Christianity

 

Jul

18

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:22 am CT

Hear C.S. Lewis Reading a Portion of “Mere Christianity”

I really enjoyed listening to this recording of C.S. Lewis addressing British audiences during the War years. The series of addresses became “Mere Christianity.” Apparently only one recording survived. Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

 
 

Feb

14

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:06 am CT

Matthew Parris Goes to Africa and “Gets” Religion… Sort Of

I’ve read exactly two articles by the British columnist Matthew Parris. An avowed atheist, I find Mr. Parris refreshingly honest and genuinely insightful. Having read two columns (here’s the first), I’m pretty sure I comprehend his body of work. Not really. But I like what I’ve read.

His latest (second) piece to catch my attention–”As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God“–makes the bold (for an atheist) and undeniable (for a Christian) claim that Africa needs God! He means Christ, not pagan, tribal witchcraft. That, too, staggers the imagination given the more strident anti-Christian atheism en vogue these days. What can I say? This man is worth the read.

Anyway, back to Africa and God. Here’s how Parris begins his piece:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

Read the entire article. (HT: Paul Reynolds) It’s a very fine piece of reflection. He effectively illustrates how a Christian worldview may be the only thing weighty enough to crush traditional pagan worldviews that stifle and stunt. The last sentence alone is worth clicking over to the article.

One has to chuckle at the juicy irony that Parris’ opinion piece lauding God appears on the website of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. It just may be the most reasonable thing posted there.

 
 

Feb

04

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|10:39 am CT

Learning to Be the Moral Minority from a Moral Minority

In recent weeks the evangelical world has found itself reeling from cultural setbacks it once took for granted. The re-election of President Obama, state passage of “gay marriage” initiatives, the uninviting of Louie Gigglio to the Inauguration, and even last night’s Super Bowl have signaled to some that Christians and Christianity have lost their welcome place in the public square. For the first time, some evangelical conservatives feel like an oppressed minority in the country.

As I’ve watched the chatter mixed with laments and jeremiads, I couldn’t help but think of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” founded in the late 70′s and defunct by the late 80′s. For nearly a decade, the Moral Majority exercised its political voice largely in southern states.

It seems to me that the very notion of a “moral majority” rested on two assumptions that some evangelicals no longer find tenable. First, it assumed the basic morality of most of the country. It assumed basic “Judeo-Christian principles” shaped and framed the moral reasoning of the average citizen, making your “average Joe” basically friendly to the aims and concerns of conservative Christians. Second, it assumed privilege. The very notion of “majority” suggests strength in numbers, a perch from which to rule for no other reason than outnumbering one’s opponents. The last couple months have upturned both of those long-standing assumptions and some evangelicals find themselves at a loss for how to handle it, claiming to be “persecuted,” “rejected,” and “shut out” from the public square. Many who don’t yet go so far as to claim persecution now, ring the ominous alarm of abuse being just around the corner.

It seems to me that if the evangelical church faces minority status in a country that no longer feels as welcoming, it will need to learn to become the moral minority. And to do that, coming from a position of significant privilege, she will actually have to learn from some folks who have long understood what it means to be moral and what it means to be minority in a country that denies your morality and even your right to freedom and existence. The Black Church. Evangelicals could well learn to be the moral minority from a much older moral minority. Here are a few things to pick up (some of which I had the privilege of discussing here):

1. Learn to suffer with dignity and grace. That’s not easy. But if the evangelical church is going to maintain a healthy dignity and resolve, it’ll need to endure suffering like a good soldier. It’ll need to learn how to bear reproach, shame, insult, ridicule, and even physical attack without cowing, lowering its head, or hating itself. Because of its privilege, white evangelical churches don’t know how to joyfully accept the plundering of its possessions and persons. If true persecution comes, it will need to learn this lesson in spades. There are two models: Jesus and the Black Church. Jesus’ model is perfect; the Black Church’s example is proximate, near at hand. One you read in the scripture, the other you can read in history texts or even access in conversation.

