Saturday, July 16, 2011

More Clarity, Less Labeling

Emerging ... Emergent ... Religious Right ... Postmodern ... Post-Christian ... Social Justice ... Universalism ... Community ... Missional ...

Labels are easy to put on people and "movements" but my experience has been that most of us who stick the labels on things (and, yes, I have been guilty of doing just that) may not understand exactly what the labels mean. To attach labels to people or ideas without intimate knowledge of the people or their ideas is to engage in sloganeering -- bumper sticker argumentation -- that doesn't get anyone anywhere. Seriously, has anyone ever changed your mind -- or have you ever changed anyone else's mind -- about anything by trading slogans or by failing to listen before you speak.

Neither have I.

Secondly, attaching labels to people or "movements" is dangerous because we may be labeling things using different terms. It is unwise -- and unfair -- to hold someone accountable to an idea they don't believe in simply because you have labeled them with your definition of that that idea.

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

There will be more (much more, I suspect) to follow on this subject but I want to connect two parallel issues that have just converged for me where this is concerned. These are two issues that, until I sought clarification about them, I did not even realize were related.

The first is about a person -- a guy whom I have respected even if I haven't really known him personally -- who had a great, positive influence on my oldest son when he was in high school. His name is Chris Marshall and he was a Bible teacher and pastor at my son's school. He started a home church many years ago that my son attended for Bible study and to share a sense of community with his classmates. For reasons that I never fully understood (and still don't) this whole "home church" idea, and Chris Marshall himself, became a source of controversy. Some ideas Chris was espousing were seen as unorthodox, if not downright heretical. Chris was labeled a "postmodernist" and thereby took on all the baggage and assumptions that go with that label. He wrote a blog at the time that many of his "labelers" took exception to. Even Chris has since admitted that he probably crossed some boundaries on his blog and that he could have handled some things differently, but to be honest, those issues are not my concern.

There is way more to the story but the bottom line is that the high school and Chris came to a mutual agreement that it was time for him to go. He moved on and has continued in ministry. He kept writing his blog and I began reading it periodically. Chris seemed a bit more "liberal" in his worldview than I was -- a bit unorthodox in his views of church and the way we live out our Christianity -- but I never read anything that made me cringe. In fact, I never read anything that I even found to be the least bit objectionable. Chris just seemed to have a point of view I had never heard or considered before. Yet, the label Chris lived with remained even as the whole story never made sense to me. Recently, his name started resurfacing in places I didn't expect to see it. And, because I still respected and appreciated the impact Chris had on my son, I decided to resort to a radical way of trying to resolve these conundrums in my own mind.

I went and talked to Chris Marshall.

Crazy, I know.

Our conversation was enlightening and enjoyable. I was fascinated by much of what Chris had to say. I heard more background on his story, and have since learned even more (read Chris's background story at his blog here: The Wild Goose). I even learned things from Chris about my own son's heart for others that I had never really known. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chris and I probably agree on more things than we disagree on. I found that he had some unique ways of approaching how we "do church," and about how we share our faith. It would be silly to say that some miraculous new friendship was born that morning, and I can only speak for myself, but I came away from our conversation feeling like I had been missing out on a relationship with someone from whom I had much to learn.

Which brings me to my second point.

Christian apologetics -- defending the truth of Christianity -- has been a passion of mine for many years now. If I read a book, it's theme is usually apologetics-related. And I read lots of books. I have had limited success teaching and talking to small (and a few large) groups of people about apologetic topics like: origins of the universe and life, biology, biochemistry, intelligent design, pro-life issues, miracles, morality, the reliability of the Bible, or relativism. I have gone to training seminars to better myself, not only in my level of knowledge about these topics, but in how to present the information. I have even had some published articles on these topics in some highly reputable outlets for such discussions.

Tangible positive results from my efforts? Not so much.

