Category Archives: Church History

Faith in America

CNN is featuring an article by Ralph Reed on the evangelical vote in Iowa, entitled “‘Evangelical Vote’ A Myth.”  Reed argues that the evangelical voting block is a myth created by the media, since not all evangelicals vote the same way, and they don’t choose their candidates for the same reason.

I would be thrilled that someone actually said this in a national forum were I not so discouraged by the stereotypes and negativity that are all over the comments section.  One gets used to atheists spewing vitriol on any and every “faith-based” story in the news, but I’ve never seen so many people upset that their preconceived notions were being challenged.  Do these people even know any evangelicals?  I want to ask, but I’m afraid that some of them have had bad experiences in one church, and they’re judging the rest of us based on that.  To make the situation worse, CNN topped the story with a short slide show featuring comments from Christian voters whose comments sound exactly like what the atheists seem to fear most.  Alas, one of my brethren goes so far as to reject the separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is not our problem.  This is the principle that guarantees us all freedom of worship whether or not those in power like our theology.  What is the problem is the conviction that some of our fellow-Americans seem to have that faith is antithetical to reason and, therefore, should not be tolerated in public discourse.  Having defined faith as blind obedience to arcane and outdated rules, they fail to see the vital role that it plays in civic life.

There is nothing blind about authentic, biblical faith.  There is nothing genuine in a faith that never asks questions, and which never wrestles with its own motivations.  I would argue that at least some of the people posting negative comments on CNN’s message board are guilty of blind faith themselves.  They were told by a teacher or a professor or an author that there was no “scientific” or “historical” evidence for the faith of their parents or grandparents, so they happily chucked it away and never bothered to do their own investigating.  They concluded that no one with any education or “sophistication” (yes, that word came up) believes in the God of the evangelicals.  When I was studying for my M.A., a fellow grad student from another department had a weekly editorial in the school paper and was continually writing statements that began with, “As an educated person . . .”  It was a university; we were all educated people, and plenty of us didn’t agree with him.  His generalization were, therefore, ridiculous.

Let me say, as a college professor, that not every thing college professors say should be taken without question.  I’m sure your professors gave you facts, but they also gave you interpretations.  Interpretations are conclusions drawn from the facts.  Interpretations are always subject to argument, and there are journals in every profession dedicated to carrying on those debates within fields.  There is plenty of archeological evidence that supports biblical accounts, and plenty more that may or may not.  The experts are still debating it.  Likewise, scientific theories are continually subject to argument and debate.  To make generalizations about what all educated people ought to believe is absurd, since not all educated people believe the same things even within their own disciplines.

I know there are atheists who really have thought through their worldview and reached it as reasonable conclusion, just as many Christians have reasoned their way to faith.  What offends me most is the idea that is continually promoted in popular discourse that people of faith are ignorant or bigoted.  It is worse during election season when people on a certain end of the political spectrum stir up antagonism against conservative candidates with the cry, “The Christians are coming, the Christians are coming.”  Even if we were “coming,” GOOD FOR YOU.  We have guided Western Civilization for most of the last two thousand years.  We have built schools and hospitals, created art, made scientific discoveries, promoted democracy and abolished slavery, at least where we could get at it.  We have reformed prisons, fed the homeless, voted in elections, argued for the dignity of women, and yes, campaigned for the separation of church and state.  If you don’t know these things, then your history class lied to you, and you need to do some real research instead of trusting the chewed up and spit out pablum that is dished out in most high school history books.

So, I would challenge the mockers on the CNN post to consider what authorities they have put their confidence in because there surely are some.  If they are trusting the opinions of experts or scholars, then I can offer experts and scholars to contradict them because that’s what scholars do.  If they are trusting their own reason, then they are trusting something that every philosopher since Socrates has doubted.  And if they are assuming that all evangelicals are exactly the same, then they are guilty of faulty generalization and no argument built on that has validity.  Likewise, if they are regarding faith and reason as incompatible, they are guilty of a false dichotomy -pretending that two things are opposed to each other when they do not need to be.

One more thing, if you must attack religion in a public forum, try to avoid name-calling.  It’s a sure indication that your argument has no substance.

 

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Approval

Yes, I’ve been off the blog for a while.  In my defense, I’ve been writing a dissertation, which finally looks to be going somewhere.

