Posts tagged ‘Washington Post’

A Journalist Is Murdered

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Credit: POMED

When Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, he was planning to pick up some documents for his upcoming marriage.  Instead, he walked into an ambush that took his life.  The purported details of the ambush are grim – from dismemberment to acid being used to dispose of his remains.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote articles for The Washington Post that were critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic tendencies.  Suspicions are running high that behind Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is a furious Crown Prince.  In a phone call with President Trump, however, the royal vehemently denied any knowledge of or participation in the crime.

On the one hand, as an article by Kevin D. Williamson cautions us, there is still plenty we do not yet know about Mr. Khashoggi’s death.  This is why investigators are hot on this case.  Leveling ironclad accusations and jumping to confident conclusions now may damage our credibility later. Patience, to modify an old Latin proverb, often winds up being the mother of accuracy.

On the other hand, even as new facts continue to tumble in, there does seem to be a preponderance of circumstantial evidence that points to the Crown Prince’s involvement.  Thus, provisional, measured, and appropriately humble suspicions that call for further investigation are appropriate.

As it stands right now, this story could have all the makings of a modern-day crime of Cain.  Like Cain cultivated bitterness against Abel for bringing to light his faulty sacrifice, a ruler may have nursed jealously against a journalist for uncovering his ruthless rule.  Instead of rethinking his ways, he may have exacted his vengeance.  If this is, in fact, the case, this we can know:  the truth of this crime, one way or another, will come to light.  God discovers Cain’s crime against his brother when Abel’s blood cries out to Him from the ground (Genesis 4:10).  The victims of sin, it turns out, do not stay silent – even in death.  Sin always seems to get discovered and uncovered.

Thankfully, as Christians, we know that sin is not only inexorably revealed, it will also be eventually routed.  Abel’s blood spoke the truth of Cain’s crime.  But, as the preacher of Hebrews reminds us, there is a “blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24).  For this blood doesn’t just speak of foul play; it secures a holy redemption.  The blood does not just cry for justice; it confers justification.  This blood does not just point to death; it defeats death.  And this blood does not just spill because of man’s sin; it flows from the side of a perfect Savior.

Mr. Khashoggi was ruthlessly murdered in an ambush.  Jesus was ruthlessly murdered on a cross.  But Jesus was also raised.  And He is returning to raise those who have died in Him to live with Him.  And there will be nothing any royal regime, no matter how repressive and resentful, will be able to do about it.

October 22, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Down Syndrome, Life, and Death

Baby Feet

When Eve gives birth to her first son, Cain, she declares, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:1).  With these words, Eve acknowledges a fundamental reality about conception, birth, and life in general:  without God, the creation and sustentation of life is impossible. Each life is a miracle of God and a gift from God.

Sadly, this reality has become lost on far too many.  Life is no longer hailed as something God gives, but is instead touted as something we can create and, even more disturbingly, control.  The latest example of this kind of thinking comes in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Ruth Marcus, the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, titled, “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right.”  Ms. Marcus explains:

I have had two children; I was old enough, when I became pregnant, that it made sense to do the testing for Down syndrome.  Back then, it was amniocentesis, performed after 15 weeks; now, chorionic villus sampling can provide a conclusive determination as early as nine weeks.  I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive.  I would have grieved the loss and moved on.

According to her opinion piece, Ms. Marcus’ concern over whether or not a woman should be able to abort a child with Down Syndrome comes, at least in part, because of HB205, a bill introduced by Utah State Representative Karianne Lisonbee, which would ban doctors in that state from performing abortions for the sole reason of a Down Syndrome diagnosis.  Ms. Marcus passionately defends her position, going even so far as to conclude:

Technological advances in prenatal testing pose difficult moral choices about what, if any, genetic anomaly or defect justifies an abortion.  Nearsightedness? Being short?  There are creepy, eugenic aspects of the new technology that call for vigorous public debate.  But in the end, the Constitution mandates – and a proper understanding of the rights of the individual against those of the state underscores – that these excruciating choices be left to individual women, not to government officials who believe they know best.

