An overwhelming three-fourths of Americans identify as religious. Listening to some religious conservatives in the U.S., though, one might think believers were a persecuted minority on the verge of extinction. In the name of protecting the sincerely held beliefs of religious Americans, conservative lawmakers and lobbyists have introduced a spate of controversial religious-freedom legislation in recent months. But apparently Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig aren’t the only ones fighting ghosts in 2016. The problems these bills claim to solve don’t actually exist.
Few public intellectuals have the power to provoke conversation like David Brooks. His columns for The New York Times are flush with depth and provide fodder both for weekend brunchers and commentators who comment on commentary. His regular appearances on “Meet The Press,” “News Hour” and elsewhere often stir up political junkies and bloggers. Brooks is “liberals’ favorite conservative,” which means almost everyone has opinions about his opinions.
It should be no surprise then that a measure of natter followed the release of Brooks’ newest book, The Road to Character, in which Brooks traces human virtue throughout the centuries and then profiles a handful of “heroes of renunciation” he believes serve as models of character. The book has sparked conversation about Brooks’ views on morality, theology, and his personal faith commitments. Brooks is ready to share his thinking on such matters, but not completely.
In our conversation, as in his book, Brooks sticks to his strong suit: social and moral analysis. He argues that America has shifted from a posture of humility to a culture of “big me,” and he presents data that indicates young people today often fail to comprehend the moral component of problems. Brooks traces this troubling slip back to the mid-20th century when moral and religious words slipped out of common usage.
“If you don’t have those words—whether you’re religious or not religious—it’s hard to have a conversation about morality because you don’t know what virtue is or what character means,” he told me.
Brooks is particularly troubled by the decline of the word “sin.”
“We use the word in the context of desserts now, but it used to be something people acknowledged was a real category inside of themselves,” Brooks says. “If you don’t have sin, you don’t have something to fight against.”
When asked how he defines sin, Brooks borrows St. Augustine’s definition of “disordered love.” (He calls Augustine “pretty much the most brilliant thinker I’ve ever come across.”)
But while Americans have increased in narcissism and grown less comfortable with moral language, Brooks says it does not follow that America is in “moral decline” or, as Robert Bork once stated, “slouching toward Gomorrah.” While our culture is less humble, he notes that we’re also less racist and less sexist. Domestic violence, teen pregnancy, abortion rates and crime are down too.
“If you look at how people behave, there’s a lot of data that suggests we’re not in moral decline,” Brooks says. “Cultures in some eras have one set of problems, and in another era, they have a different set of problems.”
All the talk of morality leads us to the topic of Brooks’ personal faith….
Following Jesus in a secular or pluralistic context can feel a little bit like getting stuck in adolescence. The faithful can become paralyzed by self-awareness and often feel out of place. But according to author Ken Wytsma, this weirdness is actually quite normal. When a messy life collides with a mysterious God, should we expect anything less?
Wytsma is president of Kilns College, founder of The Justice Conference, and author of The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God, and the Necessity of Faith. In his new book, he argues that faith embraces the paradoxes in Scripture and the tensions of a life lived in faith.
RNS: You say that following Jesus is awkward and is supposed to be. Explain.
KW: The very nature of faith is tension filled. Walking by faith is foggy, unclear, and rarely comes with a sense of what the outcomes are. Just think of a time when you closed your eyes or were blindfolded, needed someone to steer you, and were groping with your arms for any wall or door jam that would tell you where you were. We don’t like tension so we look for ways to relieve it. Choosing faith, however, is choosing to stand in the tension and wait for God to be the resolution to the awkwardness we feel.
RNS: How are God’s ways “contradictory?” Doesn’t this create a hurdle for those who see faith as rational and logical?
Pastor J.D. Greear may be one of the most influential pastors you’ve never heard of. He’s not preaching prosperity on television or advising the President. He’s never made the “TIME 100″ or The New York Times bestsellers list. But Greear has built a massive, multi-campus megachurch amid the modest city of Raleigh, North Carolina, and he is quietly amassing influence among conservative evangelicals.
The subtitle of his most recent book, “Jesus Continued…: Why the Spirit Inside of You is Better Than the Jesus Beside You,” caught my attention, and I decided to invite him to discuss the idea at “On Faith and Culture.” Here we discuss how he thinks some of his fellow Christians have misunderstood the Holy Spirit and how he hopes they’ll change.
RNS: You say you felt disconnected from God during most of your Christian life. This is an unusual and refreshing admission for a pastor. Tell us more.
JDG: Even though I’d been pastoring a “successful” church, God seemed distant—more like a doctrine I knew about than a person I knew. My relationship with God seemed one-way. I worked for Him. Jesus was like a teacher who had given an assignment and then stepped out of the room, leaving me to learn the lessons and finish the assignment. I prayed to Him about my problems and tried to trust that He was working—somewhere, somehow—to help me. But I didn’t have any real interaction with him.
I knew the Holy Spirit was inside me, but I related to Him the same way I relate to my pituitary gland: I’m grateful it’s in there; I know it’s essential for something; I would never want to lose it . . . but I don’t interact with it. There was little, if any, sense of experiencing the presence of God as moving, dynamic Person.
