Our dear friends, Warren and Barbara Culwell, adopted their two daughters. This is the story of the oldest daughter, Lauren Claire:
Stuck in the Present
I’m sure most of us know that LOL stands for Laugh Out Load. When this abbreviation was first being used a friend used it in an email to me. I thought it meant Love O’ Lots!
There are now many of these abbreviations like TMI, Too Much Information or IDNK, I Did Not Know.
I hate all of them.
They remind me of the pathetic and phrenetic world we now inhabit. Speed and the attendant loss of attention spans is now the accepted, even lauded norm.
We have lost much by such verbal shortcuts.
Christians should joyfully stand against the dismantling of language.
IMO, of course!
How and How Not to be Happy brilliantly makes the case that happiness is found in a relationship with God. It makes the case incrementally by offering a number of alternatives to happiness and then showing their inadequacy. Since it slowly builds its case for the Christian faith, skeptics will be more likely to give the author the attention he deserves.
Jake Meador’s What Are Christians For? was published a few months ago. Instead of the standard book review, I am going to mention five things I appreciated about Meador’s book:
*Meador is an elegant and lucid writer.
*The author is compassionate and courageous in telling us some harder truths.
*There is a winsome and compelling treatment of how to steward the material world.
* There are beautiful reminders that place and people matter.
*Last, and certainly not least, Meador shows how the Christian faith makes sense of life and is in fact the best way to order one’s life.
Andrew Klavan has written a terrific book (Amazon link and two videos are below). His keen insights and marvelous writing are on full display.
Instead of a typical book review, I am going to list six things that I appreciated about The Truth and Beauty:
*Klavan is an honest, but not cynical writer. It’s not easy to write truthfully while still holding to a compelling hope, but Klavan does.
*There is a winsome and penetrating critique of materialism.
*Good sketches of key individuals and historic movements like the French Revolution provide helpful context.
*Klavan’s book contains a convincing account of how the Romantic poets (even the godless ones) have much to offer Christians.
*The author clearly did his homework by familiarizing himself with solid scholarship, but he does not write about pedantic details that most people do not care about.
* Last, and hardly least: there is a joyful confidence in the Bible. Klavan is an adult convert to Christianity, so he takes nothing for granted. His thoughtfulness and child-like faith in God are edifying.
These days we find a growing number of people deconstructing their Christian faith, while others say they no longer believe or have deconverted. The former lops off things that are deemed excess baggage to the true faith, while the latter is a full-fledged leaving of the Christian faith. We could debate whether those deconstructing are also deconverting, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Rather, my desire is to call us to remember what we seem to have forgotten. We Christians need to make a few things mainstays of our faith lest we keep losing our way.
I have my own frustrations with the American church, but I prefer to remain within the historic Christian faith among a community of thoughtful friends. Loyal and wise friends are indispensable to a healthy walk with God.
I often jest that I am a serial doubter, but it is hardly a joke. Doubts about certain teachings of the Christian faith have nagged me for four decades. My first book on the Christian understanding of hell was borne out of a personal struggle. Though I wrote that book nearly thirty years ago, my struggle with hell persists. I assume it and other questions will continue to plague me until the day I die. I take encouragement from Christian, the lead character in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Not only did Christian get waylaid by Doubting Castle, but at the end of his life this true believer’s last steps were fraught with terror. Christian and his friend Hopeful are crossing the final river before entering the Celestial City (=heaven). Christian is struggling with all kinds of doubt about whether he will make it across the river. Ironically, Christian is confident Hopeful is going to make it safely to the other side because Hopeful always had a sure and steady faith. Things are different for Christian. He is convinced that he will drown. Hopeful seeks to encourage Christian by saying that the river’s bottom can be “felt and that it is firm.” That is not immediately apparent to Christian, but he finally finds the river is indeed “shallow and solid.” With indescribable joy, but quite different experiences, the two friends arrive safely on the shores of heaven.
