The state I grew up in, Georgia, was first founded as a debtors’ colony. At one point in American history, debtor’s prisons were quite common, but these brick-and-mortar institutions were supposedly outlawed in the 19th century. But some say that jailing those who don’t pay legal debts and fines they can’t possibly pay amounts to modern-day debtors’ prisons. Recently, HBO’s John Oliver did a segment exploring these trends. Take a look and determine what you think. Be advised that Oliver’s language gets a bit salty in places.
Because Jews and Christians believe that God is something different than what we know and experience in this world, the biblical authors used metaphor to paint pictures of what God was like. Some of these are familiar to many–God as shepherd or God as father. But others are less familiar, such as God as midwife. So Lauren Winner, a bestselling author and professor of Christian Spirituality at Duke Divinity School, decided to explore the lesser known divine metaphors in Scripture.
In “Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God,” Winner explores many surprising and provocative images for God that help us experience and understand God in fresh ways. Here she gives us a sneak peek into the book, which releases next week, and the metaphors she explores.
RNS: Some have said that we can’t directly speak of God but can only “get at” God through metaphor. Is this correct?
LW: We can, without metaphor, say some formal things about God: God is the One who is what God has, and so forth. But Scripture seems to like to speak of God in very ordinary figurative language. God is bread. God is clothing. This suggests that what you wear, what you eat, and how you experience the weather has something to offer you about God. God chose to reveal who God is through language of the ordinary everyday. This choice tells us, I think, of God’s desire to be intimately related to us.
RNS: Most people limit their God-talk to three or four images–shepherd, king, Father. How does this limit our understanding of the Divine?
Theologian Stanley Grenz once observed, “[Jesus] treated every woman he met as a person in her own right.” According to a new book, The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing of Diaries of Five Women from the Gospels by Frank Viola and Mary Demuth, Jesus’ encounters with women tell us more than we might assume. Here I dialogue with co-author Mary Demuth, a prolific author and blogger, about at doesat the stories in this book teach us about God, life, and gender.
RNS: You say that Jesus’ interactions with women were “shocking considering a woman’s position during that time.” Is this true and, if so, why is it significant?
MD: It’s significant because [tweetable]Jesus reserved some amazing Scriptural truth exclusively for women.[/tweetable] Consider his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4. She is part of a maligned race according to Israel, is a woman alone at a well and culturally should not be addressed by a man, and she is portrayed as immoral. But what does Jesus do? He has the longest recorded conversation with anyone in the Gospels. He reveals He is living water. He explains what true worshippers are. He says that a time is coming where the Kingdom of God will be for everyone, not simply Jews. And when she articulates truth about the Messiah, Jesus says, “I am He,” giving her a clear Messianic proclamation. Her interaction with Him and her subsequent sharing with the village results in Jesus essentially evangelizing a town of Samaritans. She is a missionary.
RNS: You include a diary entry from the woman with the flow of blood. What does her story say to modern readers?
MD: Many suffer from chronic conditions and feel abandoned by God. The woman with the issue of blood not only suffers from an incurable illness for more than a decade, but she also experiences social ostracizing as a result. Imagine not being hugged or touched for 12 years! She represents those who physically suffer and those who hurt emotionally. She doesn’t presume upon Jesus. She knows her smallness, yet she is desperate enough to risk defiling Jesus by touching his cloak. Most likely crawling to touch Him in the lowest place. And yet, even in her quiet reticence, Jesus notices her. Listens. And then he heals her. She is restored physically and communally in one beautiful instant. While Jesus may or may not physically heal us today, he absolutely notices us, meets us, and helps us heal from our wounds.
RNS: You recall story of the woman caught in adultery. What’s going on behind the scenes here?
“Bless you for playing Jesus, peace be upon him.”
This was the reaction of Lebanese-born actor Haaz Sleiman’s mother upon learning that her son had been cast as Jesus in National Geographic Channel’s “Killing Jesus.” The three Abrahamic religions will collide on March 29 when the television special premieres, and the 24-year-old Muslim actor stars as Jesus, the Jewish rabbi that Christians believe was God in the flesh.
The television movie is adapted from the New York Times bestselling book by Fox News host and Roman Catholic Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Sleiman digested the book among others in preparation for the role. He says he was excited to portray Jesus, a person he describes as “the ultimate teacher” who has “heavily influenced” his life.
Both the book and film retell Jesus’ crucifixion and accounts of his resurrection. Muslims do not believe either of these events occurred, and although Sleiman says he was not aware of these historical discrepancies prior to accepting the role, they were not concerns for him.
