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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Christian Megathemes: Thomas Jefferson Signing His Name "Anonymous"

Over the last several posts, we've been exploring the latest Barna Report on the six major shifts—or Megathemes—that are morphing the Christian church. Each is a bit distressing but each also offers opportunities for Christians to strengthen themselves and become more effective in kingdom work. You can read the entire report here and see past entries here.

Theme #6: The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

Undoubtedly, Thomas Jefferson was one person who had a major impact in the shaping of the United States.  As a founding father and the author of the Declaration of Independence, his ideas are still quoted today as the bedrock principles upon which we stand.  As the nation’s third president, his purchase of the Louisiana Territory expanded our nation’s borders all the way to the Pacific.

In both ideology and presence, Jefferson’s impact is huge. Now, imagine if Thomas Jefferson decided to stay anonymous. Imagine if he recoiled from his actions and not have anyone know who he is or what he stands for. Would the values that he espoused in the Declaration be held in as high a regard?  I don’t think so. Would the U.S be radically different?  Absolutely.

Barna reports in the last of his six Megathemes that a similar trend is taking place in American Christianity today.  He writes:

Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people.

...The primary obstacle is not the substance of the principles on which Christianity is based, and therefore the solution is not solely providing an increase in preaching or public relations. The most influential aspect of Christianity in America is how believers do--or do not--implement their faith in public and private.
As Barna notes, today perception seems to be everything.  In our media-obsessed culture, if people don't see a visible effect, they tend to dismiss a movement as irrelevant. Of course, this isn't true, as history has shown.  But, in today's world, Christianity can be dismissed as irrelevant more easily than ever before.  We forget great men who stood on Christian principles like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King. And much of this is because (a) Christians don't know their own history and (b) Christians aren't showing as many outward  acts of love and kindness as in previous years. Barna has it right when he notes:

American culture is driven by the snap judgments and decisions that people make amidst busy schedules and incomplete information. With little time or energy available for or devoted to research and reflection, it is people’s observations of the integration of a believer’s faith into how he/she responds to life’s opportunities and challenges that most substantially shape people’s impressions of and interest in Christianity. Jesus frequently spoke about the importance of the fruit that emerges from a Christian life; these days the pace of life and avalanche of competing ideas underscores the significance of visible spiritual fruit as a source of cultural influence.

It’s been said that the problem with America is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship. We need to be more intentional about cultivating visible spiritual fruit.  That doesn’t mean we all need to volunteer at a homeless shelter.  It can mean that we volunteer to change the oil in a single mom’s car or provide a $25 gas card to a college student, or show an elderly neighbor how to use the Internet.  There are many ways we as Christians can reach out to the world and be Jesus’ hands and feet and obey the command of the Apostle who teaches us "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us." (Eph 5:1-2)

Tips on Cultivating Visible Fruit

For the individual:
  • Look for ways you can help those people you come into contact with regularly: help with a widow’s home repairs, baby-sit for tired parents for free, volunteer at a local shelter.
  • Watch the movie Amazing Grace to learn about the story of William Wilberforce.
  • Check out our audio lecture of "How Christianity Changed the World" to see the incredible influence Christianity really had on society.
For the Church:
  • Encourage your congregation to go out and be Jesus visibly and model this behavior yourself.  A story from your experience will make them feel less afraid to do so as well.
  • Teach a series on the influence of Christianity in society.  People will be surprised to know just how different the world is because of a Christian worldview.
  • Create ministries that can help those in need within your congregation or community. Call the city and see if there’s a trash pickup or graffiti removal program that your church can participate in.  Then, make sure you hang your church’s banner outside when doing this work.  Let those in the community know that it’s the Christian church who cares about its neighborhoods.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Many know of Martin Luther King, the famed civil rights activist. His birthday is a federal holiday in the U.S. Most are familiar with his "I have a dream" speech given in Washington in 1963. Fewer are familiar with King's magnificent "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" in which King answers some of his critics within the church, claiming that breaking the law is against Christian principles. Here, King eloquently argues that the exact opposite is true; Christians need to be engaged in fighting evil wherever they find it. You may read the entire letter here, but I thought I'd provide a few excerpts.
  • "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their 'thus saith the Lord' far beyond the boundaries of their home towns: and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid."
  • "One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.' Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality."(Emphasis added)
  • "Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience."
  • "I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: 'All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.' Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." (Emphasis added)
  • "There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society." 
  • "But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust."
  • "Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment." 
  • "If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith."

