Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Government-Approved Religious Symbols

After seeing the list of emblems available for military headstones, I'm now wondering why there was such a controversy over the Wiccan pentacle. After all, the list also contains such notable religions as Eckankar (the "Religion of the Light and Sound of God," led by its Mahanta, Living ECK Master Harold Klemp) and the Church of World Messianity.

Update: More information and analysis of the pentacle decision from

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Are Mormons Christian?

With the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney and the upcoming release of September Dawn (a movie about a massacre of Christian settlers by Utah Mormons - with Dean Cain as Joseph Smith!), Mormonism is getting a lot of media time these days. Often, the question comes up, "Are Mormons Christian?" Many writers, who I think are not that familiar with either traditional Christian or Mormon theology, have tended to see evangelical Christians' suspicions about Mormonism as "yet another" instance of conservative Christians displaying intolerance. Take, for example, this story from the Religion News Service:
"The important thing is, why is all this [September Dawn, questions about Mitt Romney] coming up right now?" [Jan] Shipps says. [Shipps is a professor and "expert on Mormonism" at IUPUI.] Mormons used to live largely to the West, she says, but now "Mormons are everywhere. They are making converts that the evangelicals would like to make, so evangelicals are saying Mormons aren't Christian. All of a sudden you get this (attitude of): We're going to look at Mormon history, and we're going to find out what's really there."
In other words, evangelical Christians don't like Mormons just because they're jealous.

Or maybe evangelicals are more attuned to Mormon teaching than your average American. I attended a Mormon church for about a year in high school, during 1992 and 1993. I was invited by a friend, a girl I was interested in, and I got to know her and her family very well. Her father was a "stake president," meaning he was something like a lay bishop for our region of Kentucky, overseer of several local congregations. Their family had 10 children, age 16 to infant, and the father was extremely hardworking and concerned for his children's welfare. I remained friends with the family even after I stopped attending their church.

At the time, Mormon missionaries led potential converts through a 6-class series, leading up to an invitation to be baptized into the Mormon church. One of the first lessons dealt with "The Great Apostasy." (Apostasy means to abandon from one's religion.) Joseph Smith, and all Mormon prophets since, taught that Jesus' followers abandoned his teachings very shortly after his death and resurrection. The religion known as "Christianity" was, according to Smith, a corruption and distortion of "true Christianity." True Christianity had been absent from the earth from the late 1st century AD up until the moment in 1823 when Moroni presented Smith with the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon.

Augustine? Not a Christian. Francis of Assisi? Not a Christian. Theresa of Avila? Not a Christian. Martin Luther? Not a Christian. In fact, because "Christians" continued to follow the corrupt teachings of the apostates and refused to return to the "true Christianity" of Joseph Smith, later individuals like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Billy Graham were not Christians, either. Only Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and their faithful followers were true "Christians." All others were - and are - apostate. I was taught this as recently as 1992, by missionaries using official Latter Day Saints-published educational materials.

So, instead of asking whether Mormons are Christian, maybe the press should be asking Mormons whether Christians are Christian.

Jesus and Coca-Cola

I wish I spoke Italian. There's a fascinating new film coming out of Italy - 7 Kilometers from Jerusalem. It's about an Italian ad executive experiencing a mid-life crisis. He decides to go to Jerusalem to clear his mind. While on the literal road to Emmaus, he meets Jesus, and his life is transformed. I can't wait for this film to come to the States.

The film has been the subject of some very minor controversy. When Jesus gets into the ad exec's Jeep, he takes a refreshing drink from a can of Coca-Cola. The executive says something to the effect of "What an endorsement!" The Pope is perfectly fine with this - it's Coke that has concerns. No word yet on how Jeep is reacting.

[HT: Richard Owen via Ruth Gledhill]

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sure we pray, but...

Twice this week I've run across articles in secular magazines that use "praying in church" as shorthand for "you know, that church stuff." Here's one, from a New Yorker article about commuting:
The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people.
The other article, the source of which I can't remember, dealt with what unattractive/unpopular people did with their time prior to modern times. "Praying in church" was one of the options named.

