On Pluralism In Western Culture

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I am currently reading a book on apologetics from my Logos library. The opening chapters of the text are littered  with quotes from D.S. Carson. CArson is an intellectual heavyweight in the area of Biblical scholarship and Christianity. I learned a great deal from his books while I was in seminary. The following are a few of the quotes I lifted from the text. These are all Carson quotes from God and Culture.

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism … has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated.

Pluralism has managed to set in place certain “rules” for playing the game of religion—rules that transcend any single religion. These rules are judged to be axiomatic. They include the following: religiously based exclusive claims must be false; what is old or traditional in religion is suspect and should probably be superseded; “sin” is a concept steeped in intolerance. The list could easily be expanded.

Those who are committed to the proposition that all views are equally valid have eliminated the possibility that one or more of those opinions has a special claim to being true or valid. They have foreclosed on open-mindedness in the same breath by which they extol the virtues of open-mindedness; they are dogmatic about pluralism.…

Both the irony and the tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance. It is not “liberal education” in the best sense; it is not pluralism in the best sense. It is fundamentalistic dogmatism in the worse sense.…

Defending the Resurrection: Part 7- Using parts one through six together

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Part 7 of is series is the “how to” manual for using the previous 6 posts effectively. Obviously, this was not a full-on apologetics primer dealing with every aspect of the faith. This was the basic class. It was sort of like the wax-on, wax-off series. The historic truth of the resurrection event is THE single most important element of the faith to defend and argue. We can spend forever arguing about philosophy and Darwin and the crusades and any other aspect of Christianity. If you lose those arguments, it doesn’t change the fact that Christ died and was resurrected. If this happened, it acts as a reference point for every other teaching and thing we can know about God. This is the heart of our faith.  Paul puts it best:

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
1 Corinthians 5:1-8

Verses 3 and 4 are thought to be part of one of the earliest creeds of the church.

Frequently, young people go off to college and are challenged with arguments and statements against the faith, but they lack any concrete arguments in its favor or to defend it, so they only have their presuppositions to utilize in defense of what they believe. As a result, they fall away easily when challenged. Or adults experience loss or frustration, then stumble because they do not know the historical events on which the faith is founded. It’s one thing to deny belief in God based on simple preferences, it’s another to deny a historical event. It’s like saying the French revolution didn’t happen. Or that Alexander the Great was a made up guy. Or that Nero was fictional. It’s not reasonable to just deny a historically provable event just because you don’t like it.

The previous posts demonstrated that there is ample historic evidence that is very reliable and well preserved that proves that Jesus was a real man, was executed by the Romans and rose again three days later.

Arguing the historical facts: The historic event is what needs to be argued when defending the resurrection. Simply arguing that it feels true or that Jesus changed your life is lovely, but it is subjective. Subjective proof cannot be demonstrated to others and it can be countered by clever arguments. Experience is a shifting foundation.

You will seldom encounter someone who will argue this history with any real knowledge of the more complex issues involved. Most folks know a few basic arguments and bust them out when itching for a fight or when offering a simple explanation. One apologist I follow used the following analogy: the atheist comes into the conversation with his bandolier and his 5 or 6 arguments, ready to run you off. They seldom expect folks to have an informed response. After all, they reason, Christianity is based on myths and assumptions with no basis in fact. The last thing they expect is for real answers to be offered.

Different folks argue in different ways. Some people itch to argue and look for chances to debate. They relish in the opportunity to play mental chess. I cannot say that I identify with this perspective. However, I do love to tell people about Jesus. Frequently when talking about faith, challenges or objections are raised regarding proof or whether or not Jesus existed or if there was any proof. Or, even when folks just ask: how do we know Jesus is real?

So, here are a few of the questions and challenges that folks will encounter. The silver bullets in the atheist bandolier, if you will.

What if some guy just made all this stuff up and there is no Jesus? There are a few variations to this one. They include: There is no proof Jesus even existed. Jesus was probably just a legend. These are pretty typical arguments. They are easily responded to because of the wealth of evidence. The answers for these can be found in parts 3 and 4, as well as by understanding how the Bible came to be. You can point to the eye witnesses. Frequently, this will be met with: that’s the Bible, it’s biased. At that point you can explain that these books were written as eyewitness accounts and of course they are biased. They were written by guys who saw Jesus rise from the dead. They will be biased toward what they saw. Another response is that you cannot use the Bible to support the Bible. The problem of course being that the Bible is multiple accounts put together. You are using one eyewitness to support another (posts 5 and 6). Further, you can argue for the witnesses from outside the Bible that prove that Christ existed (Part 4). Knowing the details of these positions is important for responding effectively. The accusations are general and based on speculation, your responses must be specific. You have facts on your side.