“As an actor my number one focus was to be on the same page with the writer, director, and producers,” he said.
Christians believe that Jesus was both divine and human, while Muslims accept only his humanity. The script’s focus on this aspect of Jesus is something that Sleiman said was important to him.
“The idea that we got to focus on the humanity of Jesus was very inspiring and empowering to me,” Sleiman said. “It is what Jesus came to show us, the beauty of humanity and the love we are capable of having towards one another; even to love your own enemy.”
When Sleiman was asked for his reaction to any disapproval from conservative Christians to a Muslim playing Jesus, the actor replied, “I cannot speak for Jesus, but I can quote his teachings and he said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’… How would he react to me playing Jesus? He wouldn’t judge it. He wouldn’t judge his own enemy … playing this part highlights his teaching in a very nice way.”
You think you’re a Christian, but you may be just pretending.
That’s what blogger Jarrid Wilson says in his new book “Jesus Swagger: Break Free from Poser Christianity.” He claims that there is an epidemic among Christians of fake faith and cosmetic religion. Here we discuss his ideas and what he suggests is the solution to this spiritual malady.
RNS: What is “poser Christianity” and how is it “rewarded” today?
JW: Poser Christianity is when someone lives with a façade that their faith is legit and true. This is an epidemic in today’s society. It’s wrongly rewarded by people around the world, praising individuals who create a “religious” outer shell, but have yet to allow the message of Jesus to transform them on the inside. The answer is to be renewed as a true follower of Jesus rather than just pretending to be one.
RNS: You say poser Christians call themselves Jesus followers but don’t live like Jesus. But doesn’t everyone fall short of Jesus’ standards? Isn’t being a poser, to some degree, inevitable for everyone who attempts the Christian life?
JW: Pursuing a life after Jesus but falling short of perfection, and posing as a Christian are two completely different things. Anyone who calls themselves a Christian can expect to eventually fail, no matter how good they think they are. Failure is inevitable, but posing is preventable. How? Walking by faith and not by sight and fixating ourselves on the message of Jesus rather than relying on our own strength and wisdom to get through life.
RNS: Much of mainstream Christianity–especially in the Western white church–has taken on a look (skinny jeans and graphic tees), sound (anything resembling Chris Tomlin), and smell (fair trade coffee aroma and a whiff of a concert-grade of machine, please). Are these cosmetic expressions of Christianity a problem in your opinion?
JW: I’m sure Chris Tomlin is an incredible dude, but I have yet to own any of his albums or stream them on any of my devices. Sorry, Chris! While I do agree that mainstream Christianity has adopted some unique styles and identifying factors, I wouldn’t say that I’ve adopted any of these in order to fit in. I don’t see any of these cosmetic expressions of Christianity a problem, as long as people don’t make these things the foundation in which they build their faith upon.
RNS: Let’s get practical. What can churches do to stop being posers?
Pardon the yawn.
The 1.7 million-member Presbyterian Church (USA) on Tuesday voted to officially approve of same-sex marriage, an announcement that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the mainline Protestant denomination’s trajectory. Perhaps a more substantial but less widely reported story was the decision by City Church, San Francisco’s largest evangelical congregation, to affirm LGBT couples.
Evangelicals are among the most stalwart opponents to LGBT marriage, but a number of evangelical congregations have publicly shifted their stance in the last year. Among them are Seattle’s Eastlake Community Church, Nashville’s GracePointe Church, Portland’s Christ Church, and New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, California. Other prominent evangelical pastors tell me off-the-record that they are in the midst of similar conversations.
Churches aren’t the only evangelical factions inching left on matters of sexuality. Popular Christian musicians and worship leaders have either come out of the closet or publicly voiced support of LGBT equality. And evangelical publishers have released a glut of books taking progressive positions on sexuality and marriage. These stories are part of an ongoing media narrative about shifting evangelical attitudes on LGBT issues.
Whenever such stories are reported, polls are cited to show the retrenched stance of evangelicals on the matter. But it is easy to fail to read the footnotes on these surveys or to only pay attention to polls that confirm one’s bias.
The Barna Group, for example, reports that evangelicals have “become more resistant toward LGBTQ concerns on several fronts.” But Barna uses an extremely narrow nine-point definition of evangelical that is not embraced by any other major polling organization. A closer look at this study reveals that support for LGBTQ concerns has increased among every other subset of Christians, and a broader look at data from organizations such as Pew Research and Public Religion Research Institute shows evangelicals are indeed shifting. If the Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide as early as this year, shifts in public opinion could quicken.