RNS: Tell me about relating to God more as a doctrine than a person. You’re Southern Baptist, and that denomination is famous for drawing doctrinal lines in the sand as well as being highly skeptical of experience in theological formation. What am I missing?
For many Christians, Philip Yancey needs no introduction. He’s written thirteen Gold Medallion Award-winning books, 4 of which sold more than a million copies. From grace to prayer to the real Jesus, he’s always tackling the burning spiritual questions. With his new book, “The Question that Never Goes Away,” Yancey tackles how to answer a universal question: “Where is God when we suffer?” Here, I discuss with the bestselling author how he answers this question and what he’s learned about finding God in tragedy.
RNS: You’ve traveled the world visiting places devastated by war and disasters, natural and manmade. What have you learned from journeying with those who suffer?
PY: I’ve learned that words don’t matter nearly as much as personal presence and practical help. We all struggle with the “Why?” questions surrounding the problem of pain and suffering, but a person going through it is usually not investigating philosophical questions; they’re just trying to survive and heal.
The calming effect of community and personal presence is scientifically verifiable. I have a friend who participated with a medical student in a pain experiment. They found that a person with feet in a bucket of ice can stand the pain much longer if a friend is with them holding their hand. Every study shows that people recovering from surgery heal faster if they’re engaged with a supportive community. It makes sense: a caring community can help relieve stress, fear, anxiety, the very things that keep us from healing well.
RNS: As you’ve moved among those whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict, how have you seen light penetrate the deepest darknesses people endure?
Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim have two things in common: they are suburban moms and anti-slavery advocates.
These two “Abolitionist Mamas” have decided to share their journeys from middle-class mothers to activists in a new book, “Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery.” It’s a guide for anyone else who has ever wondered what one or two average people can do in the face of evil. Here, we discuss the issue of modern-day slavery and how to overcome our resistance to getting involved in such a complicated issue.
RNS: Many of advocacy organizations are focused on “raising awareness.” But as you point out in your book, people don’t want to feel bad without taking action to make things better. Is “awareness” a cop-out?
Shayne: Awareness and education is the key to everything. You won’t act if you don’t know. When good people are aware, I believe they will act. [tweetable]Awareness is where God starts to spark the imagination of the kingdom of God here and now.[/tweetable]
Kim: Awareness is only a starting place. Some people need many touches and message repetition before they are ready to look at the action needed. I prefer to see awareness paired with engagement–some sort of action–but sometimes you have to start with simple awareness.
RNS: If it is so important, why do you think more people aren’t engaged on the topic of modern slavery?
On Thursday, hundreds of millions of Americans will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving–a day devoted to exuding gratitude and consuming food. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, about 39 million families will travel to have Thanksgiving dinners where an average of $54.18 will be spent on the meal and 51 million turkeys will be consumed. In some ways, this is apropos since the first Thanksgiving consisted of a three-day feast.
But according to Shauna Niequist, this secular holiday may be more sacred than we assume. Her most recent book, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table, explores the surprising and sacred things that happen around the dinner table. She sprinkles creative recipes throughout, encouraging readers to test her concepts with friends and family. Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a reluctant meal-preparer, Niequest’s insights will draw you into the mysterious gift of sharing food with those you love. This Thanksgiving, I decided to talk to Shauna about the “meaning of eating” and the little known connection between food and faith.
JM: Well, Shauna, we’re approaching another Thanksgiving–an occasion for feasting that Americans have celebrated for decades. Is what happens at folks’ tables today different than a half-century or century ago? What’s different now?
SN: People used to spend more time at the table. And people used to have more time to spend. We’ve moved from the table to the car, many of us, and our current food culture is giving us more and more opportunities to do that: more drive thrus, more curbside delivery, more pre-packaged and pre-prepared options.
If your life is anything like mine, if we’re not careful, most of our relational connections take place either online, via text, or in a hurry—saying “hello” on the way in to church or preschool pick-up, or in and out of meetings, or on the way to somewhere else.
The table is important because the table is the place where time stops, if we choose for that to be true, if we build and adhere to that pattern. The table is where we can carve out sacred space to look people in the eye, to hear the whole story, not just the text-able sound byte.
Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, says that pastors who voted for Barack Obama in the last election should resign.
“Any evangelical leader — by which I mean someone like a minister or an elder — who voted for Obama the second time, is not qualified for the office he holds, and should resign that office,” Wilson wrote in a blog post dated October 14. “Unless and until he repents of how he is thinking about the challenges confronting our nation, he should not be entrusted with the care of souls.”
Voting for Barack Obama, Wilson said, “exhibits a fundamental condition of cluelessness” because the President is pro-choice.
Forty-two percent of Protestants and 50% of Catholics voted for Barack Obama in 2012, according to Pew Research. This includes 95% of black Protestants.