The Bible wasn’t written until decades later and probably not by Jesus’ followers. This argument is best responded to using the arguments that deal with that matter in Post 3 and the Response to a comment on Post 3 post. We have external confirmation for the authorship of some of Paul’s writings and John. Both of these are found in the early church fathers. In addition, the early church held that the various apostles wrote the texts. This is more evidence for the position than there is against apostolic authorship. Further, most of what we know about the apostles is revealed in the Gospels. Why fake a book under a name no one has hard of? So, “Matthew didn’t write Matthew.” Well, who is this Matthew guy and why would anyone pretend to be him? Most of the argument are spurious. As for the written decades later argument, there is no real support for this position. In fact, the books themselves show clear signs of having been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Further, the epistles confirm the details of the Gospel accounts. See posts 3 and 4 for more on these. It is also worth noting that no other historical documents are treated in this manner. The Gospel accounts are supported externally by other biblical, external Christian and external non-Christian sources. They are so well supported that willing blindness is the only way to ignore the texts. Also, read Response to a comment on Post Post 6 for information on the church fathers’ research of the original accounts.

The books were likely edited to change the Gospel accounts to present a message the church wanted. Read Post 5 for more on this one. The big idea to present in discussing this point is that the distribution of the texts made this tampering impossible.

The story was made up by men who were trying to con the stupid peasants. Check the accounts of the disciples deaths in post 3. They died badly. This was a stupid lie if it was a lie. Why die for something you made up? Often folks will come back with arguments that lots of people die for their beliefs. The disciples died swearing that they saw Jesus resurrected.

Some guy just wrote the whole Bible and made it up. This is easily dealt with using the information in post number 6.

No Roman records exist of Jesus’ crucifixion. I’ve heard this more often lately. The nice thing about this argument is that it lends support to Tacitus, who would then have supporting documents to base his claims on. (See Post 4) But, the important thing to know is that we don’t have accounts of tens of thousands of crucifixions. The Romans may have kept records, but lots of records are gone because this was thousands of years ago and time has a habit of destroying documents. Lack of records isn’t conclusive proof. There is, however, the Torah. (read more in Post 4)

The Gospel accounts are full of contradictions. I deal with this in Post 5. It is worth noting that if you are familiar with the Biblical accounts and the harmony of the gospels, you can call this one out. Most folks say this and have no idea where there are contradictions. However, if you do this, you must be prepared to addressed apparent contradictions. The better response is in post 3.

The fallback for dealing with claims that you can’t immediately answer is is the question: What is the proof for your argument? Very few of the opposing theories have real evidence supporting them. “Everybody knows” or “scholars say” is not proof. The accounts of the early church fathers that validate the Biblical texts are proof. Speculation from skeptics with PhDs is not. What makes this interesting is that the attacks leveled against Christianity most often deal with the idea that there is no evidence. Opposing theories unanimously suffer from the same malady.

Ultimately, this is just the basic stuff. It is just the resurrection. Future posts will deal with  other areas.

Evangelists with Dirty Hands

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“…dealing with lost people will cause us to get our hands dirty and sweaty just like tending to yard work. Part of evangelism is to clear up misconceptions and misperceptions people have about the gospel. Dealing with people and evangelism is often messy.

Will McRaney’s

 A few weeks ago I ran a Bible study group with a group of teenage drug addicts at various stages of their recovery. All of them are in residential treatment and attend Bible study as a part of their treatment program. In the session I was facilitating we did an open question and answer time. This always proves tricky with these types of kids because they are so worldly that it is almost like working as a translator to teach them basic truths.  Three main themes turned up in the conversation that week. One young man tried to comprehend how God could possibly be fair if he forgives murders and rapists. Another young man assumed God would never love him because he could not fulfill the mandate of not looking at women lustfully. Still a third young man wanted to understand why God didn’t answer his prayers promptly. This 2-hour session of explaining and ministering was the first thing that came to mind when I read McRaney’s quote.

In our increasingly secular culture we need to assume that that ministering to the lost will involve answering difficult questions and teaching then wholly alien concepts. The lost have no idea who God is. To assume we could evangelize without getting our hands dirty seems foreign to evangelism among the lost in this world. As God’s witnesses, we need to be prepared to answer tough questions and we need to demonstrate Christ in our lifestyle and attitudes while we evangelize. Peter speaks to the matter in his first epistle. In chapter 3 he is addressing persecution for the faith. In the midst of his teaching on persecution he says:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. – 1 Peter 3:15-16

The dirty work of evangelism must begin with study and training so that we can be prepared to give an answer. This is the step believers frequently desire to skip over because it is a little boring and requires hard work. Reading, learning and studying are vital to evangelizing effectively. Living under Christ’s discipleship is also fundamental to this process because if we do not, we will not be prepared to act in gentleness and respect, which are fruits of the Spirit. We need to invest in these things to be prepared to evangelize effectively to those who are totally unchurched. In investing in them we need to understand that it is only the Spirit that produces these quality and that only the Spirit can make our evangelism effective. When the time comes to share the gospel, we must be willing to go to unpleasant places at times and answer accusations from those who despise God.