My attempts to address these issues with young men and women are motivated by what I consider to be a scary statistic -- that 75% of them walk away from the faith once they leave home -- and I want to do my part to address that statistic. I want to help them be able "to give a reason for the hope that they have." But lecturing them or showing them a powerpoint slide show is not cutting it with a vast majority of these young folks. I have felt like a complete failure at times or at least felt like I was unable to connect for some lasting impact. Overall, I began to question my methods and whether or not I am even gifted enough at doing apologetics to consider my efforts worthwhile.

I've been looking for a new way to make the case. A new way to make these philosophical and sometimes nuanced discussions relevant. A new way to help people who are really seeking answers find the applicable information, remember it, and apply it to their lives. I even began writing a book proposal for an idea I've had to connect the truth claims and foundational issues of Christianity with the ways we live our lives in the real world. I do this because I think it's too important to just keep doing the same thing while expecting a better result, but never getting it. The thing is that I don't seem to see many other apologists making inroads in these areas either. It's frustrating.

That's when I talked to Chris Marshall. And then I read the second installment in his latest blog post about some awakenings he has had lately (You can read that here: The Wild Goose, Pt. 2) about what has been labeled the "Emergent Church" and some of its leaders. What I found is that Chris Marshall shares my heart for seekers and my passion for honoring the heart of the Christian faith. Not only so, but Chris has found a way to do exactly what I have thought needs to be done -- a way to reach what seems like a "whatever" culture with the Truth of our mutual faith (more on both of these topics later in another post).

We may have arrived at our point of connection from wildly differing paths and points of view. We may completely disagree on some specific issues. I honestly don't have a clue. But what I know is that Chris Marshall and I are on a shared mission. Maybe we will complement one another's efforts in that mission. Maybe we'll continue down parallel paths. But in the end, we are headed toward the same goal because we share a commitment to the same Savior.

I have a lot to learn from Chris Marshall. And I never would have known that if I had just accepted the labels. We don't need labels. We need clarity so that we can find commonality.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Civil Discourse on Abortion

If you are interested in how to make the case for protecting unborn human life, I suggest you take the time to watch this debate between my friend, Scott Klusendorf, President of the Life Training Institute and the former President of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen.

Very informative and exemplary about how such a discussion can, and should, take place.

Abortion Debate at Westmont College from Randy Alcorn on Vimeo.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Who's Helpless Now?

I will never forget the day we put our infant son on the carpet in front of our family room fireplace just a few weeks after we brought him home from the Naval Hospital at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC. He struggled to lift his head. His body wiggled and his legs kicked, but he didn't move an inch. I was the invincible Marine attack pilot but watching him there literally drove me to tears. I was overwhelmed -- just like I was for every one of my 5 boys when they were infants -- by his utter helplessness.

He could not do anything for himself. I was overcome by the realization that his survival was totally dependent on the care Mary and I would give him. He literally couldn't live without us. As a new dad, the enormity of that responsibility was crushing. It took my breath away. I wanted to leave the room ... but I couldn't leave him alone.

Today that little infant is a 6' 1", 23 year-old, Infantry/Ranger qualified, 2nd Lieutenant in the Army's 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne 'Screamin Eagles' Division (please don't tell him, but I think he might be able to beat me up). More importantly, this is the day that young man is leaving for Afghanistan -- for FOB Sharana in the eastern province of Paktika on the Pakistan border.

After all the heart-warming West Point parades; after all the Army-Navy Game grief that has been exchanged; after all the academics that seemed so much like any other college; after all the military training he's undergone while we watched in knowing denial of its purpose -- today it all becomes real. Today my son gladly accepts the duty he committed himself to 5 years ago -- the duty to protect a way of life that I too often take for granted.

The wheel of history continues to turn but today that wheel seems upside down. Today my son feels invincible ... and I am the helpless one.

Godspeed, Rob.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Tale Of Two Caseys

I wrote about this issue in December 2008 but it seems appropriate to bring it up again in light of the recent media hysteria surrounding a jury verdict some may have heard about. Though the verdict has outraged numerous members of our society, the cognitive dissonance accompanying the case hasn't changed one bit. So, I offer a hypothetical comparison of what we might expect to be the public reaction by many of the same people to two different "Casey Tales":

Tale One

Cayley Anthony
A two year-old little girl, incapable of surviving on her own, disappears. Her rotting remains are found months later in the woods near her home. An investigation reveals that the little girl was either abducted, deliberately disposed of, or so badly neglected that she died a tortuous death at the hand of a demented killer who many suspect may be her own mother, Casey.

