Popular conservative television and radio host, Glenn Beck, created a stir last month when he preached a sermon threaded with Mormon theology at the evangelical Liberty University. During the talk, Beck referred to the Mormon doctrine of the Council of Heaven and showcased a valuable relic, the pocket watch of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Some university alumni and donors were upset that the school allowed Beck to sermonize the students and contacted Liberty to place complaints. An email response was sent from the office of Johnnie Moore, senior vice-president for communications and assistant to the president at Liberty. Most of the letter was boilerplate verbiage that sounds like a sales pitch for potential students. But in the last paragraph Moore states that Beck may have had a “born again experience”…
A lot of hot air is devoted to American evangelicals’ work on domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what is an ‘evangelical foreign policy?’ Mark Amstutz, professor of political science at Wheaton College and author of “Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy,” is determined to answer that question. Here, we discuss the characteristics and shortcomings of evangelicals’ foreign policy.
RNS: When one thinks about American evangelicals and politics, their minds may rush to domestic issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But what are the common characteristics of an evangelical foreign policy?
MA: Evangelicals’ foreign policy concerns have been motivated by core moral values rooted in a Christian worldview. Such values include the inherent dignity of all human beings, the priority of social and political justice, the need for communal order, the demand for human freedom, the responsibility to care for the weak and the poor, the importance of personal responsibility, and the universality and transnational nature of God’s love.
Not surprisingly, evangelicals have been at the forefront of global humanitarianism through such initiatives as caring for refugees, promoting job creation through micro-enterprise loans, providing health care to the poor, and combating diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Evangelicals have established some of the largest non-governmental relief and development organizations in the world and have played an important role in helping to pass legislation to combat human trafficking, facilitate a comprehensive peace in Sudan, highlight human rights abuses in North Korea, and even helped to bring about the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
RNS: Many think of evangelicalism as a 20th century movement, but you say evangelicals were active in foreign affairs since, at least, the 19th century. How so?
The evangelical world blew up this week over the question of whether Christian business owners and individuals should refuse goods and services for same-sex weddings. Many Christian theologians, pastors, and bloggers—particularly hailing from the evangelical new-Calvinist movement—have argued the answer is yes in some cases.
In a Daily Beast column I wrote with Kirsten Powers, we argued that the Bible does not prohibit such service. Sean Davis at The Federalist blasted the column as “a masterpiece of Biblical ignorance.” He points to a passage in 1 Corinthians where the Apostle Paul addressed whether Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols as proof that Christians should not provide service to same-sex weddings.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), made a similar argument and cited the same scripture in a response to our column. He reasserted his position that Christians should “sacrifice the business for the conscience” when there is an obvious deviation from Biblical standards. ERLC Director of Communications Joe Carter took to Twitter to accuse Kirsten and I of having “embarrassed” ourselves with the column.
So, is our argument really that far off base? I reached out a variety of leading theologians the evangelical world respects to get their take. They uniformly found the use of 1 Corinthians in this case to be a misapplication.
Heather Kopp was a self-described “Christian drunk.” She kept secret stashes of booze all over the place–hidden behind books on her shelf, tucked away in a special compartment in her purse, stuffed inside her boots at the back of her closet. Even as her career and marriage teetered on the brink, Kopp couldn’t get a grip, desperately hiding the true extent of her drinking problem. During the day, she wrote books about God and prayer and family; at night she’d locked herself in her bathroom to guzzle chardonnay.
Kopp details her experience–and how she escaped addiction–in her new book, Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk. Here we talk about addictions, recovery, and why her faith was a hinderance to getting help.
JM: Your book is intense–plain and simple. What was it like reliving your experiences while writing it?
HK: Both awful and wonderful, actually. The awful part was seeing my story in black and white and recognizing just how bad it got. I was reminded how much I hurt other people, especially my kids. I’m sure this is one reason it took me more than two years to write the book.
