Exclusive: should Christians claim to have the only way?

All rights reserved by dkhlucyThere is a great outcry against the claims of Christianity to be the one right way and that Jesus Christ is the one true God. How could one religion have the arrogance to say that it is the only right way and that it has a monopoly on truth?

Something that must be understood is that truth must be exclusive. If it doesn’t claim to exclude falsehoods it cannot claim to be true. So all statements of truth are exclusive statements. Because of this each religion is making a claim to exclusive truth. Some are more willing to try to include (or really to co-opt)  others but even they do so within the parameters of what they say is true. But no belief system can be a belief if it’s designed to not be believed. That would be a bit silly.

I think one would also find it rather uncomfortable. Nobody wants to live in a land without borders. You see, if Jesus might be admired but is not making claims at the expense of other claims then we cannot even bother to trust him. If we say that there must be another “way” we automatically beg the question: another way to what, exactly? At that point we cannot even say what the goal is anymore. That is because goals that are not exclusive will never be reached. And what about Christ’s claim of love? Would we prefer a non-exclusive love? Would we like it better if Jesus loved not only goodness but also evil? Or that he makes promises we can trust but they are not exclusive? You cannot be satisfied by a belief with which you are merely shacking up.

But the offer of Christ is not exclusive. The gospel is not only for those of the right ethnicity or the right gender. It is not for the healthy and strong or the intelligent or wealthy. You do not have to be good enough for Christ, if anything you might have to be bad enough.

In our world we have “exclusive” clubs making the word synonymous with luxury and elitism. Places are said to be better because of the people they keep out: those who not good enough. The kingdom of heaven could understandably make the same claim. In fact, no institution of man really has the right to call itself great because it keeps out other men. Only the realm of God in all its holiness can do something like that. But God did not choose that way. He made a place that was magnificent not because of whom it kept out but because of who gets to come in.

Of course not all are accepted and this is one of the aspects of the kingdom which many are offended by. But it does not exclude because of who you are; it excludes those who cling to who they are… shall we say “exclusively”.

The truth of Christ is exclusive; the offer of Christ is not.

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Book Review: Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood

lost in transition 2Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: the dark side of emerging adulthood (Oxford, 2011 $27.95) is a refreshingly well-researched take on the current culture of young adults, using real interviews to expose rather than sloppy conjecture to complain.

Smith, a sociology professor at Notre Dame, and his co-authors interviewed hundreds of people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three and recorded many of their answers to questions on five topics: morality, consumerism, intoxication, sexuality, and civic and political involvement.

For the person who works with young adults or who has one that they care about this book is an excellent way to better understand their world. It deftly sifts through cultural assumptions about “kids these days” and exposes the cultural realities about which we thought we new. For anyone who likes to attach hard statistics to what are usually foggy general notions this is the right book.

In terms of the angle of the writing the book pushes toward the thesis that there is a set of alarming trends among what it dubs “emerging adults”. In each category of interview questions it reveals a lack of direction in thought and standards and penetrates into the often self-centered motives behind the lives of emerging adults.

From a philosophical perspective the first chapter alone is worth buying the book for. This is the only non-religious academic book I have found that pushes the conversation of morality back to the cliff of what the basis for morality is in the first place. The answers and questions illustrate with no uncertainty the lack of any coherent response by young adults and the objective need for an objective answer. The researchers have my gratitude for forcing such an important question.

It is not clear what the particular perspective of the authors is. In proper academic form they keep their personal opinions quiet, but it is clear that they are hinting toward a the need for some brand of coherent moral framework. If the book is written by Christian academics then it is an example of a sort of book almost never seen: a solidly academic work with objective research which puts the current moral culture in a skillful checkmate without resorting to knocking all the pieces off the board.  A sociological book based on actual interviews (and the Oxford name on the spine doesn’t hurt) is a valuable tool to have in order to site in a conversation of the basis for and cultural perceptions of morality that can hold the intellectual respect of secular readers. This is the sort of book I wish more Christians were trained and ready to write.

I recommend Lost in Transition to all in college ministry or who work with or simply love a college-age person.

Still

It is the enduring buzzword of the revolutionary of all stripes and it connotes such a multitude of individual meanings that it is batted about without ever being examined. Struggle: the clarion call of all who would seek to overthrow the perceived overlords in their lives and rise to their own independence.

The word “struggle” is ubiquitous in revolutionary literature. Voltaire said, “My life is a struggle.” Engels wrote that “[T]he whole history of mankind […] has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes […].” Mao Tse-Tung wrote: “Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible.” Hitler entitled his book Mein Kamp (“My Struggle”). And what does jihad mean but “struggle”?