2. Learn to do theology from the underside. Privilege affords a person the ability to think about life and God from “above.” It allows a person to form conclusions in abstraction, detached from the grit and grime of suffering and need. But you can’t do that if you’re in a “persecuted minority” status. You have to ask, as Howard Thurman did two generations ago, “What does Jesus of Nazareth mean and have to say to the disinherited?” What truth and power is there in the gospel from the underside? How must we think about power and its use when we’re the disenfranchised rather than the brokers? In many respects that’s the great difference between theology done in Black and White circles. Most of African-American theology gets worked out in the crucible of suffering and under-privilege. That’s why it’s starting points and conclusions can be so different to those arrived at from the “top.” That’s why it can look heretical to those with power and privilege. The view comes from the bottom, and that’s a very different reality. I suspect that if the white evangelical church ever does become a truly persecuted minority in the country, the scope and content of its theological commitments will change significantly to include questions of power, privilege, access, and justice. It would be good to glean from the experiences and theologies of persons that already have in hand over three hundred years of thinking about such things.

3. Learn how to fight for your oppressors, not just against them. One genius of African-American theology and the Black Church has been its insistence on the full dignity, humanity, brotherhood, and rights of both the Black community and the White community. The best of Black Church history sees the future of Blacks and Whites inseparably connected. The best thinkers about the nature of humanity have identified the ways in which racism, for example, dehumanizes both the oppressed and the oppressor. The best activists have, therefore, sought not only freedom for the oppressed but also freedom for the oppressor. The “enemy” becomes the beneficiary of the oppressed’s love. This is the genius of a Martin L. King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. The moral minority rose up against an immoral majority without sticks and guns but with love and justice for all. In positions of privilege, we don’t easily adopt such attitudes and positions. We easily engage our “opponents” with a zero-sum, winner-loser mentality. So, for example, “homosexuals” are meant to be “stopped” rather than loved and included. We focus on the heinousness of the sin rather than helping the sinner be as free as we claim to be. The problem with that winner-takes-all approach is that those chickens will come home to roost when we find ourselves in the minority. If we’re truly moral then we seek justice for everyone, including those who line up against us on this or that political issue. In a true “moral minority” any “superiority” will be demonstrated in concrete action on behalf of everyone’s equality.

4. Learn to hope in God. When you’re the majority community wielding power in society, you don’t have to hope in God in quite the same way as you do when you’re the minority and oppressed community. There’s a sense in which it becomes easy to trust in chariots, horses, and armies rather than the name of the Lord our God. But true persecution strips you of every support but God. Persecution brings you to your knees, but that’s where you find power. That’s one part of the legacy of the Black Church. When life was at its worst, it was a praying church. Despite injustice, persecution and the threat of death on every hand, African-American Christians put their hope in a God they were sure would bend the arc of history toward justice and deliverance. That hope was not pie-in-the-sky escapism. It was the noose-is-tightening realism. It was the kind of hope the apostle Paul found when he felt the sentence of death written in his heart and despaired of life, the kind of hope that comes to its senses and realizes it cannot rely on itself but must rely on the God who raises people from the dead (2 Cor. 1). It’s a hope kept safe beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

I suspect that much of the lamentation I hear in the evangelical world may be the dying cries of long-standing privilege. I also suspect that the death of such privilege will result in a purer grasp of faith and dependence upon God. Much less will be taken for granted and more genuine thought given to living out the faith from the “bottom.” Perhaps we’ll see, as one person put it, that a lot of what we’ve called “thinking” has merely been the rearranging of our prejudices. Then we’ll find that persecution, if it comes, has been for the purging and purifying of God’s people. A purging and purifying that’s very much needed.

 
 

Aug

31

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:15 am CT

Christian Tribalism in the Era of Democratized Publishing

Dare anyone deny that Christians are among the most tribal of peoples in the world?  I’m not thinking of the way Christians may legitimately distinguish the church from the world, the saved from the lost, or the way lines must necessarily be drawn between orthodox and heretical views, or even about denominations (as Trueman likes to point out: “Denominations mean that somebody somewhere still believes something”).  Rather, I’m thinking about the way Christians divide and gather, further divide and gather into value-based societies distinct from and uncooperative with one another.  Is it me, or is the problem pandemic?