Wierdly, facing the ugly truth was also the wonderful part. It’s hugely important for those of us in recovery to never forget what it was like in the darkest days of our drinking. The longer we’re sober, the greater the likelihood that we’ll forget. And I don’t want to. That’s why recovery meetings are so important.
JM: In Sober Mercies, you imply that your Christian faith was more of a hindrance for you getting help with alcoholism than a help. Explain.
People are choosing to join churches as formal members less frequently, according to new research explored by Dr. Thom Rainer in his newest book I Am a Church Member. As president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, Rainer is the perfect person to investigate the reasons why church membership is on the decline and present a new model for churches and their people. He admits that his book presents an “idealized depiction of church membership,” but he points out the dangers of approaching the church and the Christian life with a “me first” attitude instead of an “others first” attitude.
Rainer is the author of 22 books, and holds a PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he worked for 12 years as the founding Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. Here we talk about the attitudes and concerns of today’s evangelicals toward church and church membership, particularly in light of recent church abuse scandals.
JM: You have written extensively on millennials, both in your book The Millennials and on your blog. We know that many millennials are either walking away from the church altogether or are at least shying away from formal church membership. Did you have this generation in mind when you wrote I Am A Church Member and if so, what do you hope your book will communicate specifically to Millennials?
TR: I did not have the millennials in mind specifically when I wrote I Am a Church Member. But my research on that generation shows they are leaving churches because those churches are focused on themselves. Millennials want to make a difference and to be a part of something that makes a difference. I hope my book communicates to millennials and others how they can have the right mindset to make a difference in a local congregation.
Children are notorious for spreading germs and sickness. But what happens when a seriously ill child’s parents are faith healers who don’t believe in medicine? The answer is, they die.
In 2009, Herbert and Catherine Schaible’s two-year-old son Kent died of pneumonia after being sick for about two weeks. The parents, who failed to seek medical care due to their religious beliefs, were convicted of manslaughter and child endangerment. Rather than slapping them with a prison sentence, the court placed the parents on probation and ordered them to seek medical care in the future if their children needed it.
Predictably, the Schaible’s ignored the court order and now a second son, 18-month old Brandon, has also died in circumstances that Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore described as “eerily similar.” The couple has been charged with third-degree murder and, according to The Associated Press, could face up to 14 years or more in prison if convicted.
The Schaible’s are members of the fundamentalist First Century Gospel Church in Philadelphia, PA. Articles on the church’s website claim that purchasing any type of insurance “is against the principles of Bible teaching and practice.” Sermons for download focus on the topics such as the evils of Halloween and Gambling, and ironically, the danger of false teachers.
One sermon titled, “Healing – From God or Medicine?”, uses a litany of verses purportedly forbidding Christians from using medicine.
“A minister who claims to teach from the Bible, but goes to a hospital for medical help, is not trusting God in faith on the Blood sacrifice of His Son. The minister’s decision reveals his serious lack of faith,” the preacher proclaims in the aforementioned sermon. “To preach that Jesus came to save us, but not to heal us, is false teaching—and we are to watch out for false prophets.”
One can’t help but wonder if First Century Gospel Church’s pastor is himself the kind of false prophet he warns against. After all, the congregation and its mother church, Faith Tabernacle Congregation, have been responsible for the deaths of at least 22 children.
Though most Christians presumably eschew the Schaible’s theological views regarding medical care, some will attempt to defend them on the grounds of religious freedom. But Shawn Francis Peters, author of When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law and University of Wisconsin professor, says this argument will not stand.
“Throughout history, there have always been limits placed on religious liberty and all our constitutional freedoms. The courts have never given people unlimited religious freedoms,” he told me. “They’ve always balanced it with public order, the rights of minor children, and other things.”
Peters says this case won’t likely set judicial precedence because of the murky laws in many states governing whether parents can use religious practices in lieu of medicine and the sympathy typically extended by courts to misguided parents who seemingly love their children.