What is the implication of the use of this word in social rhetoric? Just this: that if I try hard enough I can overcome the power over me with my own power or with the collective power of those who agree with me. I can do it. We can do it.

There is something very telling in the depictions of people in socialist propaganda posters. They are always very healthy, strong, intelligent. The farmer with his ramrod posture and sinewy forearms stands in front of a tractor or field of golden wheat. The thinker stands next to the soldier, both robust and enthusiastic. The only people who do not appear as glowing specimens of humanity are the actual leaders. Lenin looks like an old man. Stalin can’t lose the double chin. Mao is overweight. Hitler looks a bit too puny. But these are when photographs are used. When an artist drew the men they looked much more dashing and strong. The depiction of Hitler as a knight comes to mind. The years seem to fall away from a more spritely Lenin. Mao never improved much either way. The strength of the people is highlighted but the inconvenient reality remains: people are still just people. The message that our struggle is enough because we are strong enough does not reflect the reality of who we are.

The Bible holds a quite different message. At the impossible prospect of escaping the pharaoh’s chariots at the Red Sea Moses told the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” In Samuel’s last address to the Israelites he said, “Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the Lord will do before your eyes.” Before a great battle the prophet Jahaziel told the king, “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” In Psalm 46:10 the sons of Korah wrote, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth!”

“Stand firm”. “Stand still”. “Stand firm”. “Be still”. What the Bible offers is a mighty God, sufficiently powerful to overcome on your behalf. Scripture does not have to alter a person’s image in order to hide the weakness of reality behind the power of the paintbrush. It is honest about the weakness of man and like the father to whom the little child says, “I can do it myself!” is never swayed by vain professions of strength.

When the Jews hailed Jesus as the one who would complete their struggle over their political oppressors they forgot that he had said that the truth shall set them free. When they nailed him to the cross with that sign above his head they forgot that he told them that the one who sins is a slave to sin. When they buried him in the grave the disciples feared both Rome and the Jews under Rome. But when he rose they knew the Son had made them free indeed.

A Strange Habit

 

I have developed a strange habit over the years. You might say that I hadn’t really developed it like any other habit which grows over time. This habit is really not so much like washing one’s hands or biting one’s lip as it is an instinct, although it is curious for an instinct just the same.

 

What I do is this: whenever the lights go out suddenly or I come into a place where I really can’t see much of anything at all because of the darkness I instinctively close my eyes. I have no idea when or how this odd habit began and definitely no guess as to why. I do not know if it is something other people do as well or if I am the only one. But for whatever reason, I close my eyes when they aren’t being any use.

 

Now, of course our habits and reflexes are often not rational and I stand no chance of seeing any better if my eyes are closed. As dark as my surroundings may be I certainly stand a better chance of seeing if my eyes area open. If they are closed they will miss out on the use of even what scant light might still be there and won’t be ready when the light does come on. At the moment I need my eyes most they are shut.

 

I have noticed, however, a similarly curious habit of the soul that makes little more sense than the silly thing I find my eyes doing in darkness.

 

People, even of the thoroughgoing Christian sort, often ask how faith can stand in times of trouble. They look out the window at a world gone awry and wonder how they might rely on God. The look inside and ask how they can still hold onto God when all else tears at their grip on Him. How, in short, can they have faith when all looks bleak and frail?

 

These poor souls are closing their eyes when the lights go out. Asking how we can have faith when all seems dire is like asking how we can bother with our parachute when we are falling. If further analogy is needed please picture a sailor panicking and jumping ship in a storm.

 

I had a conversation with a young lady who was wondering how close God is when we are in pain. No small question and one that the Biblical writers asked as well. But for the believer God as closer to us than we are ourselves for He makes His home within us. He is not afar off but is closer than here.

 

Do not close your eyes in the dark. Hold to the one who is here, no matter what dark fear is snarling around out there. That, friend, is faith.

 

It Takes One to Know One

It is usually rather alarming for someone to find that they are doubting the very things that they have held most dear. It is possibly more alarming for people whose loved ones are doubting their faith.

Many Christians react to someone, especially a close loved one, doubting their faith with derision. They want to throw hard and fast answers and get the wayward soul back to a comfortable place. Often we do not think that good Christians ever deal with doubts about their faith, after all – we certainly don’t, do we?

But to this hypothetical dictator of ideas I would ask a question: do you really never doubt your faith? Do you never doubt the God you say you trust implicitly?

Faith in God is essentially a matter of trust. Dale Fincher writes, “Faith has less to do with figuring out if something is true and more to do with trust as we enter relationships.” When we fail to trust God we are not so far from the person doubting whether or not God is who He is said to be.