On one level, the problem exists simply at the label of labeling.  We have and need ways of describing ourselves, our commitments, and our ambitions.  The natural tendency is to create a moniker, a one-word or one-phrase representative of deeper meanings.  I don’t know that this is avoidable or good even if it were avoidable.  We’ve been naming things since Adam, and good names carry meaning, history, and identity.  That’s why any call for doing away with labels won’t work.  Sometimes we hear things like, “Can’t we just call ourselves ‘Christians’?”  But what is “Christian” but a label?  And what must “Christian” mean in order to escape a reductionism that leads to rank individualism?  We need labels–good labels– that communicate who we are.  So, we’ll never escape naming ourselves and the quest for a one-size-fits-all tag seems quixotic.

But there’s something deeper than naming that feeds the tribalism.  Beneath it all run three tributaries that dump into the lake of tribalism.

First, there are the relational inclusivists.  We know them by their Rodney King-inspired mantra: “Can’t we all get along.”  The inclusivists develop itches and rashes anytime disagreement may be spotted.  They prefer one large group of all Christians, a mass unity in which they’re sometimes willing to overlook critical differences while we sing “We Are the World.”  They interpret their bigness (at least their desired bigness) as evidence of the rightness of their cause.  Inclusivists stand aghast at the number of tribes around them, interpreting every division as evidence of failure or unfaithfulness.  They style themselves the party of love and acceptance, but they’re just as tribal.  Listen to how they describe and demonize folks outside their group as unloving, cold, narrow, peevish, and more concerned with theology than either God or people.  On what do they base this?  Very often they base it on group membership more than on the actual attitudes and behaviors of the “other tribe.”  If you’re not in our big group of love then you must belong to some other camp less loving than we are.

Second, there are the exclusivists.  In one of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, young Opie and his friends come to the jail complaining about the uselessness of history.  Andy gives them a rousing story about Paul Revere, the minutemen and the country’s founding.  The boys’ eyes blaze with excitement.  Barney stands amazed.  Following the story, Opie and friends settle some quick business like group name, mission, and place of meetings.  Then to the really important issue: Who can be a member?  Someone votes for letting everybody join, to which Opie conclusively responds, “It’s not a club unless you keep somebody out.” Opie the tribal exclusionary.  How often are our clubs and tribes simply exercises in exclusion, attempts at defining ourselves by not allowing others to be with us?  How do we do that?  Who’s really an exclusionary?  More often than not we exclude by raising the theological or ministry practice bar as high as possible.  And not just high.  We make the “test” as specific as possible, even failing applicants who give the correct answer but not with our precise terms.  The premium gets placed on conformity, and usually conformity to secondary and even unimportant issues.  Sometimes our Christian tribalism springs from this sometimes elitist and sometimes low-brow desire to segregate, exclude, and banish “others.”

Third, there are also the  close cousins to exclusionists: isolationists.  These are the folks who form tribes of one, except when they together raise their individual voices to decry all the other tribes.  They’re a loose federation of discontents, a society of non-joiners–not always on principle, mind you.  They distrust belonging and think of every grouping as “unlawful.”  They boast about not belonging to anything while criticizing everything.  Groucho Marx’s famous quip is their personal anthem: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”  They’re “just Christians” in the “mere(ly) me Christianity” sense.  Those who isolate themselves like this pretend to a higher morality, a more noble approach to relationships, one where they are never caught being cliquish or divisive because they never join.  They’re unspotted by association, solipsistic separatists, convinced of the rightness of their position because it’s their position, rarely taking a position on anything other than being against all groups and their positions.

But there’s a deeper root to tribalism still.  Each of these streams flow into the lake of tribalism but they flow from the mountain of alienation and pride.  Whether we see ourselves or others as inclusivists, exclusionists, or isolationists, we’re really simply witnessing the brokenness of relationships that date back to Gen. 3, the hostility of Gen. 4 in softer tones, and the pride of Genesis 11 cloaked in Christian garb.  The confusion of Babel continues as various groups build their more perfect tower to heaven.