To put it crudely, just because you are a true Christian does not mean that you will die with a smile on your face. Heaven is yours, but you just may go through one final trial to get there. Not easy words to hear, but true ones. Anyone who has been around for the last days of a Christian’s life knows that there can be intense suffering both physically and sometimes even spiritually.
I believe in eternal security, but that does not necessarily mean that one’s pilgrimage here on earth will be free of struggles, fears, or even doubts. I am encouraged that my God promises to hold me regardless of the doubts that at times assail my sanity and stability.
Again, my motivation in writing this piece is not to describe the dynamics per se of deconstruction and deconversion. Plenty of ink has already been spilled in that regard, and even if you have not read about these things, you probably have a family member or friend who is a poignant testimony to this growing trend. My purpose in writing is to remind us of some things that are not getting the attention they deserve.
In keeping with the theme of sanity and stability, it is good to remember that there is a difference between Christianity and what Christians will say the Christian faith entails. This is especially acute since many “Bible-believing” Christians (as all the polling data shows) have minimal engagement with the Bible. Biblical illiteracy among those who tout their high view of Scripture is something I have witnessed in several places over nearly four decades of ministry. It is stunning when self-professed Christians mix a toxic brew of ignorance and arrogance. They may not know much, but some of these folks still demand that you listen to them. I am old enough to know I need not listen to such nonsense.
Here then are four areas that I believe we Christians must remember to take seriously. The erosion of all four is found broadly in places that name the name of Christ. All four of the following areas offer a powerful prophylactic against the temptation to deconstruct and/or deconvert. All four of these are also indispensable for the rest of us!
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CHRISTIAN EDUCATION?
In a podcast interview for my most recent book (Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians), the host asked if I was finding it easier these days to persuade Christians about the importance of learning. The host thought my need to persuade others might not be as great these days because all the present challenges both in and out of the church are so obvious and alarming. Perhaps I was seeing greater eagerness to learn about the Christian faith. Sadly, I responded that my need to persuade Christians to learn is as great as ever. Instead of the present challenges making Christians more eager to learn, I am finding that many are content to stay in their safe silos where one can supposedly be protected from the complex challenges of our day. The promise of pseudo safety trumps the embarrassment of being superficial. Fear trumps the risk of learning. And true learning is risky because you will find out how much you don’t know. When our youngest son taught philosophy, he told me that his number one priority was to convince his students how little they knew. Such exposure is embarrassing, so it is easier to hunker down in echo chambers where learning is limited.
I have asked different Christian groups whether anyone can give me the biblical texts that describe the proper boundaries of “faith, hope, and love.” In other words, what are the Bible verses that describe the difference between biblical faith and presumption, hope and wish-fulfillment, love, and a secular version of therapeutic well-being. Other than my wife, I have found most admit that they can’t do it. If the biblical boundaries of “faith, hope, and love” are not clearly understood, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know how pervasive the ignorance must be on other important Christian teachings.
The late J.I. Packer “mourned the eclipse” of Christian education (he used the word catechesis). Packer believed that its low priority was a main contributor to “the deepest root of immaturity that is so widespread in evangelical circles…” I agree. I believe our downplaying its importance makes people vulnerable to leaving the Christian faith for poor, but understandable reasons.
There are several factors that may lead to deconversion, but there is one that has not sobered enough Christian parents. I’ve seen it up close in a Christian school context, in parachurch ministry, and in pastoral work. It is a surefire recipe for disheartening your children about the Christian faith. They may still walk with God, but parents can make things more difficult for their children by failing to address an all-too-common problem.
It is not uncommon to find parents who desperately desire their children to be grounded in the Christian faith, but they themselves are apathetic. Years ago, while I was teaching at a Christian school, two high school seniors complained about their parent’s lackluster approach in following Jesus. One asked, “Mr. Moore, my father wants me to love Jesus first and foremost, but he is consumed with his brand-new BMW. What should I do?” The other said, “When I come home my mom makes it clear that I need to get studying Latin, but she is reading Glamour magazine.”
