Every so often, a major media outlet will put out a list of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" or some such thing. Last year, Christianity Today issued a list of "33 under 33"--"33 Christians 33 or younger to watch." Like almost everything CT does, it was very well done, and the young people they highlighted are certainly notable and inspiring. But it made me wonder, what would a list like this look like if God were putting it together? No doubt there would be some notable ministry leaders in that list, as there are in ours. But I'm guessing there would also be a whole lot of people that we've never heard of. So here's my attempt (using fictional names and stories) to describe a list of the "top American evangelicals" that we often miss (but whom God knows very well).
- Marjorie Smith, 79 years old, who sits in the fourth row from the back at First Baptist Church every Sunday, and who attends every Wednesday night prayer meeting faithfully. Her friends know her as a kind and gentle woman. God knows her as a prayer warrior the likes of which our churches have seldom seen, and when she prays, God shakes the nations.
- Brian Williamson, 53, a divorced father of two whose marriage broke up because of his alcohol abuse. But for the last ten years he has persevered in his quest to stay away from his addiction, and every day for him is an act of courage, an epic battle of persistent trust in God. His long string of victories over grave personal struggles is a record of triumphant faith such as few people ever achieve.
- Philip Brouwerman, 28, a mentally handicapped young man who spends his life in a group assisted-living home. He has difficulty reading his Bible, and he can't articulate very many of the doctrines of Christianity in their proper form. But he has loved Jesus all his life, and he has loved him with such startling purity of motive that it doesn't even bear comparison to the spiritual lives of most other Christians.
- Mark Beeham, 35, a former pastor whose ministry collapsed after it was revealed that he carried on an extramarital affair with a woman from his church. In the years since that event, Mark has walked the road of repentance with great humility. He now practices a blue-collar job with extraordinary diligence and never resents it; he carries no bitterness towards those who revealed his misconduct or those who judged him for it. He has handled all of this with such humility that he now considers his fall from ministry the best thing that ever happened to him. He let God use it to slay the dragon of his prideful heart, and because of that, he has experienced a spiritual liberation, a new experience of God's presence, who gives grace to the humble, beyond what many other Christians ever get to taste.
- Maria Gonzales, 37, wife of an unbelieving husband. She has suffered the ups and downs of a turbulent marriage, often facing ridicule and dismissiveness from her husband. She has also had to bear with a series of difficult friendships--she continues to try to be kind and friendly and gracious, but somehow she often ends up on the receiving end of a lot of people trying to take advantage of her goodwill. She handles these hard relationships with perseverant trust in God, with continual attempts to understand and to love those around her, and to never cease trying to be a conduit of God's grace to others.
- Ramona Hinesworth, 22, a young woman who was raped a year ago. Not only was this terrible act done against her, but she has found that many people have seemed judgmental towards her because of it. She is walking a long road of forgiveness, and even though she acknowledges that she is not there yet, she is determined to walk that road to its end.
- Betsy Montgomery, 31, a mother to three wonderful but high-energy kids. She, like so many parents, has willingly given a large part of her time and talents to these little ones who will not truly understand the extent of her sacrifice until decades later, if even then. Nevertheless, she perseveres and allows the process, with all of its many trying moments, to slowly smooth away the rough edges of her character. She knows now, more than she ever did before, the self-centeredness, the anger, the resentments, the limited resources of our finite being--all these internal warts and blisters that we all have, but which many of us never give ourselves the opportunity to see. Betsy sees them, knows them, and she wrestles with them, like Jacob wrestling with the Lord, and she will not let go until he blesses her.
- Walter Jameson, 95, a widower now living in the nursing home, with children too wrapped up in their own affairs to tend to him in any substantial way. He is living out his final years with patient faith, even in the midst of crippling, persistent pain. Part of him has been wishing for the past ten years that the Lord would just take him home, but he remains--largely bedridden and wracked with pain. His resolution to rest in God's goodness, day after day, even in such times, is a quality of character that surpasses what most other Christians are capable of.
- Daniel Myers, 30, is not particularly good at anything. He is unremarkable in every way. He is a man who knows his own sinfulness, wishes he didn't sin quite as much, tries not to sin, and fails. Over and over and over again. He doesn't read his Bible as much as he should. He doesn't pray nearly as much as he should, and he's of too shy a temperament to really share his faith. But every time he falls, he comes back to the cross. On God's scale of things, he is a perfect "10," and so is everyone else, with all their failures, who come to the cross of Christ.