But when asked if the Schaibles should go to jail, he offers and unequivocal yes: “They were clearly warned not to let this happen again. It may be uncomfortable to enforce the law against people who seem sincere, but I think that they have to go to jail.”
Sadly, however, Peters says their imprisonment won’t solve the problem.
“Lots of people, like the Schaibles, don’t care about the law. They are going to do what they believe is right regardless, so putting them in jail won’t deter future offenders and it hasn’t historically,” he says. “And when someone thinks that the State is some sort of extension of the Antichrist, then penalizing someone like them can actually reinforce your ideas. It won’t cause you to reflect.”
Peters says that since people won’t be coerced with the law in these matters, other congregations and community leaders must begin engaging those who hold these sorts of views and help guide them in reconciling their convictions with medical science. Civic dialogue and education seems to be at least a partial answer to addressing these matters in the long term, but that doesn’t settle the case before us.
The fact remains that the Schaible’s beliefs directly resulted in the death of not one, but two children. People who misapply the Bible at their own detriment is one thing, but endangering a child is another matter altogether. The Schaibles need to go to jail, and so should any other misguided faith healer whose beliefs result in another’s death. As I’ve said before, the ocean of religious liberty must stop at the shore of child welfare. Faith healers who endanger children should be placed on alert: You can believe whatever you wish, but if those beliefs result in the death of a child, you will go to jail.
Shane Claiborne doesn’t write books that tell you how to live. He writes books that he’s living.
At 38 years-old, Claiborne has become a leading figure in the New Monasticism movement. He is co-founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, PA and someone who believes Christians should engage the power structures of our day just as Jesus did. Claiborne always has a fresh twist on contemporary life that challenges everyone to rethink their walk with God. He’s the author of several books including The Irresistible Revolution, Jesus for President and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. Here he talks about church, politics, and co-writing Red Letter Revolution with Tony Campolo.
JM: Why was it important to have a multi-generational point of view in your book Red Letter Revolution?
SC: Tony Campolo and I both speak a lot, and we began to notice that there were some crowds of old folks that desperately needed some youthful energy, and there were other crowds of young folks that desperately needed some aged wisdom. There is a certain power when old and young come together—we can do more together than we can on our own.
When we were starting our community a bunch of older Benedictine nuns said to us, “If you have any questions or want to pick our brains, please do—we’ve been doing community for about 1,500 years together so we’ve learned a few things.” In fact, one of my closest friends and mentors is an 80-year-old nun who’s as wild as they come. We’ve gone to jail together many times for protesting bad laws. (It’s always a good idea to have a nun next to you when you get arrested!) Whenever folks say radical Christianity is “a phase” of youth, I tell them they need to meet our 80-year-old nun or my friend Tony Campolo . . . they’ve been in the “phase” of radical faith for 50 or so years now.
So it was a gift to write this book with an old man with no hair, but who has dreams as I do. There’s something beautiful about that Scripture that says, “Your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). We need each other. There is power when the old and young dream together. The dreams get anchored in aged wisdom not some utopian fantasy. Every 70-year-old needs a young person in their lives to mentor, and every 20-year-old needs a senior.
When I was a child, my grandfather burned trash in a heap out behind his house. I loved throwing old magazines and paper plates into the white-hot center, piece by piece. The once-colorful pages and flower-dotted discs disappeared into billowy smoke.
The experience is actually a lot like what many Christians’ believe will happen at the end of time. It’s the kind of theology espoused in the popular Left Behind book series that, according to a Baylor University study, more than half of conservative Protestants say they have read. And it’s a view supported by many evangelical pastors and theologians today.
This view has been called “throwaway theology” or “scorched earth theology.” But those phrases don’t seem to do justice to the perspective, why people believe it, or what difference it may make. So I decided to devote some time to exploring the issue.
Is God going to incinerate the Earth in an apocalyptic bonfire? And, if so, does it really matter?
Peter, the Fire Starter
The idea that God is going to burn up the Earth is not Biblically unfounded. It’s rooted primarily in the writings of the Apostle Peter:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.”
