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I went to see Bill Maher’s Religulous a few weekends ago with an Independent Film Club I found on Most of the club’s members were thrilled to watch a movie that shared their perspectives on religion.

Obviously, my posture on controversial films like Maher’s is that it’s better to engage than censor. Christians would do well to know what a growing segment of Americans think about them, and Maher’s work is surely representative of many.

Maher points to the latest Pew Forum study, which reveals that 16% of American adults are unaffiliated with any religion. (By the way, our Percept studies show that Uptown’s unaffiliated population is 34-44%—more than twice the national percentage.)

Interestingly, one of my non-Christian friends was rather surprised that I planned to see the movie. He said, “I mean, I’m not even a religious person and I don’t like what [Maher’s] doing.” So maybe Maher isn’t representative of all 16%.

On the whole, I thought the movie was both hilarious and disturbing. I laughed and gasped all the way through it. I’ve seen very few “documentaries” that captured the audience’s attention the way Religulous did.

And I found myself agreeing with Maher throughout most of the movie. Many of the people he interviewed were missing the point, missing the teachings of Jesus.

But my agreement with Maher was simultaneously the source of my disappointment with the film. In short, he most frequently picked on the religious people easiest to pick on: nominalists and fanatics. The movie largely turned out to be a caricatured picture of religion based upon vignettes of religious crazies—which is a legitimate project in itself, don’t get me wrong.

But Maher almost totally misses the segment of religious people—Christians in particular—who are thinking and living more deeply into the way of Jesus.

I found myself turning to a book I’ve read recently as a way of helping me to process what I watched: Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. [This book is a must-buy. It will, in my opinion, be a (if not the) prominent apologetic for the next generation …not to be used as a ‘conversion book’, by any means, but as a conversation starter with skeptics.]

Here’s one pertinent quote:

Many people who take an intellectual stand against Christianity do so against a background of personal disappointment with Christians and churches. We all bring to issues intellectual predispositions based on our own experiences. If you have known many wise, loving, kind and insightful Christians over the years, and if you have seen churches that are devout in belief yet civic-minded and generous, you will find the intellectual case for Christianity much more plausible. If, on the other hand, the preponderance of your experience is with nominal Christians (who bear the name but don’t practice it) or with self-righteous fanatics, then the arguments for Christianity will have to be extremely strong for you to concede that they have any cogency at all. (52)

Keller goes on to explore the common spectrum used with nominal Christians on one end and fanatical Christians on the other:

In this schematic, the best kind of Christian would be someone in the middle, someone who doesn’t go all the way with it, who believes it but is not too devoted to it. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically a form of moral improvement….

What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? …. The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.

Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding—as Christ was. (57)

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Maher ends his film by proposing that the world would be better off without religion. Religion, then, is a mental neurosis of which people need to be healed.

The correct alternative is ignorance—to admit we have no idea what’s really going on with the spiritual realm and higher powers. Maher seems to hold to this belief as dogmatically as any religious fundamentalist or devout atheist would hold to theirs. The irony abounds.

Yet Keller would point out that secularism hasn’t been the answer to the world’s problems either. Take Communist Russia, for instance: a project based on atheism that didn’t turn out much better than the worlds created by religious crazies.

Perhaps the answer is not to reject religion—Christianity in my case—in favor of disbelieving secularism but rather to live more deeply into the way of Jesus. As Keller wisely states,

The typical criticisms by secular people about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity’s own resources for critique of itself [e.g., the Prophets]….The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. (61-62)

If you enjoyed this post, you’d probably also enjoy a much better review of the movie by my friend Steve Holt at Jesus Manifesto.

Off-Road Disciplines

Charles Kiser —  September 29, 2008 — 8 Comments

I don’t know about you, but daily prayer and Scripture reading don’t really do it for me—by which I mean they don’t constantly nurture my relationship with God. That’s not to say that they aren’t a valuable or even indispensable part of the life of a follower of Jesus.

It’s just that my most meaningful times of connection with God don’t take place in the midst of such daily rhythms.

I’ve always felt kind of guilty about this. I’ve never been very good at “daily quiet time,” yet the concept is the most common answer I’ve received in my life about how to nurture my relationship with God.