While we still suffer the confused tongues and misunderstanding, the reversal of Babel’s curse has begun in the cloven tongues and nation gathering of Pentecost.  In this already/not yet, we live with vestiges of paradise lost and foretastes of paradise regained.  But this in-betweenness can be frustrating and painful.  The old man dies violently, reluctantly.  He sometimes exerts his greatest rebellion where we’d expect to see the brightest indications of new life, like a resistance fighter spraying graffiti on the shiny monuments of the state’s power. Our battle for sanctification reminds us that the war is won, the city captured, but there are still pockets of resistance in streets and small neighborhoods aligned with the old man.  Our fight for less tribalism and more unity–a unity premised on like precious faith, defined biblical truth–continues apace the Molotov cocktails, rocks, and ambushes of a tribal instinct as old as Genesis 10.

What’s the answer?  I don’t know really.  But we can start with being honest about which stream we are in ourselves.  Let’s stop characterizing others and cast a critical eye at ourselves.  We do have logs to remove, don’t we?  I suspect that a little truth telling to ourselves about our stream and motivation could go some ways in opening us up to seeing some issues and some people differently.

Then, it seems to me, there should be some talking across tribal lines.  The elders of the clans should gather and the people should smoke the peace pipe.  That doesn’t mean leaving your clan; it simply makes your tribe civil.  It seems necessary to say that neither tribe gets it all wrong or all correct.  Surely we should desire as wide a unity as possible, and we should also exclude those that threaten that unity with falsehoods.  There most certainly comes a time when we should not join, even though we must recognize the inescapable requirement to belong to the local church and the global church.  Escaping tribalism probably feels a little chameleon-like depending on the issue.  There’s something for us all to learn from one another.  We should be skeptical of that little voice which resists peace, bristles at talking with “others,” and finds balkanization cozy.  That’s the flesh, not the Spirit.  We should do everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  We should ask ourselves if we’re doing our part to end the tribalism and the lazy labeling that often accompanies it.

But this is precisely where the digital age’s democratization of information can be a real enemy.  We can now publish too quickly, without the requisite literature and peer reviews that inform us, balance us, and open us up to “the other side.”  What we often end up publishing is the silt and debris that gathers along the banks of our particular tribal streams.  We’re well past the point when Christians should ask themselves whether their computers aid or hinder our fallen tribal instincts.  Don’t get me wrong; I’d certainly prefer the democratization of technology and information to the control and restriction of media by a small cadre of elites.  But I most prefer a sanctified distribution of media control and use.

It’ll be easy to justify our next misinformed missive with an easy reference to our indwelling sin or with some valiant reference to “taking a stand.”  If we do, we’ll miss the opportunity to grow in practical holiness by a degree.  The next keystroke could be one more death blow to the old man or it could be one more arrow thrown for tribalism.  Do we actively think of our keyboards and our digital “spaces” as opportunity for sanctification? Too often I don’t.  And I’m afraid it sometimes shows in my own tribalism.

 
 

Apr

30

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|2:38 pm CT

An Apologetic Duel in Poetry

Desiring God linked to these dueling videos from a young Muslim and a young Christian poet.  Apparently, the Muslim’s video launched first, and the Christian responded with the support of Alpha & Omega Ministries.  One thing should be abundantly clear from the videos: Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.  That should have been obvious, but sometimes people need it stated.  It’s creatively stated here:

 
 

Feb

29

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|8:35 am CT

Talking About Jesus, Christians, and Christianity

A couple days ago I linked to the Matthew Parris article warning Christians not to be too chummy with the defenses of Christianity offered by non-Christian critics.  It was a thoughtful piece and since reading it I’ve come across a couple related things that help you to see his point.

First, there’s this video and article at CNN from atheist Alain de Botton advocating what he calls “Atheism 2.0.”  de Botton has grown tired of the old strident atheism that chucks out everything having to do with religion.  He says that atheism 2.0 should, of course, reject the silly notion of there being a God, but culture needs all the things that religion provides that makes us feel good–Christmas carols and preaching, for example.  Let’s keep the feel-good trappings and utilize the effect things like preaching for an atheist cause, but waive our hands at any serious notion of God existing. De Botton writes:

God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.

The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.