I came across an interesting quote last night as I was doing some research.  Months ago, while writing about Edmund Spenser, I found an allusion to Mary Magdalene in The Faerie Queene that nobody seems to have written about before, and I’ve been trying to figure out what Mary Magdalene is doing in this particular place in the narrative. So, I did what one usually should do when a Protestant from this historical period does something unusual with Scripture.  I checked the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible (1560) was the most popular English translation of its day.  Even after the KJV was published (1611), people continued to use the Geneva Bible, partly for the marginal notes that explained the text and added cross-references.  In a sense, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible, and it was used for personal and family devotions.

John 20 is the only place in the gospels where we read about Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb – the one where she laments that someone has taken her Lord, and she doesn’t know where to find him. When she realizes that she is speaking to a risen and living Jesus, she immediately grabs hold of Him, only to have Jesus tell her that she must not hold onto Him, as He has not yet ascended to His Father.  The Geneva Bible adds this note:  “Because she was too much addicted to the corporal presence, Christ teacheth her to lift up her mind by faith into heaven, where only after His ascension he remaineth, & where we sit with Him at the right hand of the Father.”

I have to say, this set off some fireworks in my brain.  We often think about our salvation in terms of Christ dying for us, and rightly so, since there is no forgiveness of sins without the atoning sacrifice (Heb. 9:22).  But my research into Reformation teaching has shown me a different emphasis.  Luther and Calvin frequently spoke of the sufficiency or righteousness of Christ.  His sacrifice is important as the way that this righteousness is transferred to us.  When I stand before God, I will be saved, not just because Jesus died, but because His death has given me a righteousness without which God cannot find me acceptable.

For this reason, just as I remember the cross and empty tomb, it is equally important that I think of heaven when I think of Christ.  He occupies the place of ultimate approval — at the right hand of God.  Those who are “in Christ,” those who share the rewards of His suffering, also occupy this place of approval as Christ represents us and intercedes for us to His Father.  For this reason, Jesus says to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn. 20:17, ESV).  To call Him our God and Father is a privilege that Christ gives us through His own good standing, the approval that God gives Christ is extended over you and me as a holy covering.

For this reason, Paul states, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34, ESV).  I think believers cannot hear this enough.  We constantly reproach ourselves (usually with good reason), and our adversary, Satan, is always the accuser of the brethren.  But Christ does not accuse us.  He is as gracious to us as He was to the adulterous women when He sent her accusers packing and refused to lift so much as a pebble Himself.  He stands between us and judgment, then His Spirit gives us the power to go and sin no more.

I wonder, when we confess our sins to God (as indeed we must), how would it change our prayers if we were not trying to earn approval or acceptance?  Christ has won approval for us.  Rather, we must seek God’s grace to mend the broken places in us, and the power and the filling of the Spirit to transform our deepest longings and ambitions.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1).

 

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A Landscape for the Soul

My meditations lately have been on themes in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It occurred to me this morning that the central idea of Ecclesiastes is a familiar one to the culture in which we live – a journey away from the safe and ordinary in order to find some meaning and purpose for life.  I haven’t seen it yet, but I understand that Eat, Pray, Love took up this theme. So did Under the Tuscan Sun, and the idea of running away to an older, more beautiful and transforming culture is central to the novels of Henry James.

I have to wonder what it is that makes travel seem like the cure for a weary spirit.  During our small group Bible study last week, the ladies present discussed the places they had always wanted to see –  Italy, Paris, England, Australia.  Good choices all. The thing is, we weren’t necessarily talking about travel.  We were talking about the things we always wanted to do “when we grew up.”  It turns out that what we always wanted to do was escape the ordinary, to have adventures and to see something great and lovely.

There is something in us that is convinced, like the psalmist, that green pastures could restore our souls.  That a timeless and beautiful landscape could feed our souls.  That some indefinable thing long buried inside us might burst into bloom if only we were in an environment where we could nurture it.  That we could be creative and brilliant and articulate and satisfied if only we could find the right place to grow into ourselves.  Something within us knows that we were made to be pilgrims and sojourners in the land.

Of course, we have a citizenship in heaven.  Of course, we wait for the New Jerusalem that God is constructing for us.

