Archive for February, 2007

Evangelicalism: A Bird’s Eye View

I just read a great article by Philip Yancey on called “Not What it Seems: A Bird’s-Eye View of Contemporary Evangelicalism.” The article is a compilation of Yancey’s reflections on the church from his travels in the U.K. and U.S. last fall promoting his new book on prayer. You need to read the whole thing (which you can find here), but here are his main observations in summary:

Christians in Great Britain seem more serious about their faith than their counterparts in the U.S. In a nation where only 6 percent of the population attends church, there is no overlay of cultural Christianity and no social advantage to church affiliation. As I have noticed in other countries, when Christians constitute a tiny minority, they are more likely to work together, too. With their impressive infrastructure, American churches tend to do things on their own or work within a denomination. One more difference: British audiences still hunger for content, whereas in America content goes over best when enwrapped in entertainment.

If you drew your conclusions from CNN, you would view Christians, and especially evangelicals, as a voting bloc to be manipulated by politicians, with news about them punctuated by the occasional sexual scandal. Go out in person, however, and you will meet countless people of faith who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus even when it cuts against the grain of culture.

My, how church architecture has changed! I spoke at a 300-year-old church in Connecticut that Jonathan Edwards attended as a teenager. It retains the wooden, pew-lined boxes that used to be rented to families who would sit together in a square around a heater. As a result, half of the listeners have their backs to the speaker. Across the continent in California, churches are rehabbing warehouses and strip malls, installing plush seats and giant video screens on which to project praise choruses.

The world is full of pain. The prosperity promised on religious television must exist in some alternate universe from what I encounter as I visit churches in person. For all its faults and failures, the church offers a place to bring wounds and to seek meaning in times of brokenness and struggle.


dad is blogging

If you didn’t know it already, my dad is blogging.  After 30 years in “pro ministry,” he now finds himself driving a big rig around the Southeast, which is definitely a continuation of a life of ministry.  I can’t tell you how proud I am of his “leap of faith” into an uncertain path, but one which seems to be (at this point) God-led.

I encourage you to go check out dad’s blog &emdash; lovingly titled “Tales from the Truckin’ Trail” &emdash; where he journals his reflections from the road of life.  He’s a great writer, and I know you’ll be encouraged.

Amazing Grace: A Review

“Do you intend to use your beautiful voice to praise the Lord or change the world?”

“We humbly suggest that you can do both.”

We packed into a local theater with about 300 others last night to see the opening showing of Amazing Grace, the inspiring story of a man (William Wilberforce) whose faith led him to work tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade in England in the 18th century. The movie has been promoted heavily in Christian justice circles as a piece of inspiration needed to fight for the abolition of modern-day slaves around the world. Some have even been lauding the movie for its evangelistic potential. So you can be sure that the expectations were high going into the film.

For the most part, our expectations were met. The story of Wilberforce’s journey and impact stands on its own in many ways, so the job of the filmmaker is pretty much not to screw it up. It is the story — not any particular actor, including Ioan Gruffudd, who played Wilberforce — that makes this film shine. The story alternates between Wilberforce as a young politician and new believer eager to change the world and Wilberforce after 15 years of failed attempts to have the English slave trade abolished. His health failing, his spirit crushed, he meets Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), a headstrong beauty who shares William’s passion for abolishing slavery. She would serve as William’s inspiration to pick up the noble fight once more.

John Newton, who wrote the beloved hymn after which the movie is named, plays an important role in Wilberforce’s life. Newton had been William’s preacher as a child before going into solitude and quiet service to God for his remaining years. Before his conversion and entrance into the ministry, though, Newton had run a slave ship, so Wilberforce consulted his mentor and preacher as he considered taking up either a life of politics or a life of ministry. Like others in William’s life, Newton suggests that he can do both, and has a special interest in seeing that the slave trade is abolished. One of the more moving lines of the film came as Newton was finishing up his memoir of his years as a slavedriver to be used for evidence in Parliament. An emotional Newton said these words to William:

I wish I could remember their names. All 20,000 of ’em. They all had names — beautiful African names. We called them with grunts. We were apes … they were human.