By way of example, we might take the repeated command to fear not. The implication is that we ought to trust in God for all things. Do you ever fear? Do you ever worry about your finances? Do you ever worry about the fate of the doubter in your life?

Hebrews 11:6 says: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” The typical doubter often doubts the first part: that God exists. But the one who believes in God and even claims to faithfully follow Him yet lives out his or her doubts about His goodness and reliability is in no place to judge the classic doubter. Jude 22 tells us: “Have mercy on those who doubt.” After all, don’t we want the same mercy from God when our actions say He may not be trustworthy?

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In a world littered with the bodies of work of men and women deigning to speak for the Almighty the weary listener longs for the refreshment of a believer who is really something new in Christ. Where are these New Men, the ones who are hollowed out inside and filled not with vacuity but with Someone wonderful? We need not the verbose but the profound – those who live and breathe a fresher air than most and speak from experience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was such a man.

Upon first introduction I was unsure about him. Perhaps as theologian his belief would cause me an allergic reaction. Perhaps as a writer his biography would fail to reflect the resounding words he wrote. And yet, as with scripture, the greatest proclamation of truth comes not so much for a life as from a life. Bonhoeffer’s thought was not just the driving force of his life but his life drove his thought.

Eric Metaxas’s 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy traces Bonhoeffer’s life from his recent ancestors until his funeral in 1945. This is Metaxas’s second biography, following one of William Wilberforce in 2007. The work is well-researched yet doesn’t bog the reader down in details. Metaxas does not take the time to describe anyone’s personality (except Bonhoeffer’s) and yet as a narrative the book flows along nicely with tributary chapters on the historical context of events and the lives of the actors involved. The final chapter makes Bonhoeffer feel quietly distant from the reader and yet one feels almost in the midst of his last days of life. Metaxas gives the impression that we have gotten to know this great man and yet wish we had really met him as we mourn and admire his death.

The book cannot be called unbiased. Of course it might be difficult to write an unbiased work which deals so closely with the Nazi Reich but it is very clear that Metaxas is a conservative Christian writing about a personal hero. If you are looking for a highly academic historical and clinical study of a third-party theology in the midst of a third-party political system this is not the book for that (for example, Metaxas often characterizes the Nazi leadership as various animals such as shoats). But it is a heartfelt and honest portrait of Bonhoeffer by someone who can understand what he is seeing. If you want to learn to appreciate a painter you may want to talk to a painter of the same school since he knows what he is looking at.

I encourage you to find a copy of this book and get to know the man who knew what it was to follow Christ.

The Apologetic of Hope

The most often quoted Bible verse concerning apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Christians typically focus in on the word “defense” as the key word in the verse. The original Greek word is in fact where we derived our term “apologetics” from in the first place so one would be justified in picking it out as the most important word in the verse, or so we think. But there is a more important word here.

When read in context this verse is part of an instruction to Christians in the midst of persecution. Peter tells them to make sure they never do anything to deserve the persecution but instead to show themselves to be hoping in their God. The key word in this verse is not “defense” but “hope”.

Christian, has a non-believer ever asked you what gives you so much certain expectation in God amid your trials? Apologetics begins with hope in God, not with discussions with people. That should be a result of our hope. Apologetics is not really about questions so much as questioners – real people with real lives who need someone in whom they can hope. This goes far beyond discussions and information to souls.

The early church had the greatest boon to apologetics: persecution. The world around the early church punished them severely and Peter knew that as Christ had gone to His death obedient to the Father so the Christians should live amid death hoping in their savior. It was that kind of outlandish hope that would cause the persecutors to wonder at the Christians’ reasons for holding so dearly to their Christ.

The thing that really makes apologetics difficult in America is not the hostility to Christians but the comfort of Christians. There are certainly individuals and groups in the U.S. that are hostile to Christians but by and large few terribly violent things happen to Christians here. You might like to think you are persecuted because your family gatherings are awkward or because strangers are not excited that you want to talk to them about why they need Jesus before you even asked their name. You are not persecuted. American Christians have learned to fight for their rights and to seek to always be the dominant force in their country because of course, they seem to reason, God could never will anything for them except to run the country and be left alone. The mentality that Christians are persecuted in America but should be dominant ought to be reversed. We are not truly persecuted but evangelism would benefit if we were. The church is growing in places like Iran and China by incredible measures while in the U.S. it is largely becoming flabby and sleepy at best, conceited and flamboyant at worst. Peter would be the first to say that we should not do anything to instigate persecution, however we should allow our persecution to instigate hope and allow hope to invite the world’s questions.