Ms. Marcus admits that choosing whether to keep or abort a baby based on certain physical traits or genetic anomalies has “creepy, eugenic aspects.”  But such moral maladies are not nearly unnerving enough for her to even consider the possibility that some sort guardrail may be good for the human will when it comes to abortion.  The ability to choose an abortion, in her view, is supreme and must remain unassailable.

Ms. Marcus flatly denies what Eve once declared: “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.”  She has exculpated herself from the moral responsibilities intrinsic in the front phrase of Eve’s sentence and has left herself with only, “I have brought forth a man.”  She has made herself the source and sustainer of any life that comes from her womb.  And as the source and sustainer of such life, she believes that she should have the ability to decide whether the life inside of her is indeed worthy of life, or is instead better served by death.

Part of what makes Eve’s statement so intriguing is that it seems to be pious and prideful at the same time.  On the one hand, Eve acknowledges that God is the giver of life.  Indeed, Martin Luther notes that Eve may have believed her son “would be the man who would crush the head of the serpent”[1] – that is, she may have believed her son would be the Messiah God had promised in Genesis 3:15 after the fall into sin.  On the other hand, what she names her son is telling.  She names him “Cain,” which is a play on the Hebrew word for the phrase, “I have brought forth.”  Eve names her son in a way the emphasizes her action instead of God’s gift.

Countless years and 60 million American abortions later, this emphasis has not changed.  Maybe it should.  As the fall into sin reminds us, human sovereignty is never far away from human depravity, which is why our demand to be able to choose death never works as well as God’s sovereignty over life.

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[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 242.

March 19, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Mike Pence and Dining with Your Spouse

58th Presidential Inauguration

It can be fascinating to watch which stories bubble to the top of our cultural conversation.  In a news cycle where the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a battle royal over a Supreme Court nominee, questions about the surveillance of political actors, terrible chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by a feral Assad regime, and ominous sabre rattling from the North Koreans have dominated the headlines, a heated debate has arisen over a profile piece in The Washington Post on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, which cited an interview with The Hill from 2002, where the vice president, following the lead of the vaunted evangelist and pastor Billy Graham, explained that he would never eat alone with a woman who was not his wife or one of his close relatives.  Writing in a separate article for The Washington Post, Laura Turner warned:

It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them.  Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”

I agree with Ms. Turner that it is important not to confuse fleeing from temptation with fleeing from women.  Sin is what is to be feared.  Not women.  Nevertheless, because of my vocation as a husband and because of my position as a pastor, I have chosen a practice that echoes that of the vice president.  I will not dine alone with a woman who is not my wife or close family member.  I will also not meet alone with women after hours at the congregation where I serve.

Why do I maintain such a practice?

It is not primarily because I am terrified that if I were ever to be alone with a woman, I would not be able to restrain myself from sexual immorality, though I am not nearly so naïve as to believe that I could never fall prey to a compromising situation.  I know far too well from Scripture that my heart is woefully depraved and deceitful and I have seen far too many marriages and ministries wrecked by sexual immorality to believe that I am somehow so spiritually privileged to be above certain kinds of sin.  I also know that merely jettisoning private dining appointments will not expunge me of my sinful nature.  No pious-looking constraint, no matter how carefully contrived, can regenerate a sinful heart.  Only Jesus can do that.  Sin avoidance is not the primary reason I have the practice I do.

I have the practice I do primarily because I respect women, most especially my wife.  I know that if another woman were to invite me to dinner, one on one, that would make my wife – as well as me – uncomfortable.  I also know the people with whom I work well enough to know that if I were to invite a female staff member at our church to dinner one on one, that would more than likely make her feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.  I do occasionally meet privately with women in my office when personal pastoral care needs call for such meetings.  But even then, there are other staff members right outside my office door working through the daily flurry of church activities.  And I have never had any trouble meeting with everyone I need to meet with on campus with others around rather than off campus in one on one settings.

I also I maintain the practice I do because I do want to do my best to remain “above reproach,” as Scripture asks men in my vocation to be.  An unfounded accusation of immoral behavior with another person would not only compromise the credibility of my ministry, it would compromise that other person’s credibility as well.  As much as I desire to protect the integrity of my ministry, I also have a deep desire to protect the reputations of those I know and care about.  Protecting others’ reputations is simply part and parcel of being not only a colleague and a pastor, but a friend.