What does Peter mean by “fire” and “laid bare”?
First, we note that the picture of fire in the Scripture is most often something that purifies rather than destroys. The presence of God and the Holy Spirit are associated with fire, for example, but this doesn’t mean that coming into contact with God will destroy you. Rather, It transforms you. It burns away the old creation to reveal the new creation in Christ.
Peter, who seems particularly interested in the image of fire, actually writes early in his first epistle that Jesus has given us a new birth to test the “genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire.” He may have been riffing on the Prophet Malachi who says more directly to our point: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”
Peter, and Malachi before him, speak of a refiner’s fire whereby Christ burns away the impurities to leave only what is pure. He also compares this event to Noah’s flood, which didn’t destroy the Earth but cleansed it. So “to be laid bare” here does not mean to “burn up” or “incinerate.” This is what Peter explains when he writes, “Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
A new heavens and new earth is a space where all the impurities have been burned away and the creation—which God called “good” in Genesis 1—is purified to what God intended it to be. As N.T. Wright, perhaps the foremost living New Testament scholar, says in The Early Christian Letters for Everyone:
As with the rest of the New Testament, Peter is not saying that the present world of space, time and matter is going to be burnt up and destroyed. That is more like the view of ancient Stoicism – and of some modern ideas, too. What will happen, as many early Christian teachers said, is that some sort of ‘fire’, literal or metaphorical, will come upon the whole earth, not to destroy, but to test everything out, and to purify it by burning up everything that doesn’t meet the test. (119)
There are other reasons to think that Peter doesn’t teach what some evangelicals think he does, but suffice to say that I do not believe the world will be incinerated like my grandfather’s garbage. I believe the whole creation will be restored to the perfect state it was created in through a refinement process when Christ returns (see, for example, Paul’s teachings in Colossians 1). And I believe this because of the Bible, not in spite of it.
The Future “Fire” and Our Present Reality
So what difference does one’s view on the Earth’s final future really make? For some, it has a profound impact on one’s understanding of creation stewardship A few years ago, for example, I participated in a debate on creation care at a small Baptist college in the Southeast with an outspoken opponent of environmental care. At one point in the exchange, he grew frustrated with me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Well, it’s all going to burn up anyway.”
“If that is the case,” I said, “then would you be willing to walk outside this lecture hall and smoke a pack of cigarettes in front of all these attendees?”
He looked puzzled.
“If everything is ultimately going to be destroyed—even you and your body—and according to you, that negates our responsibility in the meantime, then it doesn’t matter if you have a good smoke,” I said. “So I’ll pay for the pack of Camels.”
His comments and others who think like him seem to beg the question, “Why care about the future of an earth that has no future?” But my point in response was not lost on him or the audience. Something inside of him instinctively knew that the future of his physical body didn’t alter his responsibility to care for it in the present. In the same way, believing that the Earth will one day be destroyed, doesn’t release us from our present obligation to manage these properly in the interim. While believing that the physical world will end in an apocalyptic barbeque may cause some to avoid caring for creation, it shouldn’t.
Jesus was clear that those who follow him must love their neighbors. This love means we have to consider not only those who we borrow cups of sugar and leaf blowers from, but also our global neighbors around the world. And Jesus was also clear that we must care for “the least of these,” which include the poor and vulnerable around the globe who are most affected by environmental degradation. Even if there was no explicit command to care for creation–and there is–these exhortations would be enough. If we love the Creator and the Son He sent, we must care for the creation and those who depend on it.
One of Jesus’ most famous stories sheds a final beam of light on this issue. In Matthew 25, Jesus talks about a businessman who gives his servants some money and then heads out of town. Two servants cause the money to flourish and grow while a third buries it in the ground and goes about his business, never giving it a second thought. When the business owner returns from his journey, he comes to settle accounts. The ones that cared for what he left in their charge he rewards, and the one who ignored his responsibility was cursed.
