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Billl Maher and Tim Tebow are Right

One thing many of the so-called "New Atheists" are right about, and something they share with Tim Tebow, is that religion, by its very nature, cannot be left merely a matter of private and personal opinions.  It very much belongs in the arena of public discourse. Your beliefs (even the belief that religious faith is a misguided set of pathetic superstitions) form the framework through which you understand your world and your place in it. It is as irrational as it is hypocritical to insist it is a private matter. Few things you will ever think about or have conversations about have the potential for greater impact on every aspect of life. This is hardly something that should be politely avoided or relegated to the "it-does-not-matter-much" closet of private opinion.

It is a strange era in the evolution of cultural expectations of civility when an open and frank discussion on the merits of masturbation will likely be seen by many adults as less awkward or inappropriate than a discussion about the basis and reasons for someone's religious faith. Actual assertions about religious conclusions made in public settings have managed to achieve that status once reserved for profanity, sex, or bodily waste - a kind of awkward stare-downward uncomfortableness that suggests the speaker has broached a boundary into what ought not have been brought up in mixed company.

Many among the popular cultural wave of new atheists have no hesitation to insist public declarations against a religious faith (or all religious faiths) are appropriate, since religion has been the source of so much violence and oppression (largely oblivious to the absurdity of the claim in light of the magnitude of carnage wrought in the name of decidedly secular ideologies, nationalism, and the ambitions of warlords in the last two centuries, alone). They are entirely correct, however, to insist that a person's understanding of ultimate reality and meaning (or, in the case of pure materialism, lack of meaning) are so fundamental to a person's values and behaviors that it is ludicrous, if not impossible, to relegate the subject to politely held personal preferences.

Bill Maher is absolutely correct when he reflects the assumption that religion is something too important and central to be pushed out of public discourse. Ironically, he shares that conviction with the likes of Tim Tebow. However contradictory their conclusions, they stand as reminders that the questions regarding God and religion cannot be removed from education, discussion, and discourse without creating a pathological culture -- that is, a culture in which education, critical thinking, or rational discourse are left only to address subjects of limited genuine importance to how that same culture actually arrives at its expected behaviors, values, laws, and reasons to exist.

Labore est Adorate

"Work is worship."

It's the often heard (although usually indirectly and generally not in Latin) clarion call of Protestant Evangelicals.  Doing good hard work is simply another way to worship.  Living a good life is worship.  Heck, let's just go ahead and say it, everything is worship.

With all due respect, and in all kindness, and fully mindful of the noble intentions resting behind such idiotic thinking: Hogwash!

Jesus never says that "good deeds" glorify God. In fact, He draws a clear (and, to me, reasonable, distinction). When we do our good deeds before others, one result will be that they will "glorify God." He does not say the aim is that they will also join us in doing good deeds in front of others, who would then also join those doing good deeds in front of others, and so on. The good deeds can lead to, but are not the same as, glorifying God. My atheist relatives also do "good deeds." Muslims do good deeds. Many live admirable and ethical lives. Living ethically, even supremely ethically, is not, in and of itself, worship.

If everything is made worship, however noble to intention, the result is that worship diminishes, fades, and is eventually swallowed in our growing sea of secularity. The person who sleeps in, catches a few minutes of Joel Osteen, and then plays golf without cheating is able to happily tell himself he is spending the Lord's Day in Christian worship. If there is not a categorical and important difference between Texas Roadhouse and Eucharist, we have not just lost the battle, we have refused to admit there was ever a war in the first place.

The Doctrine of the Rapture: Keep it or Leave it Behind?

It is, frankly, outside the original intent of the blog to devote time to a doctrine like the Rapture.  It is certainly not directly related to worship.  And, as I note at the end, there are people on both sides of the issue who I feel honored to count as Christian brothers and sisters and dear friends.  Most importantly, when it comes to these kinds of doctrines, those who live consistent with the Lordship of Jesus in within the realm of His grace will not be left out or left behind or left anything when it comes to eternity.  Regardless of whether things ultimately unfold as you believe or in ways you either misunderstood or were simply, as part of finite and fallen humanity, to begin to image, it will not matter at the most practical level.

Still, I want to address the doctrine of the rapture.  This is part in response to some discussions on Facebook, where the article below first appeared in serial format.  It is also because I do believe, even in areas I insist are not central to our faith, doctrine and truth are nonetheless important.

Introduction: What is the Rapture Doctrine?

One shall be taken and the other left
In the long history of emerging bizarre teachings that have plagued Christianity, there are few dogmas that can match the strangeness, newness, and lack of biblical support than that of the doctrine of the so-called Rapture. That is, at some point prior to the Second Coming of Christ, the saved will be instantly and miraculously transported out of this current sphere of existence into the presence of Jesus Christ. When this happens, two people might be walking together in a field or in bed together as husband and wife, and one might be taken up in this unexpected Rapture, and the other would then be left behind. Since all this happens without prior notice, it might well mean the driver of a car or the pilot of an airplane could unexpectedly vanish, while the unsaved passengers would find themselves suddenly in a driverless car or pilotless airplane.

What about the Babies?

Human lives are marked out and segmented through ceremony and ritual.  This is as true for the non-religious as the faithful.  It is rooted in our shared humanity, which is to say it is rooted in Eden, not Pentecost.