The data make clear that opposition to same-sex marriage is coming only from a small and aging subset of the Christian world, and if you follow the headlines, it feels like an invisible finger has flicked the first domino in a long row of tiles. But don’t be fooled. Evangelicals are still mostly opposed to same-sex marriage and concerned about how gay rights might infringe on religious freedom. A lot of time remains on the game clock, and much of the field is yet to be negotiated.
Commitment has never been simple for Erin Lane. She’s a child of divorce, moved around a lot growing up, and says she is as “moody as the wind.” When it comes to church, Lane is desperate to belong but she doesn’t know how.
Erin Lane’s story will sound familiar to many of her fellow Millennials who often eschew organized religion or “church hop,” but she hopes to make a compelling case for church. In “Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe,” Lane shares honest vignettes from her own struggles and how they’ve taught her to believe that church is worth the risk.
RNS: Of church, you write, “I want to belong, but I do not know how.” But is committing to a faith community really that complicated?
EL: Perhaps the decision to commit is easier for some but I think the practice of belonging is complicated no matter who you are. How do you give yourself to others without giving up who you are? When do you yield to group consensus and when do you exercise personal agency? What’s the difference between a church that challenges your gifts and one that subtly diminishes them? A large part of my story – really, the human story – is learning how to hold the paradox of self and community instead of either arrogantly asserting my individual will or passively losing myself to relationships.
RNS: You say that belonging to a church is a lost art for Millennials. How so?
From the soil of the blogosphere, Rachel Held Evans has grown into a powerful voice in American Christianity. She is author of “Evolving in Monkey Town” and the New York Times bestseller “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.” But those who have followed her writings often note that her thinking has become increasingly progressive–especially on hot button theological issues such as gender and sexuality. This shift culminated in her leaving evangelicalism for Episcopalianism.
Next month, Evans will release “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church,” a book that oscillates between stinging critiques of American Christianity and prescriptions for how she believes we can more faithfully participate in church-life. Here she explains what she believes is the key to revitalizing the church and defends her exit from evangelicalism.
RNS: You say that the way to stop the exodus of millennials from churches isn’t cosmetic–better music, sleeker logos, more relevant programming, etc. Why are these methods ineffective in your mind?
RHE: These aren’t inherently bad strategies and some churches would be wise to employ them. But many church leaders make the mistake of thinking millennials are shallow consumers who are leaving church because they aren’t being entertained. I think our reasons for leaving church are more complicated, more related to social changes and deep questions of faith than worship style or image.
If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely-tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity. Like every generation before and after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the places he’s always been: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. No fog machines required.
RNS: If these aren’t the answer, what is?
RHE: Sharing communion. Baptizing sinners. Preaching the Word. Anointing the sick. Practicing confession. You know, the stuff the church has been doing for the last 2,000 years. We need to creatively re-articulate the significance of the traditional teachings and sacraments of the church in a modern context. That’s what I see happening in churches, big and small, that are making multigenerational disciples of Jesus.
RNS: You talk about seven sacraments in your book that you think are critical for the church. Which of these–and your understanding of it or them–will surprise people the most?
RHE: The one that surprised me the most was anointing of the sick. I used to think such a practice involved superstition and false hope, but that was before I learned the difference between curing and healing. We may not be able to cure what ails our friends and neighbors, but as Christians we are called to the work of healing—of entering into one another’s pain, anointing it as holy, and sticking around no matter the outcome. An anointing is an acknowledgement. In a culture of cure-alls and quick fixes, the sacrament of anointing the suffering is a powerful, countercultural gift the church offers the world.
RNS: In the course of your story, you left evangelicalism for the Episcopal church. Much of the Episcopal church has failed to embrace the cosmetic changes you critique and they practice the things you say will draw millennials back. Yet Episcopalians in America have been in steady decline for sometime and are rapidly aging. How do you reconcile this with your thesis?
RHE: Just about every denomination in the American church is seeing a decline in numbers–including many evangelical denominations–so if it’s a competition, then we’re all losing, just at different rates! I felt drawn to the Episcopal church because it offered some practices I felt were missing in my evangelical experience, like space for silence and reflection, a focus on Christ’s presence at the communion table as the climax and center of every worship service, opportunities for women in leadership, and the inclusion of LGBT people.