When the Master returns one day, Jesus says, he will ask a very direct question: “What did you do with all the stuff I left in your care?”
- What did you do with the people I brought into your path?
- What did you do with the needs in your community you had the ability to meet?
- What did you do with the creation I called “good” and asked you to care for?
No matter what happens to the Earth at the end of time—whether it is destroyed or refined—this question will need to be answered. And when it does, the Scripture says, the nations will be stirred up, the dead will be judged, and the time will come for God to “reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”
What we believe matters and what we do with those beliefs does too.
Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article in Christianity Today by Mark Galli titled, “Rob Bell’s ‘Ginormous’ Mirror.” In it, he criticized Bell for believing “our knowledge of God is grounded not in doctrine, the Bible, the preached Word, the sacraments, our institutions, or even what Jesus revealed…but in our experiences and our intuitions.” This theological system is what Mark calls “the religion of experience” that “tempts us to make feeling an idol” and “leads nowhere except the barren desert of the self.”
As proof that this dangerous emphasis on experience has spread farther than Rob’s reaches, he points to Margaret Feinberg and her new book Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God. This immediately caused confusion because I’ve read both Margaret’s and Rob’s most recent works. Anyone who infers that these two authors are cut from the same theological cloth or believes that Margaret is promoting an experience-based faith simply isn’t paying attention. Her books and sermons are always grounded deeply in scripture as the ultimate source of knowledge of God, though she believes as most Christians do, that knowing God should lead us to experience God regularly.
Since this forum is a place of civil dialogue on matters of faith and culture, I asked Margaret to offer her response to Galli’s piece. She graciously agreed:
Over the past few years, Rob has become a lightning rod of controversy. Wherever his name is mentioned the Internet snipers come out to play, and I’m allergic to haterade. That’s why whenever I tackle controversial topics on my blog, I try to do so with gentleness, grace, and respect—attempting to ask the questions people aren’t asking, reflect on the irony, and offer a different perspective on the matter. (Though admittedly, I don’t always do these things as well as I’d like. Insert sad emoticon).
But most of all, I always make sure that I’m returning again and again to the Bible to mine the rich wisdom we find there as the foundation and filter for our lives. I’m an author and a Bible teacher, not a mystic. In fact, I haven’t even been able to read Rob’s book yet because I just finished leading people to read through the entire Bible in 40 days for Lent. The stacks of unread books at my house are out of control.
So how did Wonderstruck get lumped into this article?
As a journalist from Portland, Oregon, Tom Krattenmaker sought to tell a story he wasn’t part of. Like most secular progressives, he didn’t run in evangelical circles, yet the story—about the evangelicals who didn’t make the headlines, but imitated Christ—proved irresistible. His USA Today article recounting his experience won a journalism award in 2009 for being one of the top three pieces of religious commentary that year and led him on a larger quest to fully probe the depths of the evangelical movement. The result is a new book entitled, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians. Here Tom and I talk about what he discovered and how he thinks the future of American Christianity looks like.
JM: How do you define the “common good” in your book?
TK: The “common good” is the good that affects everyone regardless of her/his religion, politics, identity or status. One of the most exciting things about the “new evangelicals” is their emphasis on the common good. This is a refreshing contrast to what evangelicals have become known for in progressive circles over the course of 30-40 years of the culture war; namely, being a movement or group viewed as insular, looking to enhance and protect its own power and prerogatives, and often not at the table where interfaith and intercultural exchanges happen. This view was never entirely fair, of course, but there have been enough examples in the public eye to help this catch on and hang on. Here’s the other thing about the common good: It’s inconvenient in an inspiring way. Unlike utilitarian concepts of the greater good, or philosophies that maximize the good for the largest number of people, promoters of the common good are not okay with the powerless or most vulnerable paying the price for someone else’s good. For example, who will remember that forgotten prisoner or abandoned baby? I’m impressed by the way evangelicals are stepping up for these people, and it bodes well for our society and evangelicals’ good standing in that society.