Ms. Turner appeals to Jesus in support of the stance she takes in her Washington Post piece:

Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including His meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet He didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that His reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.

All of this is completely true.  But evangelizing someone in broad daylight when Your disciples do not seem to be far away is a far cry from having dinner alone, away and apart from any accountability.  The latter can be a coup de grâce to one’s integrity.  The former is just a coup of grace for a weary soul.

There may indeed be times, as the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman illustrates, when it is necessary to spend time with someone of the opposite gender privately, especially for the sake of the gospel.  But there are also many more times when it is good not to, especially if a task at work can be accomplished just as well with others around.

May we have the wisdom to discern which times are which.

April 10, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Monogamish Is Nothing Like Monogamous

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The opening of Zachary Zane’s op-ed piece for The Washington Post reads almost like satire:

During my exploratory college years, I was often confused about my sexuality. I knew I had loved women, but found myself, drunkenly, in the arms of various men. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. Was I in denial of being gay? Was I simply an open-minded straight guy? Or was I just a drunk and horny hot mess?

These questions kept me up at night.

This has all the trappings of a hackneyed B-list movie about a frat guy caught in an existential crisis fueled by alcohol and lust.  But Mr. Zane isn’t playing on silly stereotypes.  He’s serious.  This becomes all too clear as he continues:

My senior year of college, I entertained the idea that I might be bisexual, but I didn’t embrace the label until a year after graduating. That’s when I learned that I didn’t have to like men and women equally to be bisexual. I learned that sexuality was a spectrum, and my point on the spectrum wasn’t fixed…

In my queer theory class in college, I also learned that gender, too, is on a spectrum. Some of us don’t view ourselves as strictly male or female. We can be both, neither, or somewhere in between, a.k.a. bigender, agender or genderqueer.

This led me to ask the question: Since sexuality and gender aren’t understood as binary anymore, does monogamy have to be?

The morphological ludicrousness of the claim that monogamy can be on a continuum aside – “mono,” after all, does mean “one” and “gamos” refers to marriage, which means that any romantic relationship that involves more than one person committing themselves to one other person is, by definition, no longer monogamy – this claim also brings with it a whole host of relational, emotional, and theological problems.

Relationally and emotionally, polyamorous relationships are recipes for ruin.  Narratively, the Bible makes this clear enough in its description of the disastrous polygamous relationships of patriarchs like Jacob and Solomon.  Theologically, however, the problem goes deeper than just ill-fated relationships.

Timothy Keller makes the point that Christianity places a high value on self-sacrifice.  Indeed, the heart of the Christian faith is found in a man who sacrificed Himself on a cross and invites us to deny ourselves by taking up our own crosses and following Him (cf. Matthew 16:24).  Our culture sees things differently.  Rather than placing a premium on self-sacrifice, our culture tends to value and even idolize self-assertion.  We are obsessed with asserting who we believe ourselves to be and demanding that those around us accept and celebrate who we say we are.

The problem with self-assertion is that it is often little more than a flimsy mask for self-indulgence and self-centeredness.  This is why polyamorous relationships are so dangerous.  When two people are more concerned with their own sexual desires than with committing themselves and giving themselves sexually to their partner, they wind up using each other instead of loving each other.  In this way, self-assertion is the very antithesis of love.  The words of the apostle Paul come to mind here: “Love is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  You can’t love someone well and seek first yourself.

I understand that two people may freely agree to live in a polyamorous relationship.  But is this because they are truly committed to each other, or is this because they are secretly committed to themselves?  I also understand that monogamy can be difficult.  I have counseled enough couples rocked by affairs to know how easily and how often marriage vows can be broken.  But I have also seen how deeply an affair hurts the cheated upon and the children in a family.  The person having the affair may find some measure of self-indulgent satisfaction, but only while exacting out of others a steep and terrible price of brokenness and pain.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves:  what kind of people should we be?  People who indulge our fetishes, chase our desires, and flex our selfishness, even as we try to disguise our shamefully selfish selves under a facile moral-esque construct of self-assertion? Or should we be people who think about others before we think about ourselves, even if that means denying our desires and even if those desires include our sexuality?

Christianity’s answer is clear.  To repeat Jesus’ call to us all: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

Deny themselves.”