But I know plenty of folks who were raised Episcopalian who have become evangelical, drawn by the exciting and energetic worship or the emphasis on personal testimony and connection to Scripture. It’s common in young adulthood, I think, to seek out faith traditions that complement the one in which you were raised. It’s not about rejecting your background, just about finding your own way. I don’t want to project my experience onto all millennials.
RNS: Many evangelicals criticize the liberal theology of the Episcopalian church, even claiming that it is now outside of orthodox Christianity. What say you?
RHE: Every Sunday morning, I stand in my Episcopal church and join in a chorus of voices publicly affirming the Apostle’s Creed. Together, we declare that there is a good and almighty God who is the creative force behind all things seen and unseen; that this God is One, yet exists as three persons; that God loved the world enough to become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived, taught, fed, healed and suffered among us as both fully God and fully human; that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born to Mary; that he was crucified on a Roman cross and buried in the ground; that after three days dead, Jesus came back to life; that he ascended into heaven and reigns with God; that he will return to bring justice and restoration to our broken world; that God continues to work through the Holy Spirit, the church, and God’s people; that forgiveness is possible, resurrection is possible, and eternal life is possible.
If that’s not Christian orthodoxy, I don’t know what is.
RNS: Related to this, you say the American church shouldn’t be afraid to die. What does this mean?
RHE: Chesterton said, “Christianity has had a series of revolutions, and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” [tweetable]Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.[/tweetable] Lately I’ve been wondering if a little death and resurrection is exactly what the American church needs. What if all this talk of waning numbers and shrinking influence means our empire-building days are over and it’s a good thing? As the religious landscape in the U.S. changes, Christians are going to have to learn to measure our success by something other than money and power.
RNS: Some of your critics might point to the explosive growth of the church in the New Testament. Shouldn’t the church be concerned if it is not making disciples or, as you say, if it dies?
RHE: The New Testament church grew when Christians were in the minority, not the majority. We’re still a long way from that in the U.S., but now may be a good time to remind ourselves that ours is a kingdom that grows not by might or power but by the Spirit, whose presence is identified by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Plus, I’m not convinced discipleship is something we measure best in numbers. A church might produce thousands of attendees without producing any disciples.
The notion of America as a mostly white, mostly Christian country is rapidly becoming a fact for the history books.
“The U.S. religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is fundamentally reshaping American politics and culture,” says Dan Cox, research director for Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).
Last week, PRRI released the American Values Atlas (AVA), an interactive online tool that compiles data about Americans’ opinions, identities, and values. One of the biggest takeaways of this years’ study was that, for the first time ever, America is not a majority Protestant nation. Part of this shift is due to the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans, now at 22 percent nationally and 34 percent of young people.
The study also revealed that in 19 states, “white Christians” are now a minority group. The list of states where this is the case includes a few surprises. Several Southern and “Bible belt” states such as Georgia (#16) made the list, and Texas (#7) had the same population of white Christians as New York (#5). While one might want to blame these shifts on “secularism,” one force at work seems to be America’s increasing ethnic diversity. According to PRRI, Hispanic Catholics are a growing proportion of Catholics and evangelical Protestants are becoming less white.
Here is the full ranking of the 19 states with their corresponding percentages of white Christians:
It’s been nearly four years since former Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller warned that advances in technology could demolish the 2000-year-old Christian Church. The advent of Bible apps for tablets and smartphones, Miller argued, amounted to a “new crisis for organized religion” whereby “believers can bypass constraining religious structures – otherwise known as “church” – in favor of a more individual connection with God.”
Prophetic predictions of the demise of the Christian Church have almost become a tradition among religion writers. As with the others, Miller’s has amounted to naught.
Instead of having a completely negative affect on the Christian religion, technology has become an empowerment tool for both pastors and parishioners. Online versions of the Bible are one factor people point to when citing reasons for increased engagement with the Good Book. But on the other side of the pulpit, technology is now empowering pastors to minister more effectively.
According to a Barna Group survey, 97 percent of pastors now use the Internet to find information compared with 78 percent in 2000. Thirty-nine percent of pastors said they had a spiritual or religious experience via the Internet while only 15 percent said the same in 2000. The only surveyed function of technology that did not grow among pastors over the same period was using the Internet to play video games. As it turns out, your pastor isn’t playing Minecraft when he or she should be preparing a sermon.
The survey also showed that pastors are warming to the idea that it is “theologically acceptable for a church to provide faith assistance or religious experiences through the internet.” Eighty-seven percent of pastors polled said they agree with that statement. Only 8 percent of pastors considered websites and Internet activities to be a distraction and more than half said the Internet “is a powerful tool for effective ministry.”