but more often than not – the pressures of pluralism play a major role. In this context, they don't like the idea that people they enjoy, people they trust and love, people they like more than the Christians in their lives are portrayed as enemies of the church in general or - even worse - enemies of God.  If Christianity as widely practiced appears to put us at odds with others we like then there must be something wrong with it. 

As a former “other” talked about in the McLaren article, I was on the receiving end of a fair amount of dislike from the Christian community. In my wayward days, the overwhelming majority of Christians in my life made it clear that (1) they disapproved of me and (2) wrote me off for a bad guy to be kept at a distance. They very rarely felt the need to dissuade me from the path to hell – presuming they believed such a path was truly real - and most often seemed comforted that I wouldn't be messing up their heaven. There were exceptions but they were just that – exceptions.

I thought it was all nonsense anyway, so I didn't spend much time fretting over it. I gave as good as I got in the disapproval department, a point that is routinely glossed over by those wringing their hands about how horribly Christians talk about the “others.” The “others” are often neck deep in the ugliness. Yet - no matter how profane and vitriolic their attacks become - they are innocents naturally responding to judgement from Christians. What else could they do except cuss and swear and make abundant use of ad hominem attacks on every forum available to them regardless of the age of the audience or the appropriateness of the attacks given the context of the event? They feel judged so they are deemed perpetually innocent by our hand wringing brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, I changed my mind because evidence persuaded me that Christianity is true. Not because I became convinced that we can all work together without having to change each other. Certainly not because I decided the differences between us were unimportant.  It was the simple recognition that what I observed to be true about the world fit most comfortable in a theistic and particularly a Christian worldview.  I recognized this without any concern for whether or not I had good feelings about the people that claim to represent that worldview.  In fact, I still didn't like Christians for quite some time after I became one.

After a recent event in Hamilton, New Zealand three young people stayed back to talk.  A young woman asked, "I assume coming from outside the faith there was a period of adjustment where you felt weird?"  I told her absolutely and her friend asked me how long it took me to get past feeling like an outsider.  My answer?   I have never stopped feeling like an outsider to some degree or another. My belief in the truth of Christianity neither translated into an all consuming comfort with church culture nor any desire on my part to become something I wasn't to please others. But so what? I understand the reasons why I am a Christian and grasp the concept that those reasons are not dependent on the behavior of any group of people or that group's acceptance of other people. It simply is not a proper criteria by which to judge the truth of the Christian claims. It is a proper criteria to judge the individual Christians or church bodies, but it fails to address the truth of the Christian worldview at all.

My own church has never taught us to hate anyone, though our pastor does clearly state that behaviors like premarital sex, adultery, dishonesty, homosexual sex, greed, and yes the hatred of other people are all categorized sinful according to biblical teaching. As a result, people who have been unfaithful to their spouses, are sexually promiscuous, or identify themselves as homosexuals expressed to me that they feel disliked or judged by those messages. I explain that we must be able to separate evaluation of action from personal hatred. Truly hateful attacks should not be accepted by anyone and deserve broad  ecumenical condemnation. However, simply identifying a behavior as biblically sinful is only hate speech to the radically sensitive who are desperate not just for tolerance but for universal acceptance and approval.  As has been pointed out numerous times before, in order to tolerate one another we must first disagree.  

Students excited about Mr. McLaren's message shared how they hoped that we could build our collective faith on what we are for rather than what we are against. I propose that we build our collective faith on what is true and not stress so much about how we feel from moment to moment. Emotions are unstable things.  C.S. Lewis once talked about marriage saying the love feelings can come and go but it is the commitment that binds the couple. The commitment makes it possible to endure dry seasons and fall in love all over again or remember the love that brought you together. In the same way, a commitment to truth can carry you through confusing emotionally trying spiritual struggles especially those set off by the ever confusing way that people of all sorts relate to one another.

Certainly we are emotional beings, but when my heart waivers the total love of the Lord our God with all my mind is still sufficient. What happens when we fail to emphasize the importance of truth and the intellectual rigor of apologetics arguments like the minimal facts of the resurrection of Jesus, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God, the moral arguments for the existence of God, arguments from consciousness, and textual criticism affirming the reliability of the scriptures? Do we instead encourage a faith built on deemphasizing what is particular about Christian faith for the sake of getting along? If so, we cultivate an environment that also deemphasizes the idea that the particulars of the Christian faith are important at all. If that is the case, then there is no longer any reason to remain a Christian.

To put it simply, if it isn't true then it doesn't matter. If it is true, then how I feel about that fact is less important than what that truth means to us all.