In his post, Wilson took special aim at African-American Christians:
Not only must the dignity of human life be upheld by white and black Christian leaders alike, to the extent we may allow any differences, it should be to expect a greater vehemence in opposing abortion (in the person of its advocates and enablers) from black leaders. This is because it is their people who are being disproportionately targeted by the white Sangerites. And a black Christian leader who cannot identify a Sangerite is a rabbit leader who does not know what a hawk looks like.
He later likened voting for Barack Obama to German leaders voting for Hitler.
Three weeks before I graduated from high school, the graduation gifts began pouring in. I got a wad of cash, which elated me, and also a pile of presents I wasn’t sure what to do with. What exactly is an 18-year-old college freshman supposed to do with a Mont Blanc pen? Your guess is as good as mine.
One gift I’ll never forget, though, is a framed print of a famous verse that is a favorite among graduation-gift-givers:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
– Jeremiah 29:11, NIV
At the time, it seemed too good to be true, but I “claimed it” because I wanted it to be so. After college, however, I began to travel to developing nations and witness Christians stuck in dire situations. My preconceptions eroded. Does God have plans to “prosper” and “not to harm” that Sudanese refugee boy with the dazzling brown eyes or the Indian woman who was always within earshot of her “owner”? Maybe only wealthy white Westerners got a slice of God’s good plans?
My preconceptions broke down further when I began to think about the scope. Sure, God had a plan for which career I needed to pursue, but did God have a preference if I spent my summer acquiring extra course credit at a community college back home as opposed to going on a month-long mission trip to South America? And what of the minutia? Did God care whether I ate steamed broccoli or Ramen noodles while cramming for that test? The ministers I asked usually offered a vague affirmation of God’s sovereignty and then changed the subject. So I let it go.
In recent years, though, my mind has returned to that framed print that is probably tucked away in my parent’s basement, and I’ve seen it in a new light.
When I think of those who are accomplishing “good” in the world, I think of Peter Greer. He’s the CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit focused on addressing both physical and spiritual poverty through micro-finance, and author of The Poor Will Be Glad. Having observed Peter’s work firsthand–the story of me and Peter being held at gunpoint by Haitian bandits is recounted in my forthcoming book, Jesus is Better than You Imagined—I know the level of passion and commitment he brings to the field. Under his leadership, HOPE has become a leading poverty alleviation ministry and their work affects tens of thousands around the world.
As a professional “do-gooder,” it is all that more surprising that he would write a book titled, The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good. But Peter began observing scores of people who dove headfirst into Christian service and ended up swimming in seas of burnout, pride, or worse. So he decided to take a critical look at the unexpected spiritual dangers that come with doing good. Here we talk about the pitfalls of ministry, how Peter’s work negatively affected his marriage, and what advice he might give to young, service-oriented Christians.
JM: Peter, tell us about the first moment your eyes were opened to your own divided heart about “doing good.” How did you respond?
PG: In 2002, a volcano erupted in Congo. I went to help. Up high on a platform, I handed out blankets to refugees. And a photographer was snapping photos.
But I wasn’t thinking about the refugees. My thought was, I can’t wait until people back home see these photos of me.
In moments of honesty, I see how sometimes my good deeds were about me and how it’s possible to sacrificially serve God and be completely self-centered in the process. Unless we rediscover why we serve, our service becomes a way to promote our image, heightening vanity and pride.
While the experience in Congo crystalized the issue, writing The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good has opened my eyes to the fact that these weren’t just my own struggles. Rather, there are common dangers facing those who do good work and the lure of success and pride so easily derails many talented leaders.
In fact, Dr. J. Robert Clinton conducted a study that discovered only one in three biblical leaders finished well. It’s probably the same percentage today.
My hope is that in some small way this book will help friends to understand some of the most common pitfalls that derail those who do good, including the danger of doing instead of being, lack of 3am friends, not admitting our own vulnerability, moral lapses for a good cause, and Christian karma.
JM: Surely, among your professional colleagues, you’ve witnessed those who’ve given in to the spiritual dangers of doing good. What shape does that take? How is it recognized?
PG: I’m not I can comment about the paths others have taken, but looking at my own life, I see some of the small steps that take us to a place we don’t want to go, including:
- Entitlement. Often doing good things makes you believe, I deserve just this little thing because of all of my sacrifices. So you justify small compromises of integrity and character.
- Small steps. No one just wakes up in bed with someone other than their spouse. When you hear of individuals or organizations that have made major ethical compromises, chances are attitudes and decisions have been undermining them for years.
- Wrong definition of success. As a leader, it’s easy to get caught up in a delusion: As long as we have a growing ministry, a bigger congregation, larger amounts of giving and more good works, we must be on the right path. There’s nothing wrong with a bigger ministry or congregation, but a fascination with such markers is dangerous. Good things apart from God a threat to knowing our Creator.
- Ministry workaholic. We know the impact of workaholic behavior in the workplace, but it is so much easier to justify behaviors that trample those closest to us “because it must be God’s work.” In fact, our lack of Sabbath and never-ending work might be all about us.
Unfortunately, these small steps are terribly difficult to diagnose and it’s only the accumulation of all these small behaviors before you can see their impact. My hope is that we will be more aware of the cracks in the foundation and realize that all our good works are downstream from who we are in Christ.