Earl Creps eased my guilt a bit, however, by pointing out several dilemmas with the traditional duo of daily prayer and Bible study in his book Off-Road Disciplines (p. xv):

  • Scarcity: they aren’t practiced enough
  • Practicality: they often operate in isolation from real life, like the national anthem before a ball game
  • Performance: they aren’t easily correlated to ministry “success”— “unspiritual” people often accomplish a lot more than “more spiritual” people

  • Character: there are lots of bad people who pray and read their Bibles rigorously yet remain unchanged

  • Mission: there are lots of people committed to prayer and Scripture who have no concern for mission or even resist the changes it requires

Earl goes on to say that “on-road” practices of prayer and Scripture reading should be supplemented by other encounters with God that happen unexpectedly—“off-road” experiences. It’s these experiences that are often the formative ones for people.

Failure, for example, could be a legitimate “off-road discipline” to the extent it has the potential to be used by God to form our hearts to look more like the heart of Jesus.

For me, personal retreats are by far the most formative time for me spiritually—times when I break away for the purpose of doing nothing other than spending some time in reflection before God. I journal. I read Scripture. I pray. I prioritize a list of things to reflect on in God’s presence (that’s my type-A), and then reflect on as many of them as I have time.

I leave those times more in tune with God than I’ve ever left a morning quiet time. Certainly prayer and Scripture are involved, but in a different, “less rushed” way.

I’m not sure if retreating is an “off-road discipline” of the kind Earl describes. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not, looking at the table of contents. But it is, for me, a way of getting off the road of life for a while for the sake reorienting myself to God.

Today was one of those days. Thanks to a fellow church planter friend, Les McDaniel, I discovered a Carmelite Retreat Center about 6 miles from my house. It sits on about 30 acres and has private rooms for prayer and reflection. I spent the better part of the day there today and it was awesome. If you live in the Dallas area, you should definitely check it out:

Today I was reminded by Paul’s Pastoral Letters (1/2 Timothy, Titus), and then through the words of Earl Creps, that “my best practice must be me.” In other words, the foundation of my leadership and ability to bless other people is my own personal spiritual formation.

As a result, I’ve recommitted myself to retreat like this on a monthly basis. My own spiritual vitality requires it, at least for now.

Maybe it’s not retreating for you. Maybe it is daily quiet time—that’s great. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe, like me for a long time, you haven’t yet discovered what it is.

What ways do you nurture your relationship with God?

Dallas Willard on Politics

Charles Kiser —  September 29, 2008 — 1 Comment

This quote was too good not to post. From Dallas Willard’s Revolution of Character, pages 14-15:

The revolution of Jesus is first and always a revolution of the human heart. His revolution does not proceed through the means of social institutions and laws—the outer forms of our existence—intending that these would then impose a good order of life upon people who come under their power. Rather, his is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship with God and one another. It is a revolution that changes people’s ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations. It penetrates the deepest layers of their soul. External, social arrangements may be useful to this end, but they are not the end, nor are they a fundamental part of the means.

On the other hand, from those divinely renovated depths of the person, social structures will naturally be transformed so that “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24, NRSV). Such streams cannot flow though corrupted souls. At the same time, a changed “within” will not cooperate with public streams of unrighteousness. A transformed soul will block those streams—or die trying.

The impotence of political and social systems to bring about real change is one of the reasons Jesus didn’t send his students out to start governments or even churches as we know them today. These organizations inevitably convey some elements of a human system. Instead, his disciples were to establish beachheads of his Person, word, and power in the midst of a failing and futile humanity. They were to bring the presence of the kingdom and its King into every corner of human life by fully living in the kingdom with him….Churches—thinking now of local assemblies of Christ’s followers—would naturally result from this new kind of life.

Myth of a Christian Nation

Charles Kiser —  September 7, 2008 — 18 Comments

The best way to defeat the kingdom of God is to empower the church to rule the kingdom of the world—for then it becomes the kingdom of the world! The best way to get people to lay down the cross is to hand them the sword! (Myth of a Christian Nation, 94-95)

As our house church conversations on spirituality and politics draw to a close, I’m reading Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. I’m really enjoying it. It’s challenging. I can see it making a lot of Christian people mad—and necessarily.