By the grace of God, children may still walk with God despite their parents’ hypocrisy. On the other side of things, I know parents who continue to grow in the “grace and knowledge of the Lord” despite having spiritually wayward children. These parents inspire me.
The late Dallas Willard used to say that he had a tough time finding churches who were committed to building disciples or apprentices of Jesus. People of all ages need to be formed in a more serious and comprehensive ministry of Christian education. Most of the Sunday school classes I have observed don’t come close to doing the job. Neither do the small groups I have observed. The research on small groups by the eminent sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, confirms my own observations. Focused attention must be given to equipping Christians to be lifelong disciples or learners. Church leaders need to provide an atmosphere where this sort of expectation is the normative path for all Christians. It must be an environment where everyone has the freedom to pose their most difficult or troubling questions. This assumes that churches have qualified leaders in both training and temperament.
I recently saw a quote being retweeted by those who heartily agreed with it. The quote came from a pastor I hold in esteem. He said, “The vast majority of Christians are educated past their level of obedience. If you would just do what you already knew, your life would change.” This pastor (and those who retweeted his quote) believes the answer to the spiritual doldrums is to stop putting such an emphasis on learning. What is needed is to get off one’s spiritual duff and go do something with what one already “knows.”
It’s a popular sentiment that I have heard a number of times before, but it misses some critical truths. For one, most American Christians don’t really have a good understanding of their faith. Again, the polling data shows this and my own varied experience over nearly forty years of teaching confirms it. In addition, the Bible makes clear that true knowledge of God leads to love. Finally, we should promote obedience but obedience that honors God is fueled by a maturing knowledge of God. The best love for God (and for human beings) is borne out of a deep understanding of who it is we are loving.
Consider the rigorous preparation of an NFL football player or of someone in the military who is headed to the front lines of battle. Why should we Christians settle for so much less in our own preparation?
MANY CHRISTIANS ARE NOT DESPERATE
I have read several books that seek to motivate Christians to read the Bible. What I believe is the biggest impediment to being an avid reader/student of the Bible has never been mentioned in any of these books. I am waiting to see it. It is this: if you are not putting yourself in situations where you need the resources of God or else you are keenly aware you will sink, you are not going to be an active learner of the Christian faith. You may be in that small percent that likes to learn for learning’s sake, but true Christian learning is meant to be lived and shared. Let me give one example.
If you share your faith on a regular basis, you will come across non-Christians wanting to know all kinds of things like why we Christians only honor the books that are in our Bibles. Why are these books so special? Didn’t powerful bishops in the fourth century use their power to ramrod the books of the Bible they wanted for inclusion in the canon? I have found few Christians able to give an answer to this question. Why is this? It’s quite simple and it is not because you must be a scholar to have a satisfactory answer. Rather, there is no urgent need to know this sort of thing if you steer clear of talking about Jesus with non-Christians. The engagement I find most common among Christians who do read their Bibles is to gain personal inspiration for the decidedly private faith that they are interested in living.
Christians have admitted to me that they avoid ministry opportunities to bear witness due to fear that they will not have a good answer to a non-Christian’s question. Nobody likes to be stumped, especially over a subject where good answers can be found.
I have various areas of disagreement with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), but I am indebted to how this ministry instilled the importance of putting yourself in places outside your “circle of confidence.” Early on, I was talking to people from different religions and cults. It motivated me to find better answers which then served as a catalyst to go out witness again. I was desperate to find better answers. Again, too many claiming the name of Christ aren’t desperate for better answers because they are not putting themselves in situations where they must bear testimony to why they believe what they believe.
I have some ideas for how churches could create a greater sense of desperation, but space limits me. Suffice it to say, pastors and church leaders would find it time well spent to brainstorm ideas for helping those under their care have more of a sense of desperation. They must first assess how desperate they are themselves.
Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert saw an abundance of Christians seeking to live supernaturally. Imagine if those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert observed many Christians saying no to American consumerism and individualism. Instead, these Christians were eager to trust God in faith-stretching endeavors all while displaying an attractive joy and confidence in the truth. I believe it would make those tempted to deconstruct or deconvert reconsider what they might lose by doing so.
MAKE CHRISTIANITY BEAUTIFUL AGAIN
Another thing I jest about, but it too is deadly serious, is that if I had to believe everything I hear on Christian radio, I would have to bail on the faith. Fortunately, I do not have to believe these things. Fortunate too that there remains some great music and lyrics on Christian radio, but buyer beware!
Other examples of “Christian art” too easily fall under the category of kitsch. Whether fiction, art, or music, too much is sentimental, superficial, and sloppy.
In the areas of biblical studies and theology, we have lots of competent people doing excellent work. I am grateful for these faithful Christians. Our large library bears testimony to the value my wife and I place on such scholarship. In general, I would give high marks to these scholars and the rest of us “conservative” Protestants when it comes to describing and defending the Christian faith. However, I would not give us high marks on how well we Christians demonstrate the beauty of biblical truth.
My favorite writers of the past, people like Augustine, Pascal, Bunyan, Chesterton, Lewis, and Edwards, appreciated both the truth and beauty of God. We need to learn from them. Showcasing the beauty of the Christian faith along with its truthfulness would make people less tempted to deconstruct or deconvert.
Along with the need for more robust learning/discipleship and being in touch with our desperate need to grow, beauty provides a gracious power that addresses needs that we are not always aware we have. All three of these things are critical, but none have any lasting value if we fail to remember that Jesus is central to everything.
WHERE DID JESUS GO? LOVING FADS, LOSING JESUS
A few years back I went to the graduation ceremony for those who completed a rigorous drug rehabilitation program. The testimonies of the graduates were stunning tributes to a great and gracious God. When the ceremony was over, I asked the founder a few questions about the program. He said people did not have to be Christians to participate. They did need to commit to be in a small group where members slowly read and discussed the gospels. What he next told me is one of the best things I have ever heard about Jesus. He said, “They are not always convinced that Jesus is who he claimed to be, but they want him to be.” Seeing how Jesus treated people with dignity and respect was compelling for these addicts. The beautiful compassion of Jesus captivated them.
In Tim Larson’s fascinating book, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, he mentions various Christians (including pastors living in the Victorian era) who deconverted from the Christian faith. Several did so due to the attacks on the Bible by the “higher critics.” That part of the story has already been told by A.N. Wilson in his influential book, God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. What had not been well known is that a number of these deconverts came back to the Christian faith due to a fresh engagement with the Bible. They found that the Bible has a thicker, more realistic view on reality than the views promulgated by the skeptics. Several reconverted after finding the Christian faith described life more accurately than the descriptions of the most ferocious critics.
It is far past the time for American Christians to settle for a faith that could easily be gathered from a collection of pithy quotes on bumper stickers. Jesus and the faith that centers on him is true, compelling, worth giving our life for, and beautiful.
If you pay careful attention to the conversations of American Christians, you may start to wonder what happened to Jesus. Jesus supposedly undergirds and empowers all that we do, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to what most of us talk about. He is assumed to be central to everything, but our conversations seem to be animated by ministry strategy and leadership principles along with a host of other things. Things like ministry strategy and leadership principles have their place, but if we are not “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus” we are in deep waters. We might end up being unlike Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress. We may be drowning, and we may be unaware of the danger.