It is my prayer that those who read my posts would use them to defend their faith and to sway the lost and wavering.

Circus Church

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20110814-033944.jpgThe other morning I was driving to work and I heard on the radio “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” by Neil Diamond. Yes, I listened to it and enjoyed it because Neil Diamond may be a cheese ball, but he’s a cool cheese ball. The song is about a traveling evangelist, who sets up a circus tent and puts on a Jesus show for everyone. The whole town turns out because it is entertaining. The lyrics imply that Brother Love is quite the showman. While I was listening to the song, my mind wandered to a discussion I had recently regarding the seeker sensitive movement and whether or not it was a legitimate way to do ministry.

For those not too familiar with the term, the seeker sensitive church model designs the Sunday morning service around reaching non-Christians and bringing them into the life of the church. In an effort to be seeker sensitive, music is chosen because it makes the worshiper feel good, distasteful words like “sin” are replaced with more palatable alternatives like “broken” or some other therapy oriented term. Rather than discuss Christ and atonement, sermons focus on meeting the felt need of the congregation. The general focus is shifted from worshipping God to making guests feel welcome in order to bring them into the life of the church. Ideally, seeker sensitive churches would then move guests to cell groups (groups that meet in the houses of members to do Bible study).

A couple of quick things to note regarding this model: First, it is effective at drawing a big crowd. Go to a mega-church and you will typically find the seeker sensitive model. Second, it is generally very entertainment oriented. It is not uncommon to find seeker sensitive churches doing outrageous things to draw a crowd. Just like Brother Love and his circus, there is a degree of Barnum and Bailey’s at work. These are the churches that talk more about having a great sex life through scriptural principles or feature motocross riders in the service or fire-breathing as a part of the sermon. All of these showman elements are aimed at bringing the unchurched in the front doors for an hour every Sunday. Third, the traditional gospel message is “repackaged” to be more accessible. This sometimes involves changing vocabulary or teaching with parables/stories. Sometimes sermons focus entirely on meeting the felt needs of the congregation. It is common to call them self-help sermons or sharing the therapy gospel. Ultimately, the message shifts from salvation in Christ alone to: how to have your best life now.

20110814-034153.jpgI will begin with a disclaimer: some churches that do this model could potentially do it well and with pure motives. Some seeker sensitive churches teach that we are all sinners and that the only way to avoid the wrath of a just and righteous God is through Jesus, thus doing more than simply teaching people how to feel good. It seems reasonable that some of the thousands of seeker churches that exist clearly proclaim the gospel. Ultimately, this is a method for drawing in unbelievers. The purpose of drawing in unbelievers is to expose them to the Gospel. That having been said, this raises the question of the purpose of the worship service. Is the purpose of worship evangelism? Further still, one of the central tenets of seeker sensitive worship is to focus on the felt needs of the unchurched. How does this gel with worship focusing on God? This question is especially pertinent when we consider the fact that many seeker driven churches soften the Gospel to make it more palatable for the lost that are visiting. This is the constant temptation faced by those who look to grow through seeker sensitive methodology. It is a temptation that results in a broken system on Sunday morning. No man can serve two masters and the seeker sensitive crowd frequently winds up having to deal with meeting the needs to the uncommitted against preaching the Gospel. Thus, we end up with therapy gospel and other messes that turn growth/numbers into an idol we worship rather than God himself.

Another problem with this model is that it often rests on a faulty assumption regarding everyone’s role in the church. In the seeker sensitive model, it easy for the Sunday morning Jesus show to become the primary attraction for the lost, rather than disciples of Christ going out to reach the world for His name. Ministry to the world is often reduced to simple service with no real sharing of the Gospel message of Christ as the one who redeems us. In such cases, serving our neighbor is sufficient ministry and no preaching is ever endeavored upon. Instead, the role of evangelist falls exclusively on the shoulders of the pastor. If a pastor desires to grow his church, but doesn’t so much care to disciple and train members to reach the lost, he is stuck in the role of trying to bring them in through other means. This often manifests itself in the three ring circus that is a seeker church.

One of the central problems, I would argue, is the desire of modern Christians to be served and entertained. They consume church like a product. When they are bored or uncomfortable, they leave and go somewhere else. As a result, congregations are frequently loaded with immature Christians who throw tantrums and leave every few years or throw tantrums and force out the current leadership ‘cause they don’t get what they want.