Boyd’s central thought is a comparison of the fundamental difference between the kingdom of God and kingdoms of the world (of which America is a part). The kingdom of the world, on one hand is a “power over” kingdom, a kingdom of the sword, a kingdom that carries out its agenda—even for justice—based on its ability to coerce people.

The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is a “power under” kingdom. It’s a kingdom of love, service and humility. This kingdom is embodied by the cross—God’s non-violent response to evil in the world. It is non-coercive. It is thus utterly incompatible with the kingdom of world because it is not inherently based on exercising power over people.

Given all this, I return to the question: what level of political participation can a citizen of God’s kingdom have in kingdoms of the world that are inherently counter to the politics of God’s kingdom? The question itself seems to lean toward less participation.

Boyd addresses this question in a more extended way with this thought:

To be sure, a version of the kingdom of the world that effectively carries out law, order, and justice is indeed closer to God’s will for the kingdom of the world. Decent, moral people should certainly encourage this as much as possible, whatever their religious faith might be. But no version of the kingdom of world is closer to the kingdom of God than others because it does its job relatively well. For God’s kingdom looks like Jesus, and no amount of sword-wielding, however just it may be, can ever get a person, government, nation, or world closer to that. The kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world; it’s not something that any version of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life.

In fact, far from aligning any version of the kingdom of the world with the kingdom of God, kingdom-of-God participants must retain a healthy suspicion toward every version of the kingdom of the world—especially their own (for here it is most tempting to become idolatrous). After all, on the authority of God’s word, we know that however good a particular government may be by world standards, it is nevertheless strongly influenced by fallen principalities and powers. Consequently, no kingdom-of-God citizen should ever place undue trust in any political ideology or program….Not only this, but we know that however good a particular version of the kingdom of the world may be, it does not hold the ultimate answer to the world’s problems. (55)

That’s an interesting perspective: too much participation in the kingdom of the world might be a form of idolatry. Boyd argues explicitly in other places in the book that the American church has in fact practiced idolatry in this way.

How do you respond to Boyd’s thoughts?

Yesterday we visited an American Baptist/United Church of Christ/Alliance of Baptists/Emergent church that’s meeting in a Presbyterian church building in North Oak Cliff. It’s obviously quite a diverse community of faith.

I really enjoyed the service. It’s hard to describe it—kind of a contemporary-high church hybrid. In the pastor’s words, the church has one foot in Mainline Protestant churches (high church) and one foot in Emergent churches (contemporary). We listened to a jazz solo, sang an a cappella African song and followed a liturgy. The sermon was an actual conversation between the pastor and church members. Claudia Porche guessed that it might have been the most significant church experience we’ve had yet in our eight weeks of participant-observation.

At the heart of this experience’s significance for me was dealing with the tension of acceptance and transformation. This little eclectic church majored in the gospel value of acceptance. Everyone is welcomed and embraced, regardless of background, race, or even sexual orientation. We experienced this welcome and acceptance ourselves from church members after the service.

The church’s stance on sexual orientation got us talking at brunch afterwards. Though we hold different theological convictions on the subject of sexual orientation, we found ourselves drawn to the culture of acceptance there. We found ourselves asking: How do foster a culture of acceptance and at the same time value life transformation that results when the gospel is appropriated? How can we avoid judging people without loosening our grip on our theological convictions?

It’s a delicate balance. I recently read a book by John Burke addressing these questions called No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You Are Culture in the Church. Burke said a couple things that stuck out to me. First, unbelievers can’t be expected to fall in line with the transformative values of the gospel until they make a commitment to Jesus. Second, unbelievers don’t make a commitment to Jesus and experience life change without the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. Ministers can’t engineer conviction and transformation.

On a practical level I think Burke’s observations mean that we love people unconditionally and leave conversion and life change to the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the only one, after all, who can convict the human heart and bring about transformation. Unbelievers see the values of the gospel as they are lived out in the Christian community and the Holy Spirit uses that modeling as fodder for change.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I’m curious for your feedback on this matter.

How do you / your church community live in the tension between acceptance and transformation?