OK, enough glowing comments — there were a few downsides. First, the title was a stretch. The hymn played a minimal part in the development of the plot, and I’m afraid it might be a turn-off to some movie-goers who think this is just another proselytizing offering from conservative Evangelicals. This was actually one of the more positive renderings of the Christian faith Hollywood has put out in recent years, and it is a film that a wider audience than just Christians needs to see.

Second, the film pretty much stayed fixated on late 18th century England, and a lengthier visual trip to Africa or Cuba or the New World to see first-hand the horrors of slavery would have broken the monotony (and served as a stronger slap-in-the-face for us complacent moviegoers). Think Hotel Rwanda. There are snippets of this in the movie, but the film follows Wilberforce almost exclusively, and far more attention is given to the Parliament chamber than the sugar fields.

Third, there were several characters whose role in the abolitionist movement wasn’t clear from this movie. A few of Wilberforce’s friends weren’t developed well enough in the film, though it seemed that the writer and director wanted them to play a more prominent role.

Fourth, I have heard that credit for Wilberforce’s successes likely belong to a few less-well-known men who came before him in the name of the abolitionist movement. The film portrays Wilberforce as the sole person deserving credit for the victory, making no mention whatsoever of any of his predecessors. (you history buffs feel free to set me straight on this one … this is just what I heard)

As you can probably tell, I have very little criticism to take away from this film. Perhaps the strongest criticism is of the hype surrounding the movie from modern-day Christian abolitionist organizations. I’m not sure the movie makes the emotional appeal for moviegoers to walk out of the theater and begin working to free literal slaves around the world today. Connected to this, I foresee no mass conversions of non-Christians as a result of seeing this movie, so if that is your church’s motivation in buying a theater-full of tickets, don’t waste your time. The stronger message of the movie, I feel, are these things: 1) the reality that the Christian faith has always included in its tenets a call to take up the cause of the oppressed and voiceless; and 2) the amazing things that can happen when humans — specifically humans driven by a commitment to God — work together to praise God by working to change the world.

letter to the editor

Saw this charming letter in this morning’s Abilene Reporter-News (online):

When groups of tens of thousands daily cross a country’s border, disregarding any and all laws of that country and circumventing or destroying any barriers in their way, it’s called an invading army.When this invading army stretches across the entire country, hoisting their flag, demanding all government documents be in their language, and that legitimate citizens give them preferential treatment and speak their language, that’s called an occupational army.

Legitimate citizens of a country who support, aid and abet an occupational army are called collaborators or traitors.

C.M. Wittmer, Abilene

People astound me sometimes with the things they say.

a different world … and how the church will respond.

Please take 6 minutes to watch this powerful presentation, created by high school student Karl Fisch and modified by Scott McLeod. I promise it will be worth your while:

We live in a different world than anyone ever imagined would exist. And it grows flatter and smaller every milisecond. The fact that you are reading someone else’s thoughts and watching video right now is a big case-in-point. I hope you watched the video above. It’s startling, really. I found myself saying over and over, “Wow. I didn’t know that.” Things are changing so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

This new, changing world we live in must inform how we as believers see our place in it. Doing the same old things yet expecting different results would be insanity.

Let me offer a few suggestions:

  • the smaller, self-organizing structures will be the ones capable of riding the waves of change in this new world. think movements. think networks. think grassroots. one of the newest and hottest business books right now — “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” — makes this case for organizations. could the same principle be applied to church structures? (I hope to read and blog about this book in the next few months)
  • the Shalom of Jesus has never been more relevant to a harried world than it is today. we must not back down from preaching it, with our lives first (that’s the hard part!).
  • we Christians in the West are the absolute last people on the planet to “wake up” to the realities that when Jesus is allowed to lead His church — not man — the gospel is an unstoppable force.
  • new media (the Internet, mainly) will not replace, but will complement (in some significant ways) the current and emerging manifestations of Christian community in the United States. in fact, it is already happening (blogs). we must be awake to that … the world grows smaller and flatter every second, thanks in large part to new media.
  • Western dominance on the world stage is not a given for the remainder of history … or even this century. the video above should have hinted at that. every empire in history has fallen, and the world climate certainly suggests that the world will see a new top superpower sometime in the next 20-50 years (if not sooner). is the Western church ready for both a gradual dismantling of institutionalized Christianity and an influx of radical baby “revolutionaries” into its fold? or, will the [evangelical] church largely remain wedded to the Empire until the bitter end…?
  • perhaps most importantly, followers of Jesus must recapture the radical nature of their master’s life and words and missions by living out the “red letters” of their Bibles first and foremost. the Christian has really two postures in a United States that is growing more post-Christian (few seem to be “joining up” … and millions are leaving the church each year) and ambivalent to the ethics of Christ: 1) buck up and try to yell louder than the heathen, picket and protest a lot, start getting the Focus of the Family action alerts, and basically burrow deeper in the cocoon or 2) “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
  • We must be people of prayer.