A few months back, my own pastor preached a terrific sermon from Colossians. Peter made it crystal clear that Jesus is central to everything. He winsomely teased out some important implications that flow from this reality. Preaching that reminds us of the central place of Jesus is always critical. I’m afraid that it is not common these days. Alan Jacobs said pastors could legitimately warn their congregations every week about the dangers of technology. In the same vein, pastors should regularly make it clear that Jesus is central to everything. If the person, work, and yes, beauty of Jesus are not clearly brought before the body of Christ on a regular basis, we should not wonder why so many wander (I Cor. 14:8).
As Rev. 2:4 tells us, we need to remember from where we have fallen and “go back and do the things we once did.” Repentance that leads to remembering what really matters is the answer for all of us, whether we be the person who is deconstructing our faith or the larger amount of us who still sit dutifully in church pews but are increasingly not sure why we remain.
David George Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books
I am grateful to David Campbell who read an earlier version of this post. Several of David’s suggestions made it a better piece. Any errors in judgment and/or style are mine alone.
Moore: What motivated you to write Thinking Christian?
Spencer: I approached Thinking Christian with a couple of motivations. The first came from teaching “Developing a Christian Mind” for Right On Mission. Students struggled to understand the examples and context of Harry Blamires’s 1963 work titled The Christian Mind. I wanted to offer an updated treatment of Christian thought that wrestled with matters of contemporary concern.
The second motivation was more personal. My last two years in higher education were physically and emotionally draining. In addition to dealing with major budgetary and enrollment issues that would result in staff and faculty layoffs, we were also dealing with a public relations crisis due to a variety of accusations.
Thinking Christian was my way of reflecting theologically on some of the dynamics I experienced during those last two years. Writing the book became my way of coming to terms with that tumultuous period of life. Looking back on the process of writing Thinking Christian, I would say that each essay is the fruit of a deep period of prayer and study. My goal was to contribute to the church’s thinking and to rediscover my own sense of contentment in Christ.
Moore: Over the years, I have read many books with titles like The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, John Stott’s Your Mind Matters, and Love Your God with all Your Mind by J.P. Moreland. How does your book make a fresh contribution?
Spencer: Thinking Christian makes a couple of unique contributions. First, I’ve attempted to highlight the need for a church capable of training Christians to think Christian. The church needs to counter the world’s logics so Christians learn to approach the world as a people who look and listen with theological eyes and ears. For instance, James urges us to be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen. While Christians would likely affirm James’s command, it isn’t always clear that we have embraced James 1:19-20 on social media platforms that increasingly encourage us to be quick to speak, quick to anger, and slow to listen. Counter-acting that latter logic seems to me to require a community that trains us to use a biblically rooted theo-logic. I hope Thinking Christian makes a contribution in that respect.
The second contribution is related to Thinking Christian’s evaluation of Christian thought in the digital age. The church has not adequately considered the implications of new technologies and technology practices. Thinking Christian offers some direction for thinking about issues like Christian testimony and accountability by reckoning with the new media and technology environment in which the church seeks to offer a faithful witness.
Moore: What are some of the best practices you have seen for getting out of our self-imposed echo chambers where everyone agrees with one another?
Spencer: First, just as Israel’s king was to write a copy of the law every year, we need to keep God’s word close. The goal is, in part, to ensure that we do not come to believe that our incomplete understand of the world is complete. God’s word has a way of disabusing us of such notions by constantly reminding us that we only know in part.
Second, we have to create quieter spaces in our lives. We have to turn down the volume so we can think more deeply about our decisions and the positions we hold.
Finally, we have to set aside our “us versus them” mentality which creates unnecessary conflict that keeps us from understanding the perspectives of others. That mentality conditions us to react to “opposing views” by doubling down on our own arguments. If we can learn to approach others as people seeking to make a contribution, we can maintain our convictions while evaluating the ways information sources help and/or hinder our ability to see more faithfully what God is doing. This orientation requires the humility to recognize the incompleteness of our own views. That humility will help us resist the echo chamber.
Moore: What are some tangible things that pastors can do to equip Christians to be ready to give a loving and thoughtful engagement with non-Christians?