Deny the money you could spend on yourself to give it to someone else.

Deny the time you could keep for yourself to be present with someone else.

And yes, deny the sexual desires you feel in yourself to be devoted to someone else.

Why?  Because when you deny the desire to assert yourself for the sake of someone else, that’s when you find the things in life that matter most.  Indeed, that’s when you find yourself.

“Whoever loses their life for Me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

That’s self-sacrifice.  And that’s a life well-lived.

December 12, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christianity, Culture, and Comparison

ChurchThere can be little doubt that Christianity is losing its place of primacy in American culture.  According to a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center, Americans are becoming increasingly less religious and less willing to affiliate themselves with any particular religious tradition.  As The Washington Post reports:

The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.[1]

A six-point increase of the religiously unaffiliated in eight years is not only statistically significant, it is an irreligious coup d’état.  Consider this, also from The Washington Post: “There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent).”

Even among those who self-identify as religious, identifying as a faith does not necessarily correlate to the practice of that faith.  One of the most striking demographic factoids of this presidential election cycle has been how evangelicals who attend church more frequently differ substantially in their candidate preferences from those who attend church less frequently.

Clearly, the religious terrain of America is experiencing tectonic shifts.  What was once America’s so-called “moral majority” is now an apprehensive minority.  So what is the way forward?

Myriads of options have been proposed and tried.  Some people want to fight the secularizing spiral of American culture while others are more amicable to bargaining with and even capitulating to it.  Still others, such as Rod Dreher, argue for a limited withdrawal from American culture, eschewing what they see as the culture’s inherently dangerous facets and foci.  In many ways, these tensions and postures toward the broader culture are nothing new, as a read through H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous book, Christ and Culture, will reveal.

As worthy of discussion as all of these options may be, in this post, I would propose that it is just as important that we look at what we should not do as it is that we look at what we should do.  Here’s why.

At the root of our anxiety over shrinking Christian cultural influence is our penchant to compare.  We look at the political arena and we notice that we don’t wield the power we once did.  And we compare the influence we had to the power we have.  Or we look at demographic studies and we begin to notice that non-believers are on the increase while we’re on the decrease. And we compare the assembly of the despisers to the flock of the convinced.

Martin Luther has some great guidance when we are tempted toward comparison:

They surpass us by so many thousands, and all that we have seems to recede into nothing. But do not compare yourselves with them. No, compare yourselves with your Lord, and it will be wonderful to see how superior you will be … They would easily overcome us, but they cannot overcome that Christ who is in us.[2]

Comparing ourselves with the world as a starting place for responding to the world is dangerous business.  It can lead us to an arrogant triumphalism if the world seems to be persuaded to our side.  But it can also lead to an angry despair if the world rejects us.  It is little wonder that the apostle Paul once wrote, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves” (2 Corinthians 10:12).  If we are to compare ourselves with anyone or anything, it should be with the One who reminds us that even if we are a “little flock” in this age (Luke 12:32) – with little power, little influence, and little prestige – we are a “multitude that one one can count” (Revelation 7:9) in the next.

What strikes me about so many of our responses to Christianity’s diminishing cultural influence is not that they are wrong per se, but that they flow from the wrong place – they flow from anxious comparisons that grumble over Christianity’s diminishing cultural capital rather than from faith in Christ’s commandments and promises.

Perhaps it’s time to work less out of fear and more out of faith.  Perhaps it’s time to stop comparing and start trusting – not because the decline of Christianity isn’t sad, but because the victory of Christ is certain.

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[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 30 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 289

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Colorado’s Pot Problem

Marijuana Leaf 1It’s really difficult to legalize something and discourage its use all at the same time. That’s what Colorado lawmakers are learning. In a state where marijuana is legal, lawmakers are faced with a dilemma: how do they uphold and support the legality of recreational marijuana use among adults while speaking out against its use among teens? Kristen Wyatt, in an article published in The Washington Post, outlines their strategy:

Marijuana isn’t evil, but teens aren’t ready for it: That’s the theme of a new effort by Colorado to educate youths about the newly legal drug.

Colorado launched a rebranding effort Thursday that seeks to keep people under 21 away from pot. The “What’s Next” campaign aims to send the message that marijuana can keep youths from achieving their full potential.

