Tag Archives: Christianity

The Crash of the American Church?

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Research shows that the “evangelical church” lost around 10 percent of her people in the last decade. There are many factors that are involved that have resulted in this decline. Further, most churches that are growing are just taking people from other churches, not converting people. The Great Evangelical Recession explores the factors involved in the decline of the church and offers suggestions for the future. I found the book helpful and thought-provoking. 

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Jesus and Jihad (part one)

 

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Introduction

Islam has many expressions. It is not monolithic. We are wrong if we think we understand Muslims because we have met one or read the Qur’an. That is a simplistic and false understanding. “Islam is a dynamic and varied religious tradition.”[1] In the same way, if you have met a Christian and read the New Testament, for example, that does not mean that you understand Christianity. “The range of contemporary Muslim religiosity varies tremendously. One of the reasons for this is that people understand and ‘use’ religion in a variety of ways; that is true whether we are dealing with Islam or Christianity or any other religion.”[2]

As Christians have different beliefs regarding certain doctrines, Muslims have different beliefs as well. Christianity has many expressions, liberal and fundamental and various particular denominations. In this post (and in part two), we will explore the Islamic understanding of jihad and contrast it with Christianity. Our first observation is to realize the multifaceted nature of our exploration.

Many Expressions of Islam

As we have briefly seen, not all Muslims are the same and not all Muslims understand jihad in the same way. So, some Muslims emphasize the more peaceful passages (e.g. surah 5:32; 2:256; Allah is also repeatedly said to be “most gracious, most merciful”) and that the Qur’an seems to teach to not begin the fight (2:190; 22:39). However, others believe that those who have not confessed Allah and his prophet have already essentially made war with Muslims and should be subjugated.[3] Some Muslims are strict adherents to Islam and some are secular. Muslims are not homogeneous. (For example, we see two very different narrative accounts in Nabeel Qureshi’s, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus and Mosab Hassan Yousef’s, Son of Hamas). In fact, “not all Muslims believe that the Qurʾān is the literal and inerrant word of God, nor do all of them believe that Islam requires strict conformity to all the religious and moral precepts in the Qurʾān.”[4] We could group Muslims into three broad groups: secular Muslims, traditional Muslims, and fundamentalist Muslims.

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Cosmic, Corporate, and Individual Reconciliation through Union with Christ (Part 1)

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Introduction
Paul explains in 2 Cor. 5:16-21 that reconciliation is more than something between two parties. Reconciliation through union with Christ is cosmic in scope. Reconciliation through union with Christ is the hinge and hope on which all things hang, without it salvation falls apart. 2 Corinthians is one of Paul’s early letters, dated circa 56-57, and yet we see his doctrine of union with Christ is pretty well developed (if not fully developed). So, two questions occur to me, (1) how is union with Christ foreshadowed and (2) what benefit do we receive when we understand how it is foreshadowed?

The doctrine of union with Christ is all throughout the Pauline corpus[1] but 2 Cor. 5:16-21 seems to be the most explicit of Paul’s earlier letters. Christ is the operative word in our passage. Everything happens in and through Him.[2] So, it seems good to ask: “How can being ‘in Christ’ have the effect that it has?” However, as we will see the answer to that question is: “How could being ‘in Christ’ not have cosmic significance?!”[3]

Christ’s work and resurrection propels on this world new creation (cf. Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18),[4] it is the inevitable avalanche that will eventually encompass the whole earth (Ps. 72:19; Is. 11:9; Hab. 2:14) and those in Christ will be swallowed up in the effulgence of its glory, there to bask in eternal joy. Christ’s resurrection is the dawn, the first light, but soon the full splendor of the sun.