But this heavenly citizenship is not just something for a future time.  We hold it here on earth, where we are strangers and aliens in a culture that is familiar, but not friendly.  We enjoy that citizenship at every church fellowship and communion, when we open a new worship CD, or the latest book by a Christian author.  We broaden our experience of it when we reach back in time to the works of great Christians who have lived and ministered and written and composed long before we were born.  We hear it in Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah.  We sing it in the hymn stanzas of Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby.  We read it in Paradise Lost, Pilgrim’s Progress, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, and The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life.  We experience it in the autobiography of St. Augustine and the celebrations of the life of St. Patrick.  We see it in most of the art and architecture that has been produced by Western Civilization for the last two thousand years – much of it sponsored by the Church and inspired by Scripture.  We ponder it in the thoughtful writings of apologists like Tertullian, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel.  We marvel at the revelation of God in creation through the work of God-fearing scientists like Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, and Francis Collins.

If we are longing for some experience of culture, it is at our fingertips.  We have only to reach out for it to know that we are citizens of a mighty and beautiful City of God, that we are the inheritors of a long, creative and timeless tradition built over centuries by the people of God.  Generation after generation, the Church has been cultivating a landscape for the soul upon which we can feed our minds and hearts from the truth of God’s Word.

So, here is my recommendation for the day.  Go find a book by a Christian on a topic that interests you.  Like to read about people?  Try Augustine’s Confessions or C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or one of the hundreds of Christian biographies that are available.  Interested in science?  Read The Fingerprints of God by Francis Collins.  Need some new music?  Classical can be an acquired taste, and I don’t know of any better way to acquire it than with a CD of The Messiah and a KJV Bible to follow along with the libretto.  Like to travel?  Try a magazine about archeology and see what they are digging up that confirms God’s Word.  There is an exciting debate going on over new discoveries in Jerusalem and other places in the Holy Land that may or may not date to the time of David and Solomon.  Go to pbs.org and watch the Secrets of the Dead episode on King Solomon’s mines.  Are you into fairy tales?  Last time I checked, the Johnson City Public Library had some of George MacDonald’s fairy tales.  Like fiction and need encouragement?  Try Hinds’ Feet on High Places or In His Steps.  Like to goof off online?  Look up some images of famous cathedrals and churches and marvel at the architectural monuments that have been built to God’s glory.  And, yes, find some pictures of stained glass windows.  And you don’t have to buy any of it.  If it’s not online, the public library probably has it.

Take your new discovery, get yourself a cappuccino, and open up a new landscape.  If you want to feel really cultured, pick up some pasta and olive oil at the grocery store and try a new recipe.  You can get that online too.

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My Favorite Holiday

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Today is the day we honor the memory of one of the great missionaries of the church.  Patrick obeyed God’s call to the carry the gospel to his former persecutors, and his legacy changed the course of world history through the efforts of later Irish scholars and missionaries.

Our ladies’ class  watched a video on Patrick last night, and there was general agreement that the holiday has been distorted to something that really has no relation to Patrick’s life and work.  Of course, we are hardly the only ones to notice that.  Christianity Today online has a great article today on alternative ways to celebrate Patrick’s life and work.  One suggestion, I found intriguing was the idea that we might use the day to raise awareness of the issue of modern day slavery.  I checked the Department of Justice’s website and discovered that, in the United States alone, an estimated at 293,000 girls are either victims of sex trafficking or considered high risk to be exploited.  Many of them are runaways or throwaways.  Some of them come from abusive or unstable homes and have never had the example of healthy relationships.  They are preferred by pimps because minors are more naive and comparatively easy to manipulate.  The internet has also made them more vulnerable because their “services” can be listed online and because the web has made it easier to distribute and buy pornography.  One of my student’s did a research paper on this issue a couple of months ago and discovered that there are less than ten shelters in the United States that specialize in helping girls rescued from trafficking.  They come with complex issues and obstacles and the average shelter for teenagers simply does not have all the training and resources to cope with their needs.

And, as enormous as this problem seems, it is only the tip of an international iceberg.  The problem exists everywhere, and it is worse in countries where women and children are traditionally seen as property in any case.  I find myself wishing every time I see fresh statistics that the entire body of Christ was more vocal about the rights and dignity of women.

I don’t know if this is a cause to associate with St. Patrick’s Day or not, but what better way to celebrate Patrick’s life than to proclaim liberty to the captives?  Perhaps, too, greater public outcry against prostitution would shame those who use this day as an excuse for debauchery.

What about you?  You don’t have take up this cause, but how would you like to see the church honor St. Patrick’s ministry?  How should we celebrate the day?

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