Then, there was this article about BBC’s boss Mark Thompson.  Thompson isn’t offering a defense of Christianity, but a justification for why BBC will “Mock Jesus but Not Muhammad.”  The article provides this summary of Thompson’s rationale:

He justified the astonishing admission of religious bias by suggesting that mocking Mohammed has the “emotional force” of “grotesque child pornography”.

But Jesus is fair game, he said, because Christianity has broad shoulders and fewer ties to ethnicity.

We live in interesting times!  One atheist warns Christians not to trust the “protection” offered by non-religious folks.  Another atheist says let’s use the trappings of religion even as we reject any notion of God.  And the head of one of the world’s largest media outlets says we would mock it all except some religious folks are too emotional.  No doubt a lot of religious folks will react very emotionally at his saying some of us are too emotional.

We should not forget the inspired words, “Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world” (1 Cor. 4:14).  And…

Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. (Heb. 11:36-38)

The scum of the earth of whom the world is not worthy.  That continues to be what a Christian is whether the world defends, adapts, or mocks us.  But the Master says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

 
 

Jan

03

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|8:49 pm CT

Fandom: The People and Realm of Evangelical Celebrity

It seems like forever since we started this series on celebrity culture in Evangelical and Reformed circles.  I’ve enjoyed a rather long blog hiatus, for which I’m thankful.  And tonight I feel like writing that final post I promised some time ago.

For several posts, we attempted to think about the issue of “celebrity pastors.”  Over the last several years, the topic appeared repeatedly in the blogosphere and in on-line periodicals.  ”Celebrity pastors” are universally decried (well, except for Jonathan Leeman’s appreciation) but rarely defined or identified.  Since the term and its cousin, “Rock star pastor,” communicates negative judgment, and since the tag rarely falls on particular pastors but drapes like a blanket over much of the conference-going, book-buying Evangelical and Reformed world, it seemed at least some preliminary investigation and framing were required.

In this series, I’ve offered one take, depending on the secular work of Daniel J. Boorstin and Neal Gabler.  Thus far, we’ve covered the following ground:

In all of this, I’ve tried to dust off some corroded social science approaches to the issue.  And at the heart, I’ve tried to show that celebrity culture involves three players, each with their respective role: the well-known person who may or may not be guilty of “celebrity-seeking”; the media who develops and disseminates a narrative and publicity that increases tangibility and the likelihood of “celebrity”; and the audience or fanbase that consumes the media, identifies with the person, and confers “celebrity status” to the well-known person.

I readily admit that the problem exists and that the temptation lies in every heart.  However, I disagree with the assertion that the problem is pandemic.  My data is admittedly anecdotal and taken from interactions in one forum: the conferences so often blamed for fostering the problem.  Anecdotally, I’d put the problem maybe at 10-20 percent of young conference-goers.  By my crude math, that tallied to some 200-400 “celebrity-gawkers” in a crowd of 5,000.  Not scientific, I know.  But I welcome other methods and estimates because defining the scope of the problem remains critical for rightly responding to it.  Why roach bomb with a blanket condemnation of all of Evangelicalism if what we really need are well-targeted and tailored messages for the under-30s who could be helped to mature beyond this phase?  The size of the problem matters for measuring and tempering our responses.

Well, that brings us to the topic for today: Who are the “fans” and what are their responsibilities for the “celebrity” problem?

Who You Calling a ‘Fanboy’?

We’re accustomed to thinking of ourselves as fans of sports teams, some entertainers, and maybe even a politician or two.  But there’s something slightly uncomfortable about regarding ourselves as fans of a Christian preacher or teacher.  Perhaps the sensitivity comes from the Bible’s clear warnings against pride, partisanship, and assigning glory or fear to men.  The One True and Living God demands that glory belongs to Him alone.  So, we shudder at the thought of being a fan of Pastor ___.

Sensitivity and shuddering notwithstanding, however, we do become fans of preachers and pastors. What does that mean?  A short note from wikipedia:

Merriam-Webster, the Oxford dictionary and other recognized sources define “fan” as a shortened version of the word fanatic, and the word first became popular in reference to an enthusiastic follower of a baseball team. (Fanatic itself, introduced into English around 1550, means “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”. It comes from the Modern Latin fanaticus, meaning “insanely but divinely inspired”. The word originally pertained to a temple or sacred place [Latin fanum, poetic English fane]. The modern sense of “extremely zealous” dates from around 1647; the use of fanatic as a noun dates from 1650.) However, the term “fancy” for an intense liking of something, while being of a different etymology, coincidentally carries a less intense but somewhat similar connotation to “fanatic”. The word emerged as an Americanism around 1889.