(All pictures are taken from the Wikimedia Commons and are part of the public domain.)
Note to My Readers: Due to the busyness of my summer schedule, in which I'm serving as a camp pastor on top of my normal duties, I'll be putting my ongoing Thursday and Friday series on hold until mid-August. All other days will continue to feature new content as usual, and the Thursday and Friday slots will offer devotional and theological reflections (heretofore unpublished) from my seminary years.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
This is a painting of the Virgin Mary squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. Quick--what's your first reaction to it? Is it amusing? Disgusting? Just plain weird? Or is it a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence? Your answer to this question should help you gauge how much our contemporary culture has shaped the way you view a woman's body. It may also help you gauge how much you experience your spirituality in gnostic categories rather than finding the grace of God present through physical, sacramental realities as well.
If you know anything about history and Catholic devotion, then you can probably guess that this painting was intended to bring to view a holy and mystical event before which we should pause in serious reverence. The painter, Alonzo Cano, was not always a man known for his devout temperament (he had serious issues with his temper), but his works all reflect the dominant, reverential Catholic spirituality of his day. This painting represents a famous event in the spiritual life of Saint Bernard (12th century), one of the most influential Christians of the Middle Ages, who was known especially for his reverence towards Mary.
But we live in a culture where women's breasts have been sexualized, where even breastfeeding (a thoroughly non-sexual act) is often attacked as being inappropriate when done in public. So this painting, though there is nothing overtly sexual about it, takes us by surprise. It's not the sort of painting that any of us would now think of commissioning to hang in our churches. Even though it shows poignantly the reverence of a great man of God to one of the greatest human exemplars of our faith, to the vessel wherein God's full being dwelt for a time, and though it shows us the nurturing, life-giving spiritual grace he receives from contemplating her faith, we 21st-century Americans have a tough time seeing that. At least, not at first.
Full disclosure--my first reaction on seeing this painting was to chuckle. When we were looking for a print of a painting to hang in our dining room, I joked with my wife that we should choose this one just to see the reactions of our dinner guests. But the point is that my own reaction serves to make me aware of how much contemporary culture has affected my sensibilities about devotion, sexuality, and the human body. My quite natural reaction to this painting in a 21st-century context would have been offensive in the culture that produced it. So the question is this: have my sensibilities gone awry because of my cultural context (or perhaps because of my own wickedness of heart), or was Catholic Spain of the 17th century riotously naive in their estimation of what was an appropriate means of expressing devotion?
This is one of the great benefits of studying old paintings (and reading old books). They can, sometimes in remarkable ways, reveal to us our own cultural and intellectual blind spots. And once we know those blind spots are there, we can work on mending our worldviews, or at least taking into account a humble understanding of our own biases in the future. We need to remember that not everybody has always held the same sensibilities that we do now. And we need to at least entertain the possibility that we millennials might be seeing things askew, and the old reverences may in fact be right.
(This is one of my first devotional poems, written back in 2002, but never before posted to this blog. It remains one of my favorites.)
In great cathedrals, empty and still
Tiny tongues of flame cast feeble shadows
through the vast, dark room—
the prayers of the penitent
We look up, study that vast, ancient work
that stands now behind the altar—
its surface still shimmering with the
sheen of the master’s brush.
O writhing man, pinned on that cruel frame!
The pain in his face no language can tell—
even the image bears only
shadows of the truth.
His hands, though torn, reach out
in weary, violent embrace—or is it
the open plea of despair?
A weight greater than that cruel, crossed wood
was borne on blameless back that day.
Yea, the figure below, his fingers
still clasped ‘round the offending hammer
as he scoffs upward—it is a face
I know too well. It is my own.
And now the tears come, welling up
from deep within. It is a cry
of mourning, a wail of deepest hope—
oh, that my sin should demand
so high a price!
I have been in temples and shrines
and seen the faces of other gods.
They are content, blissful, and unaware.
Basking in their serenity, the world
slips by to the screams of the children,
the death-cries of the starving
as they lie wasted in the street.