Spencer: I think pastors would do well to remind congregants that everyone feels the brokenness of the world in different ways. As Christians, part of loving our neighbors involves learning how they feel the world’s brokenness and how they seek to address it. Once we understand our neighbors, we can proclaim Christ as the only and final solution to the brokenness they see. There is a place to address specific individual sins and to be proactive in sharing the gospel, but I’ve found that non-Christians are more willing to consider the gospel when I listen to them first.
Of course, in today’s world who we are in our one-on-one interactions with non-Christians will likely need to match who we are in our digital interactions. As such, pastors also need to encourage congregants to consider their witness comprehensively. So often we fool ourselves into thinking that liking, posting, sharing, and commenting are effective ways of changing the world when they may actually be distractions pointing the world away from Christ.
Moore: In your book, you mentioned James Clear’s comment that “we don’t rise to our goals, but rather fall to our systems.” For those not familiar with Clear’s work, would you describe first what he means, and secondly what bearing that sage observation means for Christian learning?
Spencer: I’m always quick to say that earning a PhD isn’t simply about being disciplined or intelligent. It requires a support system. My wife, for instance, supported me financially and emotionally while I completed by coursework. My goal was to earn a PhD, but without the support systems of my wife and others, I’m not sure I would have achieved that goal.
Clear is making a similar point. Our systems can hinder our ability to achieve our goals because they create environments. All environments afford us certain opportunities while withholding others. If we try to reach goals within a system that does not afford us the opportunities necessary to achieve those goals, it will be far more difficult, though not impossible, to achieve them.
When we apply this understanding to Christian learning, we will likely recognize that we exist within systems that have no interest in seeing us be and make disciples for Jesus. As such, the goal of faithfully witnessing to Christ is made more difficult by the systems in which we exist. We need a system that fosters and supports discipleship. The church is to offer such a “system.” If it’s not, we all need to address it.
Moore: Your wide and eclectic reading, especially writers outside your own Christian tradition, models an intentional desire to not be stuck in your own echo chamber. What are some things that first motivated you to delve into writers with very different worldviews than your own?
Spencer: My interdisciplinary focus developed out of my rather odd career path. I’d pursued a PhD in theological studies with the intention of becoming a faculty member. I wanted to write and teach. As it turned out, I started my career as an assistant dean of an online department before transitioning into a role as academic dean and now as president of a Christian non-profit.
While I was learning the ropes as an administrator, evaluating pedagogical strategies, guiding education finance, and overseeing marketing and recruitment, I made an effort to think theologically about systems, process, policies, and curricula. Doing so required me to interact with business, educational, psychological, and sociological literature.
I came to appreciate the way that interdisciplinary engagement challenged me to think theologically. The novelty of other fields made me explore the scriptures and do theology in ways I would not have otherwise. It has kept me open to new ideas and insights, as well as helping me to clarify my own biblical and theological convictions.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from your book?
Spencer: Ultimately, I want readers to recognize that Christians have a unique capacity to proclaim Christ in a fallen world. We need to say and do what only we can. We can’t allow political, socio-cultural, or economic crises to overshadow God and the gospel. We can participate in these realms, yet fixing political, cultural, and economic problems has to proceed from an unwavering commitment to be and make disciples. Only Christians can proclaim the gospel in deed and in truth.
I would also like readers to recognize our need to conform our speech and behavior to a theo-logic that is less concerned with solving society’s problems than pointing to God’s solution for the world’s brokenness. That doesn’t mean we ignore the world’s brokenness. As James notes, practicing pure and undefiled religion involves engaging that brokenness. It does mean that we aren’t called to fix the world, but to live faithfully within it.
I hope readers walk away from Thinking Christian with a renewed desire to build the body of Christ, to outdo one another in showing honor, and to observe God’s teachings, however inconvenient or ineffective it may seem to do so, so that the world may seek Christ in us.