The fan-fanatic connection makes the idea of being any preacher/pastor’s “fan” even less appealing.  Certainly we don’t want to be fanatics about a man, even if he does preach God’s word.  That gives an ironic ring of truth to the Latin’s meaning–”insanely but divinely inspired.”   Winston Churchill provides another memorable line when he opines, ”A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

Some social scientists seemed to have Churchill in mind when they created a “celebrity worship scale.”  Researchers posit three levels of celebrity worship:

Entertainment-social

This dimension comprises attitudes that fans are attracted to a favorite celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and become a social focus such as “I love to talk with others who admire my favorite celebrity” and “I like watching and hearing about my favorite celebrity when I am with a large group of people”.

Intense-personal

Intense-personal aspect of celebrity worship reflects intensive and compulsive feelings about the celebrity, akin to the obsessional tendencies of fans often referred to in the literature; for example “I share with my favorite celebrity a special bond that cannot be described in words” and “When something bad happens to my favorite celebrity I feel like it happened to me’”.

Borderline-pathological

This dimension is typified by uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies regarding scenarios involving their celebrities, such as “I have frequent thoughts about my favorite celebrity, even when I don’t want to” and “my favorite celebrity would immediately come to my rescue if I needed any type of help”.

Let’s all express our concern for anything beyond entertainment-social attitudes and behavior.  In fact, the intense-personal level has been linked to poor mental health.  And who would suggest borderline-pathological could ever be healthy?  If we think we’re seeing these higher two levels of fixation, the remedy isn’t blog posts but a swift referral to a clinical professional.

But the key issue among Evangelicals with entertainment-social celebrity attraction is not likely “ability to entertain” but “ability to edify.”  There can be a blurring of the two things.  But by and large, Evangelicals report appreciation for the way they’re built up by this or that pastor’s preaching.  Evangelical “fans” enjoy discussing sermons, books, articles, and gathering at conference along with others who enjoy the same pastors and preachers.  I’ve never heard someone say anything approaching, “I share a special bond that cannot be described with Pastor ____.” Praise God I’ve never heard that or even sensed that in others.

We might not recognize ourselves on this scale, and the term “worship” might offend evangelical sensibilities.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a place in fandom.

Are you a “fan” of anything?  Say a sports team?  A politician?  How about a preacher/pastor?

How would you know?  One tell-tale sign would be an ongoing interest and investment in a celebrity’s story.  You buy every interview in every magazine.  You keep track of the developments, and the more complex and detailed the better.  You may even take pride in excelling others in your knowledge of the person’s life and ministry.  You feel a personal connection with the person well beyond your actual relationship to them.  If these things describe you, you’re a “fan.”

To Be or Not to Be a Fan?  Is That Even a Question?

I suppose it is a question, or at least it needs to be.  Why would one set out to be a fan or continue in the herd of fans once they discover they’ve been taken unawares into the crowd?  Is fandom ever a good thing?  Or, to use the language we’ve been using throughout the posts, should we ever contribute to the creation of “celebrity”?

Short answer: No.

Yet, despite earlier protests to the contrary, I maintain that the only segment of people in this equation (pastors, media, and fans) who can in fact make a pastor a celebrity is the fan.  Celebrity status must be conferred.  It cannot be demanded nor can it be created.  Wanna-be celebrities may pose and glitter, photographers and writers may seek to tell a good story, but at the end of the day the audience must buy the product, not just read but associate with the story, and subsequently join others similarly associating with the celebrity or celebrity narrative.  By definition, if there is no audience there is no celebrity.  If the public ‘checks out’ then it’s game, set, match on the story and the person as celebrity.