And the gods are unmoved.
No, this is the God for me.
In agony and torment, I know
He paid my ransom-price.
Not in escaping life, but in surrendering
to the tortures of this shadowland
did he find peace. And only there,
in that twisted, pain-wracked visage,
can the road of my peace lie.
For only he understands.
I smile weakly and turn to my dear companion.
The flickering light sparkles off the tears
rolling down her cheeks,
and I know she has met her God again,
just as I have.
We rise together, silent, and shuffle
hand-in-hand to the prayer table,
where we carefully blow out
the last dying flames.
And the cathedral is dark again.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Observation #3 (How Atheists Fail at Philosophy): Full disclosure—philosophy is a weaker field for me than is theology or history, so here I lean on the authority of some of the philosophers I’ve read in depth, most of them hailing from the classical period (Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Boethius, and later Thomas Aquinas), as well as what I’ve gleaned of modern philosophy during my academic studies.
There was a season in my life where I was wrestling with serious doubts about the Christian faith. I was working through many of the same intellectual issues that others in that same position face: reconciling scientific discoveries with the way we’ve been taught to read the Bible, questioning whether the Bible can be read as “infallible” or “inerrant,” tortured by the problem of evil, and all this accompanied by a long drought in my personal experience of God. My intellectual momentum at that time was all going one direction: away from the faith. But there were a few things that kept me grounded: my mystical sensibilities, my understanding of the range and depth of good theology, and, most of all, my desire, which remained pointed, often in blind hope, in the direction of the beauty of God.
But during that journey, I was surprised that of all the intellectual defenses of the faith that I read, searching for something that sounded remotely persuasive, it was the philosophical ones that I had the hardest time discounting. Especially powerful were arguments that made a significant case for the existence of God simply on the basis of logic alone. I wasn’t expecting them to be convincing, but they were—remarkably so. And here’s where the “new atheists” tend to underestimate the Christian tradition once again.
There tend to be two criticisms of recent atheist attempts in the field of anti-Christian philosophy. The first has to do with atheists’ attempts to pick apart the classic proofs for the existence of God, of which there are several prominent ones that have been around in various forms throughout the ancient and medieval worlds; these are still actively debated today. In general, the new atheists are critiqued for not having done their homework very well and for having failed to understand the philosophical force behind the arguments. In a few cases, the new atheists have quite obviously not bothered to study the actual terminology which Aquinas uses in his arguments for the existence of God; and so their rebuttals of those arguments fall short because they haven’t even understood what Aquinas was saying. (For more on the continuing force of such arguments, read Robert J. Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God or Michael Augros’ Who Designed the Designer?).
The second criticism is that these new atheists often try to make the natural sciences work overtime for them, and, particularly in the field of cosmology, tend to wander into scientifically-untestable speculations about ontological metaphysics rather than physics itself (for example, the much-noted remarks of Stephen Hawking regarding the idea that the universe simply created itself). And yet, despite this affinity for scientific study, they seem reticent to make an honest and cumulative social-science study of miracles within the Christian experience. Miracles, of course, are untestable under laboratory conditions, but social-science studies could make effective use of the reported data that exists, some of it well-documented. (A good exposition of miracles can be found in Craig Keener’s monumental study, Miracles.)
Another main topic of concern in the field of philosophy is the problem of evil, but I won’t deal with that here, since it’s one of the main concerns of my “95 Theses,” regularly posted here on Saturdays.
There are other failings we could talk about here, but I think I’ll leave it at that. For Christians reading this, know that you have little cause for worry if you hear atheists making statements about theology, history, or philosophy that sound like they might be serious arguments against Christianity. In the vast majority of atheist literature that I’ve read, this simply isn’t the case. For any atheist/agnostic readers, my best advice would be to do your homework well, do it respectfully and not in a spirit of disdain, looking not to cherrypick faults but to truly understand the Christian tradition, and to present your views in a spirit of winsome humility. (These are rules, incidentally, that I try to follow myself, whenever I research the views of atheism, Islam, Buddhism, or Native American religions, all of which I’ve studied in some depth.) In polemics, as in life, the best rule is simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
(Painting, inset: "Saint Thomas Aquinas," by Carlo Crivelli, 15th century; image is in the public domain)