The campaign shows kids being active and reminds them that their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 25. The ads say that pot use can make it harder for them to pass a test, land a job, or pass the exam for a driver’s license.[1]

Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you – at least according to the public service ads produced for the “What’s Next” campaign:

One ad shows a teen girl working out on a basketball court and the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of ambition.” Another ad shows a boy rocking out on a drum set with the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of passion.”

Colorado’s anxiety over the teen use of a drug that, for adults, is legal presents us with an interesting ethical conundrum. Marijuana, except in very limited cases when prescribed by a physician, is demonstrably dangerous and, in many instances, is downright deadly. But, then again, cigarette smoking is irrefutably linked to cancer, alcohol consumption impairs a person’s ability to operate a vehicle and, over the years, can also cause liver damage, and the foods we eat on a daily basis are sometimes less than nutritionally sound. Yet, these things are legal nationwide. So is it really logically responsible, or politically feasible, to support the outlawing of recreational marijuana use in Colorado?

On the one hand, we need to recognize that the moral imperative to be responsible for what we take into our bodies is impossible to legislate comprehensively. Human wisdom must play a roll. For instance, having a glass of wine with supper, which has the potential of decreasing a person’s chance of developing heart disease, is very different from guzzling a case of beer on the beach. Or, as Morgan Spurlock learned, an occasional trip to McDonald’s with the kids for a Happy Meal and a toy is very different from eating only Super Sized meals from the Golden Arches for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Even a taste of what may soon be a legal Cuban cigar is very different from a person who smokes a pack of Camels a day. Calling people to moderation in everything, as Aristotle taught in his Doctrine of the Mean,[2] is much more helpful – and, I would add, much more practical and realistic – than trying to safeguard against all potential abuses of these things by dint of legislation and regulation.

On the other hand, it is a logical error to suppose that just because legislation and regulation can’t solve every issue that affects the care of the body means that it can’t be helpful in any issue that affects the safety of a person. This is, after all, the whole reason for the existence of the Food and Drug Administration, which works tirelessly to ensure that the food we eat for meals and the medicines we take for illnesses are safe. But marijuana is not safe, which is, perhaps, why, even though it’s legal in Colorado, it’s still outlawed federally.

When I am prescribed a drug for an illness, if the list of the drug’s side effects is lengthy while its benefits are minimal, I become leery of taking it and will further consult with my physician over it. There is no doubt that the problems with marijuana far outpace its benefits.  Indeed, aside from acute medical cases, marijuana’s benefits can really only be defined in social terms. Marijuana is good for partying. And that’s about it.

It is this that leads us back to Colorado’s curious campaign to discourage teen marijuana use. The social capital associated with having, sharing, and using marijuana is deeply enticing to teenagers. After all, teenagers – at least many of them – love to party. So when Colorado makes marijuana as accessible as alcohol, does the state really think a slick public service campaign will stem the tide of teens using what is not only a dangerous drug in and of itself, but an addictive gateway drug that often leads to more serious substance abuse?

Moderation is good for many things, as Aristotle teaches. But in this instance, a little wisdom from Augustine may be in order as well. Augustine, though also a supporter of moderation, reminds us that, sometimes, complete abstinence is preferable to even perfect moderation.[3] When it comes to marijuana, we need learn how to choose between the options of abstinence and moderation wisely.

Something tells me Colorado chose poorly.

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[1] Kristen Wyatt, “Colorado rebrands anti-pot campaign for kids,” The Washington Post (8.20.2015).

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1106a26-b28.

[3] Augustine, Of the Good of Marriage 25.

August 31, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Pew Survey On Christianity: It’s Not As Bad Or As Good As You Might Think

Church and CrossThe Washington Post led with a headline that sounded nearly apocalyptic: “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion.”[1] The faithful quickly jumped in to temper the premature reports of Christianity’s cardiac arrest with op-ed pieces like this one by Ed Stetzer that ran in USA Today: “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer.”[2]

The topic of discussion and debate is a new Pew Research Center poll that finds:

… the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%.[3]

Taken by themselves, these statistics sound dire and dour. But, as Ed Stetzer helpfully points out in his article, there is more to these statistics than what first meets the eye:

Rather than predict the impending doom of the church in America, this latest study affirms what many researchers have said before. Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified. Churches aren’t emptying; rather, those who were Christian in name only are now categorically identifying their lack of Christian conviction and engagement …

Nominals – people whose religious affiliation is in name only – are becoming nones – people who check “none of the above” box on a survey.