To put it another way: If there is a problem–of whatever size–with Evangelical celebrities, the majority of the problem lies with those who confer celebrity status.  I realize that sounds like I’m “blaming the victim.”  After all, unscrupulous celebrity-seekers may manipulate stories and images with the hopes or effect of duping the audience.  I would never excuse such behavior, and such a person would never meet biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry. But even allowing that dishonest men seek to profit through deceitful scheming, doesn’t knowing that suggest we (the public) ought to re-double our efforts to be discerning consumers?  Being a victim or potential victim doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to watch our lives–which necessarily includes evaluating those we support.

How Not to Be a Fanboy

With all this in mind, let me conclude (finally!) this series of posts with some suggestions for all of us potential fan boys and girls out there.  If the bulk of the responsibility lies in our court, then how do we work against contributing to a “celebrity culture” and conferring “celebrity status” onto either suspecting or unsuspecting persons?  In no particular order:

Change Our Consumption Habits.  Like it or not, a lot of this comes down to what we buy or who we buy.  Marketers know this.  They study us in order to take advantage of our buying habits.  Nevertheless, we’re the ones plunking down cash or plastic to buy the book, cd, or whatever.  I don’t argue we should stop buying things that profit our souls, just that we should consume more wisely.  Do we need the next book by that author in that series of titles?  Do we need that same basic idea expounded for and marketed to adults, teens, church leaders, stamp collectors, and bird watchers?  Many of us would be better off downloading the free classic instead of buying the next “new release.”  One way to undermine celebrity-making tendencies would be to monitor and change our sometimes mindless, crowd-following, marketing-induced purchasing habits.  I know I could stand to do a better job of this.

Moderate Our Affections. The conferral of celebrity-status depends in good measure on the audience developing inordinate affection for the “celebrity.”  Again, allowing that some dishonest persons may try to play on people’s affections, the development of inordinate attachment for someone you don’t know really remains a problem only the consumer can address.  Up-front guys can and should deflect attention and adulation.  But we need to learn the discipline of examining our hearts for appropriate/inappropriate reactions to people and stories.  This means, in large part, honestly admitting a basic fact: We don’t know the people we’re fawning over.  Then asking a simple question: Given I don’t know this person, should I really allow myself to developer stalker-like attachments for them?  Answer: No.  Court-enforced restraining orders are designed for people with such attachments.  Let’s train our hearts, leading them by both the word of God and the light of reality.

Check Out of the Narratives. I would contend that this is fundamental for both of the strategies above.  Chances are your Google reader, Twitter following, and Facebook “likes” and “fan pages” tell you something about the narratives you’re buying.  Add to those steady “news” streams from our favorite persons the YouTube clips, articles and books, and conference opportunities and we can find ourselves more deeply immersed in the leader- and media-created narratives than we thought.  I’m guessing that most people who follow blogs, Twitter, and Facebook have something on the average of 10-20 “contacts” with high-profile persons they don’t know and perhaps have never met.  That stream of contacts represents a constant narrative development that we first absorb and then immerse ourselves into.  We’re conferring celebrity when we attach ourselves to these stories then allow our affections and purchases to run away with us.  We need to unplug.  We have to stop “following” the story and the person.  We need to stop contributing to the larger-than-life stories that transform well-deserved notoriety into “celebrity” rather than attenuated honor.

Conclusion

Thus endeth my two cents on this topic.  I’m genuinely grateful for the men the Lord has raised up, made faithful, and used in my life to help me understand the Bible better, love Christ more, and hopefully live more faithfully than I would have otherwise.  I honor them as the Bible instructs.  But I don’t worship them, and I don’t think the bulk of Evangelicalism does either.  But where it does exist, whether it’s ten or sixty percent of us, we need to take the responsibility that confesses it, repents of it, and walks on the grace and knowledge of the Blessed Lord.  May the Lord help us to give thanks for His gifts and to love Him, the Giver.

 
 

May

23

2011

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:53 am CT

Tell All Your Friends Who Do Not Yet Believe…

That there is a great website at which they can explore the Christian faith without pressure and with a lot of helpful, interactive answers. It’s the new Christianity Explored website.

The site features a short introductory video, “What is Christianity?”, “Tough Questions,” and “Real Life Stories.” How about inviting a friend who does not yet believe to “tour” the information on the site and then meet up with you for lunch/dinner/coffee to tell you what you think? Then invite them to take a slower, deeper look by studying the Gospel of Mark with you.

