Monday, October 28, 2013

Four Books That Have Shaped My Thinking

Here are four books that I’ve read in the last year that have proven to be both informative and influential in my thinking.  Two are “Christian” books and two are “secular”—two terms I really don’t like using to describe books, but that’s another discussion—but all of them have helped me to understand Christianity, and Evangelicalism in particular, in its American context.  I'll take them in the order in which I read them.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman.  This was originally published in 1985, and has proven to be amazingly (and disturbingly) prophetic.  Postman, noting that every method of communication shapes the message communicated, asserted that television not only shapes the message but actually distorts it.  Television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, journalism and religion.  We demand to be entertained, and in fact can no longer tell the difference between information and entertainment.  What passes as information is actually entertainment, feeding us what we want to hear rather than what really is.  While Postman focused on television, 25 years later we find that screens dominate our lives more than ever, with TV being joined by other sophisticated electronic media like the Internet, smartphones and DVD/Blue Ray.  It’s interesting to me that this book was published a year later than the setting of George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, almost as if Postman was validating Orwell’s vision of modern life.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard.  According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations or cultures, each with its own unique historical roots.  American history tends to be taught, at least when I was in school, from an perspective that privileges American roots in England, as well as the struggle between North and South that culminates in the Civil War, to the exclusion of the other cultures that have existed almost from the beginning of the European conquest of North America.  In fact, Spanish settlements in the Southeast predate English settlements, though that tends to be overshadowed in our Anglo-centric histories.  From the Deep South to the Far West, to Yankeedom to El Norte, Woodard reveals how each regional culture continues to uphold its distinguishing ideals and identities today, with results that can be seen in the composition of the U.S. Congress or on the county-by-county election maps of presidential elections. 

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin.  Newbigin was an English missionary to India for nearly forty years, which allowed him to view both Western culture and Western Christianity from a non-Western perspective.  The argument Newbigin make is that when we encounter a culture not our own, we tend to impose on that culture the values and understanding of the gospel we bring to them; a gospel shaped by our own culture.  He helped reshape Christian missions to non-Western cultures, and that alone was good, but the real value of the book to me is that it helps Western Christianity distinguish what is Western in our Christianity, and what is truly the Gospel.  And he argues that Western Christianity needs to be converted to the Gospel as much as the rest of the world.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.  Continuing the theme of culture’s influence on American Christianity, this is another book written by missionaries who have seen the way that culture shapes our understanding of Christianity.  While Newbigin focused on missiology and theology, Richards and O’Brien focus on how our Western culture influences our understanding of Scripture and leads us down interpretive paths never envisioned by the biblical writers.  If you can get past the sometimes clunky writing style, this book will help you to read the Bible with fresh eyes and deeper understanding.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Millenials and the Church

I’ve been  giving a lot of thought lately to what we as a church need to do to reach the next group of young people who are in their twenties up through early thirties.  I don’t want to make the same mistake that was made by my parent’s and grandparent’s generations of thinking that what generated loyalty to Christ and his church for them necessarily generated loyalty among young people.  Perhaps “mistake” is too harsh a word, for that assumption actually worked for hundreds of years, because the world changed much more slowly than it has since the beginning of the last century.  I think they recognized that the world was changing, but it took a while to realize that those changes resulted in generations of people who looked at and experienced the world in fundamentally different ways, and that would necessitate a change in what was needed to reach those generations.  All too often, as parents watched their adult children drop out of church and, often, out of faith in God, they wondered what was wrong with their children and wondering how they failed as Christian parents, not realizing that nothing was necessarily wrong with their adult children, they were just different in a way not seen before, and the church needed to adapt.  Misdiagnosing the problem usually led to their resistance and sometimes hostility toward the very adaptations the church needed to make to reach their children.  Having been on the receiving end of that resistance and, yes, hostility, I don’t want to do the same thing to my own children and grandchildren (no, that’s not an announcement of any kind; I'm just sayin’) and their peers.
So it was with great interest that I read an article posted on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans, a 32-yr.-old evangelical writer, blogger and speaker.  If what she says is true of many of her generation—and it is in keeping with what I have been hearing and reading—then I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with today’s crop of young adults.  The entire article is worth reading but the following gets to the heart of it:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
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.

They are tired of religion creating barriers between people and people groups, with the stereotyping and demagoguery that often follows.  They believe that we have much to learn from each other, and whether we share the same faith beliefs or not, it is better to at least listen and try to understand each other than to constantly be fighting one another.  They want to be allowed to explore their faith and ask the questions that bother them without having their allegiance to Jesus questioned.  They reject the kind of judgmentalism that allows some to condemn homosexuals while eating mouthfuls of shrimp or crab, ignorant of or intentionally neglecting that Leviticus calls both equally an abomination.  They recognize that the Kingdom of God cannot be limited to one nation or group of nations, and that morality is at least as much about taking care of one another, especially those who have been pushed into an “out” group, as it is about sexual ethics.
If people like this can’t find a place in church, then maybe problem isn’t with them.