Weddings.  Births.  Deaths.  School graduations.  Joining the military.  These life transitions are marked out by ceremony and celebration in every culture and major religion.

It is as if we are driven by some innate need, as evidenced across a broad swath of human cultures, to mark out the great transitions life through a planned gathering and sharing of certain expected activities, words, or behaviors with family and friends.  These life-marker ceremonies are typically both familial and religious, tied as they are to both identity and time.

Toe Praise

In the early years of the twentieth century, missionaries from the British “Brethren,” came into central and southern Africa.  Here, the Good News of Christ evoked celebration and responses largely unknown to the stalwart and strict English evangelicals.  One of the missionaries, Dan Crawford, (in his book, Thinking Back ) recounted watching an African woman break into exuberant dancing during the church service:  

“The amazing, maddening mix-up of the prayer in the heart, and the prance in the feet! Asked her what it meant at all at all, and she quaintly replied, ‘Oh! it is only the praise getting out at the toes.”

Sometimes you just gotta let it flow.

The Downside of Exegesis

This is definitely not how early 
Christians experienced the Word 
It is no surprise that the cultures that were basking in the glow of the Enlightenment and the emerging
disciplines of scientific research would be at the forefront of modern approaches to the process of exegesis.  While much of this was framed in a broadly anti-supernatural and naturalistic set of presuppositions (emerging in what might be broadly called theological liberalism or modernism), conservatives flocked as eagerly to the seductive appeal of immersing their approach to scripture is quasi-scientific methodology as their modernistic antagonists.

The Gospel?

Do we even know what the New Testament means by "the gospel?"  I'm not so sure.

Do we even know what the New Testament means by "the gospel?"  I'm not so sure.

Ask most evangelicals to define the "Good News" (or "Gospel") and you will likely get a quick and confident answer.  But, however much the common-sense everybody-knows-that definitions pour out of our mouths, it would do well to hold them up against the actual biblical material.

Demythologizing Esther

Esther is a great story of redemption - one that comes about in a great crisis forced upon Esther. But, we often re-tell it as a Christian fairy-tale - one that equates her beauty with goodness (just like all fairy-tales seem to do).

Of the course, the storyline framework of "pretty girl" equals the "good girl" and star of the story has all kinds of problems, especially if you think about the consequences on young girls. The truth is that Esther enters (some may read it as she is coerced into entering) a contest that is not about simply being the prettiest or with the best homemaking skills. The contest centers on a series of comparative sexual performances for the Persian monarch.

Martyrs and the Baffling Loss of Framework

The news of twenty-one Coptic Christians beheaded on a Libyan beach by Islamic radicals proclaiming their allegiance to ISIS is heartbreaking.
It is also deeply troubling that, in the desire to remove religion from the discussion, the White House comment lamenting the murders only designated those beheaded on the beach in Libya as "Egyptian citizens." No mention of any religion whatsoever. Since these twenty-one were slain, according to their murderers, because they were among the "crusaders," the omission is baffling.
Apparently the whole world, without their knowledge of consent, has been unilaterally assumed to embrace the politely privatized religious assumptions of western Europe and the U.S. It seems that many in the west have no framework to grasp any reality where religion might be more central to a person's primary identity than family, tribe, nation-state or ideology. This loss of framework has left many without the grammar to comprehend words being shouted right at them.
For a much clearer voice, here is a link to the reaction of Pope Francis:

I Don't Believe in a Hill Called Mount Calvary

While criticism of contemporary worship music is sometimes fully justified, I'm baffled that older gospel songs seem insulated from such scrutiny.  The truth is hymns, gospel songs, and contemporary worship music all have their fair share of either shallow, silly or even wholly heretical (a phonetic oxymoron) lyrics.

We ought to stop longing for A Mansion over the Hilltop.  In 1611 the word "mansion" simply meant a place to live.  The actual idea in John 14:1-2 is clearly the "Father's house" has more than enough room for everyone.  The gospel song seems to suggest heaven is going to be a land of millions of eternal antebellum southern plantations.  I would note this is an image of heaven many black Christians, for some reason, find less than appealing.  

Racism and Dressing Up for Church

As the title suggests, this post will explore dressing up for Sunday worship and racism. Racism, I need to acknowledge at the outset, may not be exactly the right word, particularly if someone is thinking about a consciously malicious way of looking at people based on ethnicity or skin color. Myopic cultural provincialism would actually have been a better description. But, then again, would you have read the post even this far if I stuck those words in the title? While it may start to sound like I’m writing about proper clothing for Sunday worship, bear with me to the end and you’ll find the point I want to make is considerably more important than clothing for church.

In an undergraduate course on Christian worship, I was concluding the unit examining the history and traditions of African-American worship in the United States. Since the students had seen the videos and pictures, my question was, “So, why do predominately black churches dress up for Sunday worship?”

Does God Care about Ritualistic Worship?

Stephen Lawson* oversees a course in the history of Christian worship for The Consortium for Christian Online Education.  A student recently asked a good question in an online forum that many evangelicals ask.  The question, and Stephen's response, are worth reading.

A student's question:

Does ritualistic worship matter to God?  I realize that it may matter to some men or women, but does God really even care about the ritualistic parts of our worship of Him?