I appreciate the high-quality work put into this project. The videos are crisp. The answers to questions are generally thorough and engaging without being clunky and abstract. If folks want to “go deeper,” they can click on a drop-down link that gives more information. They’ve brought in the likes of Vaughn Roberts, Kevin DeYoung and others to contribute.

I think you’ll find this a very helpful aid in personal evangelism.  If you haven’t seen the CE materials, I’d recommend getting a copy.

 
 

Feb

15

2011

Thabiti Anyabwile|8:05 am CT

A Bloody Religion

1And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, 3if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the LORD for a sin offering. 4He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD and lay his hand on the head of the bull and kill the bull before the LORD. 5And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it into the tent of meeting, 6and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary. 7And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the LORD that is in the tent of meeting, and all the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall remove from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails 9 and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys 10(just as these are taken from the ox of the sacrifice of the peace offerings); and the priest shall burn them on the altar of burnt offering. 11But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung—12all the rest of the bull—he shall carry outside the camp to a clean place, to the ash heap, and shall burn it up on a fire of wood. On the ash heap it shall be burned up. (Lev. 4:1-9)

Try to imagine the scene.  Day after day.  Week after week.  Sinner after sinner.  Progresses before the altar to offer bulls, goats, lambs, pigeons to God as an atonement for sin.  The prescription for slaughter is precise.  Instruction for removal of organs and fat detailed.  With your hands.  All day long.  Breaking open animal bodies.  Removing organs.  Separating fat.  Awash in blood.  Sprinkling blood on the altar.  Rubbing it on the horns of the altar.  Watching it drain into the basin of the altar.  All the while, the constant smell of burning flesh, charred to ashes.

That’s the Old Testament sacrificial system.  It’s bloody.

But do we imagine Christianity to be an less bloody?  Do we imagine the fulfillment of those patterns and prophesies to bring a more sanitary, sterile, cleaner religion?  If we do, we’ve lost sight of significant realities.

Is not our salvation purchased with blood?  The blood of the Son of God still flows.  It flows to the chief of sinners.  It still washes and cleanses.  It doesn’t drain into a basin, but reaches the nations.  And without the shedding of His blood, there is no remission of sins.

What about you Christian?  Are not our lives living sacrifices?  All day long, are you not counted as sheep for the slaughter?  Our gathering is not a country club, but a slaughter house.  Your life is not dry and clean; it must be bloody.

What about you, pastor?  Does not our continuing ministry require blood?  Do your daily ministrations involve less blood than the blood Old Testament priests once put their hands in?  If so, you’re doing it wrong.  Are our people any less broken by sin?  Do they need repentance less?  Can they leave off confession and forget to seek a good conscience?  Certainly not.  But how will they be comforted?  How will they be assured of their forgiveness?  What will they do with their guilt?  Do we not return them to that precious fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins?  Do we not stand awash in blood and with our hands of counsel rub blood–not on an altar–but on our people?  And are they not cleansed of all unrighteousness when they’re taught to confess, repent, and return to a faithful and just God who is pleased at the sight of His Son’s blood?  We remind them that atonement has been made, which is to remind them of blood–Jesus’ blood.

Ours is a bloody religion.

 
 

Sep

29

2010

Thabiti Anyabwile|6:05 am CT

Do You Know Your Faith Better than an Agnostic?

HT: Challies

A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons outperformed Protestants and Roman Catholics in answering questions about major religions, while many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.

Find the full article here.

What is the state of the church if even “the most basic tenets of the faith” cannot be explained correctly by its members?  It’s bad.  All of God’s men must return to a faithful teaching of the truth in all of its biblical, systematic, and historical categories.

This result points to a painfully obvious fact: The church at large simply isn’t producing the kind of Christian capable of sustained, deep, rigorous, joyful, applied, and life-changing meditation, thought, and worship needed in this ever-changing world.  We need more thinking and feeling Christians who believe God.

Open forum: If you’re in a church where your knowledge of the faith if growing, give a positive shout out to your pastor and congregation in the comments section.