Sound Biblical teaching and discipleship are the missing ingredients that keeps Christians immature and prevents them from going out to reach the lost. As a result, the seeker service is the only answer for a pastor looking to grow his congregation, stoke his ego or appease a demanding consistory. This means that, at times, seeker sensitive tendencies can be used as a thermometer to measure the disciple-making efforts/health of a church. When a pastor has to entertain or scratch itching ears to keep people in the church, there is something wrong. That “something” is a congregation that lacks maturity and is not producing disciples. The big show should not be the attraction to worship.

I believe at one of the best scriptural illustrations of this concept is found in the Matthew account of the feeding of the 5000 and the day that followed. Everyone knows the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 from Matthew. In fact, the story is a favorite amongst seeker driven and health/wealth preachers because Jesus draws a big crowd and meets their needs. After this happens, Jesus crosses the nearby lake (on foot), helps Peter briefly walk on water and sets up camp on the other side. The crowd he had fed the previous day comes to find him the next morning looking for more food. There is a great conversation about Moses and manna, in which the people ask for more bread as proof of Christ’s having been sent from God. Christ responds by telling them that they need to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to gain entrance into heaven. The crowd says his teaching is too hard and abandons him. We see this in the seeker movement today. They are fed and their needs are met, but at the first sign of difficult teaching or challenge, they abandon ship, because they did not want to know Christ. Rather, they wanted to have their needs met. We see the same thing happen with the Israelites in the desert when they demanded manna, meat, etc. and wandered when God didn’t jump to their service like a cosmic maitre’ d. The disciples did not abandon Him. Instead, they said that they had nowhere else to go, because only Christ had the words that bring eternal life. This is the response of a disciple of Christ to difficult teaching.

Now, another quick disclaimer: I don’t like organ music and I believe that living in Christ will change my life. Preaching should point me to Christ; in Christ, God’s Spirit will comfort me and produce fruit in my life. However, worship music must honor and worship God. It need not make me feel warm and fuzzy. The change in my life is not from applying principles and pulling myself up by my bootstraps. Rather, it is Christ and his Spirit living in me that produces changes. I also would argue that it is necessary to preach the good news every Sunday for the lost who are present.

Sugar Coated Spirituality

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One of my favorite stories of all time is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I will admit that I enjoyed both movies long before I read the book. What I really love about the story isn’t the whimsy or the candy. It’s the various rotten children who visit the factory, face temptations in various forms and are horribly expelled from the factory. Dahl does a really good job of demonstrating an important concept regarding where happiness comes from. Verruca Salt is an excellent example of this idea. She sees something and instantly wants it. “Daddy! Can I have a squirrel?” (Or a golden goose depending on the incarnation we are considering.)

20110813-023813.jpg She asks and she receives. Then, approximately 2 seconds later, she wants something else. Her contentment upon having her squirrel is temporary. (She only held on to the squirrel for a very brief period anyway.) The feeling passed, and she demands a new something that will make her happy. We see the same idea played out in all of the children, except for Charlie. Augustus eats and is never satiated. Mike TV is suckled on never ending entertainment. Violet must be the best and is never content when she wins.

I fear that many in the church have headed down the path of the various miscreant candy factory tourists. We walk through our tour of the church expecting to be fed from a trough with no efforts of our own. We demand to be entertained constantly and will “church shop” until we find the best show. We feel like we need to best our brothers and sisters in Christ and knock each other down or gossip in order to win. We want health and wealth and are willing to treat the almighty God who created the universe like a cosmic vending machine in the process of getting it. As a result, many simply wander through on their tour of the church until they pass the exit door and drag as many people with them as they can. This attitude of self-centeredness keeps many in the church from ever producing fruit as believers, either fruit of the Spirit in their lives or fruit that can only be harvested by Christ.

Paul makes comment on this matter in Philippians 4. He is writing from prison to the church in Philippi when he says:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, tat now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:8-13

Paul opens his passage with the concluding thought: that we are to focus on good, holy and praiseworthy things. He further indicates that the Philippian Christians ought to practice what they learned and saw in him. What they learned from him can likely be gleaned from early chapters of the text.

-“To live is Christ. To die is gain” can be found in chapter 1.

-Imitate Christ in humility, love and lacking personal interests can be found in chapter 2.

-Put no confidence in the flesh or your ability to do things on your own, but rather trust Christ for all our effort is rubbish (literally dung) in favor of gaining Christ. (chapter 3)

Paul joins his final thought to a comment on his own situation with the word “but” at the beginning of verse 11: “But, I have learned to always be content because I am able to do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Basically, Paul has learned that contentment is a result of Christ. All things worth having are a result of Christ and we are to focus on the things of Christ. We stand in the body of the church because, in it, we grow closer to Christ. We resist temptation and have a joyous heart because of Christ. We cannot earn it because that would be the law, which would be bad news, not good news. This attitude of Paul ought to be mirrored in the church. Christ is what makes life worth living and all things are rubbish next to having him.