What would you add? Take out? Why?

documentaries about kids in precarious situations

It turns out that kids in brothels and Amish communities make great subjects for documentary films.

Untold millions of children in the world are born to sex workers. Tens of thousands of children in America are born to Amish families, who purposefully segment themselves off from the outside world to lead lives of radical simplicity and discipline.

Neither group chose their families. What will happen to them? Will they follow in the footsteps of their parents — either in lives of prostitution or in devout piety — or will their lives take a different path?

Two documentaries tackle these two seemingly different — yet surprisingly similar — topics.

Born into Brothels tells the incredible story of eight Calcutta children who live in a brothel, and the photographer (Zana Briski) who moved in and began teaching them to take pictures. She had intended to reach out to the prostitutes themselves, but the children latched onto her so much she couldn’t ignore their pleas for attention … her love for these children is evident throughout the film. She also didn’t plan on shooting a documentary — she invited a filmmaker friend over to India after she realized the unbelievable opportunity that existed to tell these kids’ story.

This film is not as depressing as the title suggests. The overall emotion the movie elicits is hope. Hope in the ability of the world’s poorest children when they are given a vision and license to fully utilize their creativity. Hope in the compassion of those “to whom has been given much” to share what they have been given with the less-fortunate. OK, I’ve said enough — just watch this movie.

Director Lucy Walker was given unprecedented access to the Amish community in several states to shoot and direct Devil’s Playground, a film about the choice teenagers have to either “go English” or join the Amish Church. During Rumspringa (which literally means “running around” in the native Pennsylvania dialect), Amish 16-year-olds are let loose (the have to “be back” before their 21st birthday) to experience the pleasures of the outside world and decide which world they will choose. One non-Amish teen said, “The Amish throw the best parties. They have tons of people, tons of beer.” A “preacher’s kid” begins to use and sell crystal meth. Complete debauchery is practiced by almost every Rumspringer and nearly encouraged by the rest of the Amish community. Some desire more than a “taste” of the outside world and decide to leave the Amish community for good. Most, however, move back in with their parents, begin working in the fields or warehouses or barns, and commit the rest of their lives to this devout and truly fascinating form of Christianity.
I was shocked at the tradition of Rumspringa and the actions it brings about in previously squeaky-clean Amish kids. I was shocked by the institutional loyalty among the Amish, not unlike that seen in the Catholic Church (these kids were not choosing or rejecting Jesus, they were choosing or rejecting the church). At any rate, this documentary — though fairly crudely shot and on the shorter side — is worth a look. The subjects themselves make the movie, and you’ll be drawn into their lives and their dilemma. If you’re like us, it’ll make you think about the ways more mainstream Christians disciple our children and approach the subject of salvation.

[I was also shocked to find out that nearly 90% of Amish teens join the church after Rumpspringa, and the retention rate is the highest it’s been since the late 1800s. That kills the retention rate of most mainstream Christian churches!]

swallowed by life

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

2 Cor. 4:16-5:5, Today’s New International Version

I read this verse — I mean really read it — for the first time the other night when thinking about a question Matthew posed in the comments of my last post.  That phrase — “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” — jumped out at me.  That’s what this thing is all about, right?  The mortal being swallowed up by life?

We will not see all that is mortal swallowed up by life until the end of time, of course.  But we believe that even though we are “wasting away,” we are inwardly being “renewed day by day.”

So we press on.