When the little girl disappeared, Casey did not even report her daughter missing for more than a month. She was known to party heartily and regularly and showed no sign of regret or fear for her missing daughter until someone else made an issue of it. Casey is tried for murder.

The trial is showcased in the national media as the most recent iteration of the "Trial of the Century." Casey is eventually found not-guilty and will most probably get rich off the story through some kind of book/movie deal. The talking heads who have kept the story on the front news burner for 3 years keep talking about it incessantly even afterward.

The public is outraged.

Tale Two

Baby Doe
A distinct, whole, living human being, incapable of surviving on her own, spends her days doing exactly what she was designed to do -- develop within her mother's womb. She differs only in size, level of development, location, and some level of dependency from her counterpart in Tale One. Her mother, Casey, makes an appointment with a local doctor to have the little girl violently removed for personal reasons that have nothing to do with her own health. The little girl's remains are put in a plastic bio-hazard bag and disposed of by a "health care professional."

There is no investigation of the event. In fact, Casey's right to choose to eliminate her daughter is lauded and protected by the Supreme Court as a privacy issue.

After the little girl disappears, Casey's life doesn't skip a beat. She is known to party heartily and regularly and shows no sign of regret for having ended her daughter's life. Casey is not tried for murder. There are no grounds for such a trial.

In general, the public doesn't know anything about it. Those who do, mostly couldn't care less.

If Necessary?

~ St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the famous saying at right. You can see it repeated everywhere and it sounds pretty cool. It is used by plenty of well-meaning Christians to emphasize that our actions speak louder than our words. It even seems to imply that talking the talk may be detrimental to the cause. "Keep your mouth shut," the quip seems to tell us, "unless you are forced to speak."

There is no arguing with that simple fact and, on one level, I completely agree. I have written elsewhere about the idea that "who we are speaks so loudly that no one hears what we say." This is meant as a warning against the false pronouncements of a believer whose life denies everything that believer claims to represent. We can, in fact, diminish the message to insignificance by our own hypocrisy.

But does that mean the reverse is true? Can we proclaim the message simply through our actions?

Here's the problem: the Good News (a.k.a. the gospel) is a propositional declaration about our status as rebels and the way in which our rebelliousness against a perfect Creator can be forgiven by the sacrifice of a perfect Redeemer. It is about redemption. And it is "good news" because without it, we are all doomed to eternal separation from our God. So here is my question:

How can we "preach" that message and explain its implications without using words?

I submit that we can't.

There is no denying that our actions support the Gospel message. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a message that needs pronouncement.

I cannot find the context of St. Francis's quip but I find it hard to believe that a thinker like him meant it in the way contemporary Christians use it. A little research confirms this. For starters, we have the quote wrong. What Francis actually said was:
 "Preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words."
You notice the St. Francis himself did not render preaching of the gospel as a contingent option, nor did he separate it from the act of living it out. He did not say, "if," he said, "when." He linked the preaching and the actions directly together. We are the ones who have attributed an improper context to his words.

It is interesting that Francis of Assissi (birth name: Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone) devoted himself to the kind of life for which he is now known ... after being convicted by a sermon he heard in 1209. His vow to a life of poverty; his connection to nature and the beauty of the creation; and his empathy for others were all rooted in a sense of community and shared redemption that he learned from study and experience. In fact, St. Francis himself was known for the powerful sermons he delivered in his pursuit of that noble goal.

It is fashionable these days to see those who defend the gospel with logic, philosophy and confidence as displaying some level of arrogance in their attempt to do so. But let's not over-spiritualize or look down our collective noses at the relevancy of proclaiming the truth. Preaching the gospel and living the gospel are not mutually exclusive projects. Our choice is not an "either/or" dilemma -- it is a "both/and" duty.