We will first see how union with Christ is foreshadowed in the OT which will help us substantially to understand the full significance, indeed the cosmic significance, of being “in Christ.” Then we will see that 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 teaches us that union with Christ is the means by which reconciliation—cosmic, corporate, and individual—happens. Continue reading


How we live as exiles…

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The Bible teaches us that we, as Christians, are exiles (1 Pet. 1:1, 17; 2:11; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 13:14). That is, we as Christians are separated from our true country. This is a biblical reality and more and more becoming an empirical reality. For instance, Newsweek has said, “Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population” (cf. U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious“). 

America has been postmodern and now we’re told America is post-Christian. But it’s not surprising. And it’s actually ok because this is not our home. We are “exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1, 17) and so we shouldn’t expect to have a nice cushy Christian majority (not that a Christian majority is wrong). We function, as the early church functioned, from the margins, not from the center.

Also, notice that Peter doesn’t tell us to wage war to ensure that we are the “moral majority.” No. Peter says, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:11-12 see also 1 Cor. 5:9-13).

It’s actually Christian’s morality that Peter is concerned with. Peter doesn’t say watch out for the world’s morality (and Peter lived under Roman control). No. He says, watch out for your own morality. Wage war against your soul. We are called to live our lives “constructively embedded within society while not being enslaved to all of its norms and ideals” (Lee Beach, The Church in Exile, 183). Continue reading


A (Very) Brief History of Art and the Church [Part I]

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The Christian Church has a long and varied heritage when it comes to art.[1] That being the case, it is instructive for us to briefly understand some of the issues involved. This will help us better grasp the Church’s present situation when it comes art.

Christians, at first, as a small unpopular and often persecuted group did not produce works of art that were distinctly Christian or had an impact on secular culture. Early Christian art mainly used pagan vocabulary to express Christian sentiment.[2] “Until roughly A.D. 200 most visual imagery was found in catacombs, the burial places (and sometime hiding places) of Christians.”[3]

“In the third century, as Christianity become more established, marble imagery appeared, though it continued to portray the same images used by the early Christians.”[4] However, the biggest change came with the conversion of Constantine the Great (in 312), the Roman Emperor, and the Edict of Milan (in 313) when Christianity was granted religious toleration within the Roman Empire. After the edict, Christians were free to publically display their faith through art and architecture. After this period we begin to see Christian art flourish.

By 574 we see amazing buildings with huge mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament  being dedicated (like San Vitale). The murals and mosaics were especially important because many people were illiterate and did not have Scripture in their language (e.g. the Mass was in Latin). Although, images were helpful in promoting worship some also saw the use of images as dangerous.

“Images, no matter how discretely chosen, come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories; no matter how limited their projected use, they burn indelible outlines into the mind… Images not only express convictions, they alter feelings and end up justifying convictions.”[5]

One of the dangerous, for some, was the veneration of icons. There are three stages in the development of icons. First, “As the emperor’s image represented the presence of the emperor, Christ’s image, or the image of a saint, came to serve as a kind of ‘proxy’ for their presence.”[6] These images assisted the veneration of the saints. Second, there was a rise in the use of imagery in private devotions. People began to go on pilgrimages to shrines or churches. “The third stage occurred at the end of the seventh century, when portraits or images of Christ and the saints began to appear as isolated frontal figures” and “by the beginning of the eighth century it had become common practice to venerate these images, which meant that honor paid to the image honored the person represented.”[7]

These developments brought controversy to the Church. “The practice in the East of venerating the image of Christ inevitably caused those accustomed to a more symbolic orientation to react. Christians who opposed the use of images in worship generally felt that these objects marginalized the work of Christ.”[8] In fact the controversy got so bad that in 730 Emperor Leo II destroyed the “images of Christ, his mother, and the saints.”[9]

Clearly then, the Church took art and the use of images in various forms very seriously.

“The icon… was much more than an aesthetic image to grace the church and stimulate holy thoughts. It was something that expressed deeply held theological convictions, and it was meant to move the viewer to love and serve God. In many respects, an icon was theology in a visual form, and the practice of making an icon itself represented a spiritual discipline.”[10]

However, did the Church cross the line of making idols that were so clearly and vehemently condemned by the prophets in the Old Testament (e.g. Is. 44:12-20)?