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Christian Megathemes: The Most Offensive Act--When the Church Abandons Truth

As the new year starts, we continue to check ourselves by examining the Barna Group’s six Christian Megathemes, major shifts that have recently changed the way Christians think about and practice their faith within the last decade. Highlighting the problems we face is important, but I want to go beyond that and provide some possible solutions as well. Click here to read previous entries.

Theme #5: The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.

The concept of tolerance is so prevalent today that you cannot help but be pummeled by it anywhere you turn. As an apologist, I often hear the claim that I’m being “intolerant” by someone who simply doesn’t want to follow a Christian standard of morality.  That’s not too much of a surprise, really.  But Barna shows a much more worrisome trend.  He writes:
Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ. There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about. The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for. That may not be surprising in a Church in which a minority believes there are moral absolutes dictated by the scriptures. 

Note Barna finds that “The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for.”  This is a very real poverty in our day.  There are things worth fighting for and things worth dying for. Sometimes an idea is so valuable that people should be willing to lay down their lives to defend it.  The early Christian martyrs certainly held this view.  Stephen, who confronted the Jewish leadership in Acts 7 was stoned because his theology offended them.  The Bible says they were furious at him, they covered their ears because he spoke things that were offensive to them, and they yelled at him before stoning him. I've seen the same reactions when I speak up for biblical values.  But just because he offended them, doesn't mean he was wrong.Quite the contrary, his testimony serves as a model of standing up for righteousness.

One thing that I notice repeatedly in our modern world is how those critical of Christianity tend to hijack Christian foundations and then use them for their own pleasures. Just recently, I read an article on how a group of atheists were demanding to be included at the prayer service for the mayor of Washington D.C. They don’t have clergy, but “human celebrants” instead. This bit of ridiculousness parallels the weekly political lessons offered in the former Soviet Union; they are both a shallow attempt to counterfeit a religious service.

Counterfeits are Satan’s stock in trade and he is very successful at using them to mask real needs. The true concern comes in when the Church adopts these counterfeits and begins to teach them as actual.  Take the idea of tolerance; the very word has lost its basic meaning.  If I have a toothache I may call my dentist. He could respond “We don’t have any appointments open today, can you tolerate the pain until I can see you tomorrow?”  Tolerance means that something is wrong, but I can put up with it for some other reason. We started with the Christian principle that all people are made in the image of God and therefore hold the responsibility of making moral decisions, but our modern day society has changed it into anything that anyone does should be considered legitimate. A degree of tolerance is important in a pluralistic society, but that doesn’t mean we cannot speak out against sin and seek to influence change in our society. That’s the difference.

Barna again writes “The challenge for every Christian in the U.S. is to know his/her faith well enough to understand which fights are worth fighting, and which stands are non-negotiable.” I think apologetics fits here perfectly. One of the main focuses of giving a reason for the hope that is within you is demonstrating that there are clear moral laws we all need to follow.  The Christian needs to know how to present the biblical case for issues such as abortion, homosexuality, sexuality, service to the poor and other hot-button topics of our day, and he or she needs to be able to counter the opposing arguments that are offered in response. That means we need to study more and be attractive and persuasive in those conversations whenever they come up.

As the influence of relativism becomes more dominant in society, we need to be more intentional in countering its message. In most Christian churches today, even those who hold to a strong view of Biblical authority, most of our young congregants hold to a view of relativism. If we don’t speak out now, we could lose more than a cultural fight.  We could lose the very concept of right and wrong, and without that Christianity becomes just another way of self-expression.

Tips on Countering the Trend toward Relativism 

For the individual:
  • Begin to see the exclusive nature of Christianity. Make sure you know what the essentials of the Christian faith are.
  • Look for good books dealing with relativism and its claims.  Two I recommend are Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Beckwith & Koukl and Paul Copan’s True For You but Not For Me.
  • Pick a “hot topic” issue, such as abortion, and learn how to defend your views.
  • Know how to argue for your position in a winsome manner.  Check out Greg Koukl’s Tactics for more on this.
For the Church:
  • Pastors need to clearly and repeatedly teach that truth cannot be compromised. We need more sermons on the dangers or relativism and why faithfulness to the Biblical standard is essential.
  • Create a list of often asked questions on controversial issues and clearly define what your Church’s stand is on each.  Make this available on the church website and in the foyer.  Let folks know how they can get one.
  • Develop an apologetics ministry or a current affairs class and teach people how to discuss these tough topics.  Use role-playing techniques to help people understand how real-life scenarios will play out.
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