Those who value their faith enough to wake up on Sunday morning and head to their local church are mostly still going. What I have described as “convictional Christianity” will continue. Those who say their faith is very important to their lives are not suddenly jettisoning those beliefs to become atheists.

According to Pew, unaffiliated Americans grew from 16 to nearly 23% in the last seven years. That increase largely came from the ranks of Catholics and Mainline Protestants, religious traditions with high numbers of nominals.

Stetzer’s point is well taken. By no stretch of the imagination should we read the Pew survey as a funeral dirge for Christianity – especially for Evangelical Christianity, contrary to this misreading of the Pew survey.[4] Still, even if Pew’s numbers do not portend the sure demise of Christianity, they do indicate a real shift in Christianity. Here’s how.

For better or for worse, the nominal Christians who once warmed the pews in Mainline Protestant churches and are now hemorrhaging to the “nones” had as their counterparts the academic Protestant Christians among the elites. Names such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth once held court as America’s public intellectuals – their books being widely read and disseminated not only into Protestant Christendom, but into society in general. These men enjoyed unrivaled cultural gravitas – so much so, that each of them took their turn gracing the cover of Time Magazine. And though none of these men can be considered orthodox in their doctrine in an Evangelical Christian sense, they nevertheless passed down to American society some generally and even genuinely Christian concerns and insights. Reinhold Niebuhr defended a robust doctrine of original sin, thundering against the pride of society and those who thought they were generally good people. Harry Emerson Fosdick, though he firmly espoused a liberal Protestant ethos, was not afraid to critique it by warning the Church against a blind cultural accommodation to the spirit of the age. Paul Tillich served as an apologist of sorts, explaining how life’s deepest existential questions can be answered by divine revelation. And Karl Barth bequeathed to us an 8,000 page series on church dogmatics that still informs – and occasionally irritates – Christian thinkers to this day. The work these and other men did kept Christian concerns in the forefront of people’s minds and Christian ethical commitments in the center of people’s worldviews.

The latest Pew survey reminds us that these Christian concerns and ethics are disappearing in broad society. The Protestant lions of old are being replaced by the secularist elites of today. The Pew survey, then, does not just tell the story of a non-committed Christian-esque demographic that, in a twist of delicious justice, is deservedly disappearing; it tells the story of a broader Christian influence that – even if it was of the liberal variety – is waning.

This, of course, is not all bad. The heterodoxy and, in some instances, the outright heresy of these Protestant theologians posed a serious challenge to orthodox Christianity. But, then again, the disappearance of influential Protestantism is also not all good. After all, these Protestant theologians did serve broadly, even if unintentionally, as a tenuous bridge between orthodox Christians on the one hand and powerful elites on the other, enabling the two sides to talk to each other.[5] But this bridge has now collapsed, leaving a yawning canyon between a group of orthodox Christians who are increasingly frightened by and hostile to secularism and a group of powerful elites who are increasingly uninformed about and uninhibited by a generally Christian view of life. Our challenge, then, is to bridge this canyon. And that is no easy task.

I agree with Ed Stetzer that Christians should not respond to the Pew survey apoplectically. But the survey does make me miss some of the Protestant leaders of yesteryear, no matter how much I may have been at odds with them theologically. They may have not always been right, but sometimes, they were helpful.

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[1] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion,” The Washington Post (5.12.2015).

[2] Ed Stetzer, “Survey fail – Christianity isn’t dying: Ed Stetzer,” USA Today (5.13.2015).

[3]America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center (5.12.2015).

[4] Although I share many of Matt Walsh’s concerns with what he saw of Evangelical Christianity and would agree that many Evangelical churches need more robust and Christocentric teaching and preaching, his stated cause of Christianity’s losses is not specifically born out by the Pew data.

[5] For example, Billy Graham and Karl Barth were friends and were comfortable enough with each other to spar with each other on occasion.   See Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 47.

May 18, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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