During the Early Renaissance, “a renewal in the arts was closely connected with reform movements that began springing up throughout western Europe.”[11] During this period many massive cathedrals were built (e.g. Salisbury Cathedral and Reims Cathedral).

“These great structures, which must have been extremely impressive amid the modest building around them, not only became the center of the social and religious life of the community but were actually intended to be a microcosm of the world. An image of the last judgment was frequently located over the central portal of the cathedral…, reminding those entering of God’s judgment, which was avoided only by eating the holy Eucharist. The space of the church represented the ‘ark of salvation.’ On either side of the portal were images of the prophets and apostles, on whose word rested the hope of God’s people.”[12]

During this period there were also seeds planted that would eventually rise up and challenge the extravagance of the Church and her art. We see this for example through the work of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic of Spain. For example, Francis and Dominic emphasized simplicity and mission.

Next, we will look at the impact of the Reformation on art within the Church. But at this point, it will be helpful for us to see what we can learn from what we have seen from history so far. So, here are a few questions to consider: 

  1. What are some dangerous to avoid when it comes to art and the church?
  2. What do you think about the extravagance of the church?
  3. What concerns should we have?
  4. What takeaways for our modern context of cinderblocks, cement, lights, and lasers?
  5. How did art serve the purpose of the early church?
  6. Can art still serve the purpose of the church? If so, how? 
  7. What should we be cautious of regarding art and the church?

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[1] For a brief and interesting introduction see “The History of Liturgical Art.”

[2] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith, 26.

[3] Dyrness, Visual Faith 26.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the God, 11.

[6] Dyness, Visual Faith, 35.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Ibid., 37.

[10] Ibid., 37.

[11] Ibid., 38.

[12] Ibid., 39-40.


Christianity is Polarizing

Christianity is polarizing, but why?

Teachers in public schools can’t share a Bible verses with their students, let alone lead a Bible study (at least in Fairfax, VA). However, if they started a club on Plato and Aristotle’s teaching it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Actually, they would probably be able to discuss Mein Kampf and it would be less alarming than Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. 

Why is this the case? Christianity has not proved to be unhealthy for individuals or society (I could make a good argument for the converse though); and there are many people in America (and in Fairfax, VA) that claim to be Christians. A lot more than claim to hold to platonism, for example. 

What makes Christianity polarizing?

The two main things Christians are called to do is love God and love their neighbor. That doesn’t sound so bad. The Bible tells Christians that true religion is to take care of widows and orphans. 

Christianity has had a very important place in starting schools and universities (e.g. Princeton, Harvard, Yale), various hospitals, orphanages, and, of course, chic-fil-a. Christianity brought us the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) which brought us basketball which brought us the NBA… and Jordan… and Lebron…

So, what makes Christianity so polarizing? It seems like it has a lot of good aspects. Actually, Jesus Christ, who Christians worship and follow died for people that hated him; and Christians are called  to love, serve, and sacrifice in the same way that he did. That’s why, for example, medical missions and orphanages sprouted up.

The Bible, the book that Christians follow, is the number one best seller of all time. No matter what people think about the truth claims of the book it is a work of profound literature. Even Richard Dawkins, a staunch atheist and many ways hater of religion, does not deny that it is an important book. 

What causes all the problems when it comes to Christianity? Perhaps it’s that it teaches that we are (all) to love God and love our neighbors. We are (all) called to care for orphans and widows. We are (all) called to love in sacrificial ways.  

Perhaps people appreciate these things but know that they are called to do them but don’t live up to them. Perhaps they feel guilty about it. Perhaps it’s a mixture of things. Perhaps people know that Christianity teaches that all are sinners in need of redemption. 

Perhaps people know that Christianity teaches that all are sinners in need of redemption. Perhaps that’s offensive to some people, even though it seems to be a very empirical reality. 

What do you think? Why is Christianity so polarizing? 


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