This got me to wondering. What do unchurched people imagine that Christians do in church? "Praying" is probably the only experience that we have in common, which the unchurched would at least partially understand and respect. I've heard many people who don't go to church talk about praying on a regular basis. As far as the other actions in a typical service -
  • corporate singing: General American culture has now limited singing in groups to Christmas carols, and even those are on the decline.
  • a sermon: Probably seen as akin to a college lecture or motivational speaker, at best. Fictional sermons on TV and in movies tend to give a message something like "Be true to yourself" or "God is on your side." At worst, sermons are imagined to all be like Robert Duvall's character in The Apostle.
  • tithing: The closest equivalent - a group request for funds for general, unspecified purposes - might be the annual United Way request at the office.
  • fellowship: The Christian friendships I have at church, with fellow members of Christ's body, who pray with and for me, worship with me, and follow Christ alongside me, are of such a different nature than friendships based on work or common interests that I'm not even sure they deserve the same name.
  • the Eucharist/Lord's Supper: Do the unchurched even think of this when imagining church?
If you had never attended church, had never even visited one, what would you imagine the experience would be like? Would you even think of it in terms of an organized service? Or would your imagined church be more like one of those cathedral-esque Catholic churches that appear in cop shows so often, in the time between masses, empty except for a few lonely souls, presumably praying?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Give Me Some of Organized Religion

Barry Taylor writes about "fluid theology" in a recent Out of Ur blog, an excerpt from the new book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. His point is difficult to make out, but, as far as I can tell, he is calling Christians to accept the potential dissolution of the institutional church in favor of a "new way of living and being in the world" in our postmodern world. He concludes,
All of these thoughts can be summarized as a commitment to weakness rather than strength. “Muscular Christianity” and “robust faith” are views that worked well in modernity’s concrete world, but the viability of Christian faith in the twenty-first century is not guaranteed by claims to power and declarations of strengths and doctrinal postures. This is not a slide into relativism but a commitment to nondogmatic specificity. We can tell the gospel story without resorting to competition, exclusivism, or elitism.
Well, Christians have been calling us to abandon "competition, exclusivism, and elitism" for 2,000 years . Nothing new about that. I think I understand what Taylor is trying to get at, but he phrases it very poorly. He rejects "certainty," but shouldn't all Christians be certain in Christ, in God's love for us, in God's love for the world?

I understand the rejection of institutional religion that is dead and lifeless. Taylor favorably cites Bonhoeffer as the great example of trading "religion" for real Christianity. Absolutely, and when Bonhoeffer chose to promote "religionless Christianity" he, um, founded a church and a seminary. Hmm. Sounds pretty institutional to me.

The fact is, human beings need institutions. We need organizations. That's why they seem to spring up everywhere human beings exist. When you combine relationships, a common commitment to some value or cause, and one or more leaders, you naturally get an organization, whether it's a nuclear family, a clan, an army, a nonprofit, a business, a local church, or an informal formality like the Emergent Village. The question should be, What kind of institution will it be?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Thursday, April 5, 2007

World Religions: Christianity

As more of an experiment than anything else, here are the slides from recent series of lessons on Christianity, part of my series at Lakeside Christian Church on world religions. If this is successful, I will add more, along with additional notes.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The The and the Dangers of Generalizations

In this post, Scot McKnight publishes a letter from a pastor struggling with some Christian leaders' reactions to the "emerging church," and an extremely lively conversation has ensued.

I am not going to comment on the post itself, but many of the comments talk about "the" emerging church or "the" evangelical church. This is a common, yet dangerous, practice. The world of Christian thought and practice is so diverse that it's practically impossible to summarize even what subgroups like "emerging" or "evangelical" Christians believe and practice. I do it myself, I know, though I shouldn't.

Let me use my own church as an example. Most Americans, I think, would classify us as "evangelical," if they were familiar with that term. Our church tradition, however, historically had very little interaction with the broader Protestant tradition: we have published our own magazines, read our own Bible commentaries, founded our own colleges, etc. That changed about 20 years ago. Today, our church incorporates some unique beliefs and practices that developed in isolation from the wider church with beliefs/practices borrowed from, say, Bill Hybels or Beth Moore, to just give two examples. At the same time, there are many elements of Hybels' and Moore's theologies that our church either outright rejects or simply ignores. Other giants of "the" evangelical world - like J. I. Packer or John Stott - are practically unknown. For many of our members in their forties and fifties, Francis Schaeffer was an enormous influence, but younger members have no idea who he was. Rob Bell has gained currency among our members in their 20's and 30's, but no one in our church has even heard of Brian McLaren. An increasing number people are reading John Piper, while others think that Reformed theology is practically heresy.

Even within just one church, it's difficult to generalize. And now a generalization about generalizations: painting with a broad brush can be easy. You can create a straw man that's easy to knock down with your arguments. Since you get to paint with your own brush, you don't have to interact with specific positions or find a real basis for your criticism. You discover that you're always rights, and anyone else is wrong, if you want them to be. It's intellectual softness that does nothing to advance the Church.