Tag Archive: America

Is this the end of evil?

Is this a season of dancing?

At 5:00a this morning I woke up to 2 sounds: a crying baby and a text alert from the Associated Press.  My five-month-old daughter was hungry and Osama Bin Laden was dead.  As I settled into the rocker I cradled Eva in one hand, and scrolled through the news stories on my phone with my other hand.  My arms were full, my heart heavy, and my mind confused.

My initial thoughts focused on Eva.  She surely had no idea of the significance of the breaking news.  In her innocence, she knew and cared only that her belly was full and that her crib awaited her return.  Events like 9/11, words like “terrorism,” and names like Osama are (or will be) as personal to her as Pearl Harbor, Axis powers, and Mussolini are to me.  She will know only what parents, teachers, family, and history books tell her of the World Trade Centers and a field in Pennsylvania. (Which raises the question: How will I tell my daughter the story of Osama and NYC and Bush and war and terrorism?)

Sure, she’ll grow up with heighten airport security procedures and multifaceted words like “extremists” and “religion.”  She’ll never escape the implications and gravitas of Al-Qaeda, terrorist networks, and the war on terrorism.  But yet, the specifics of today’s news, of today’s names, will likely become folklore or legend.

Many people are trumpeting Osama’s death as a victory for good over evil, right over wrong.  And I suppose it is.  But is this the end of evil?  Of course not.  New regimes bent on killing people will come to power.  Brilliant masterminds with a penchant for using their brilliance in perverse ways will still operate in the shadows.  Individuals and networks of those seeking to do harm will continue to pursue their goals.  Evil and injustice at home and abroad will continue to permeate our lives and institutions.

As Christians we are rightly called to refuse, reject, and rise up in the face of injustices.  However, the celebratory mood and festivities surrounding the death of someone can (or should) only be troubling to Christians.  Our hope, trust, and joy comes not in tanks, weapons, and death, but in the grace and power of the words Christ taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come…deliver us from evil.”

My pre-dawn thoughts turned also to those Americans cheering in the streets as news of Bin Laden’s death spread.  Is this the proper response…to shout, pump fists, wave flags…?  We are a mere week removed from Easter.  Where were the celebrations and parades proclaiming God’s “yes” to life and “no” to death?  I always cringe, and become a bit uneasy, each time I see video footage from other countries where crowds of people shout in approval of an American soldier’s death.  So…I guess…I hoped…I prayed…we would be different.  I prayed that we might not payback hate with hate, shout with shout, death with death.  And yet…


Celebrate the death of another sinner?  I won’t.  Revel in the demise of one of God’s children?  Not I.  Dance in the streets?  Not me.

I will continue to live in the tension between civil justice and the words from that radical that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are always talking about.  You know, those words about loving your enemies; praying for those who persecute you; turning the other cheek.


Denominations…where do we go from here?

After examining the contextual forces at play in North America (chapter two), the writers turn to the unique version of Christendom in North America.  Christendom, they argue, is the relationship that was formed/exists between the church and the broader culture in North America.  As they put it, this relationship has functioned in a variety of ways.  On one hand, the Church has served a guide for the country, responsible for spiritual guidance.  At the same time, the church has acted as a political entity, addressing national policies.  In these ways (and others), the writers suggest that the Church has often found a place of privilege in society.

For some, Christianity’s relationship with the North American culture appears to be a form of Constantinianism (in reference to the legal establishment of the Christian church by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century).  However, the authors argue that over time the North American bent towards Constantinianism (legal establishment of religion) had been replaced with a functional Christendom.  That is, Christianity and the culture maintain a relationship in which both are influenced by the other.  The writers chart the course of Christendom in America this way (time period – cultural influence on Christianity):

  • 17th century – efforts at legal establishment of religion
  • mid-17th century – Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson’s influence
  • mid-18th century through mid 19th century– rise of denominations
  • late 19th through early 20th – immigration of Protestants, Catholics, Jews
  • mid-20th century – wars, civil religion
  • 1960s to today – civil rights, sexual revolution, (Individualization)

The authors argue that today the Church in North America is most influenced by denominations.  The define denominations as the type of church structure that provides “organized life of multiple congregations” (63).  They highlight the trend in denominations that has occurred over the past centuries.  Originally, as new people came to North America in the 17th century they needed a way of relating to one another.  As a result, denominations arose based on ethnicity and geography.  Today, denominations have become corporate organizations that function as rule enforcers or regulators that shape denominational identity.

Near the end of the chapter the authors call for a faithful critique of the existing denominational structures and organization in America.  Though we take denominations for granted, we must also reassess and critique their role.  Are they biblical?  Do they have a role in North America today?  As the authors put it, do denominations represent all that God intends them to be?

I echo this question wholeheartedly.  I wonder, do denominations complicate and divide the Church?  Or do they add a genuine texture of diversity?  It seems the muddling of denominational value has come as a result of a muddling of theological integrity.  Denominational boundaries are drawn not according to theological differences or worship practices, but according to differences in political stances or policy views.  Denominational identity is wrapped up in political allegiances.  How do we recover the various theological traditions that demarcate denominations?  We do so not so that those differences might push us further apart.  But how might we say where we are different in order to see where we agree?  How might a recovery of rich theological traditions within denominations revitalize denominations as instrument of God’s grace and not as institutions focused on building, growth, and strategy?

This is the third review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

An age of rationality and autonomy

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker" at University of Louisville

In chapter two the writers explore the North American context in which the church finds itself.  The Church’s “context” is both its local community and the larger national culture.  For a missional church to flourish it must intimately know and understand its context.  Churches are challenged to “translate the gospel as good news for the society to which it is sent” (18).  Upon unmasking the philosophical foundations, values, and history of a particular context the Church is more equipped to convey the gospel.  As the authors point out, churches today must be culturally relevant in order to connect with community.

What is the North American context?  The authors argue that three trends that have emerged from modernity are reshaping the North American church context.  First, rationality and reason have become the new mode for discerning and knowing beliefs.  Empirical studies and rational thinking are the avenues for discovering the things that are true.  This represents a shift away from the notion that truth is embedded within tradition or revelation.  Second, the autonomous self has replaced the role of institutions in shaping persons’ attitudes and beliefs.  In medieval Europe, institutions (Church, monarchies, feudal system) shaped persons, and personal interests were subservient to larger corporate interests (23).  In the modern North American context, final authority resides inside the human head (23).  Individuals are free from authoritative institutions and able to discern truth and construct knowledge on their own accord.  Third, the modern context emphasizes the role of the social contract, which submits that individuals will make decisions out of self-interest, but the collective effect will lead to the promotion of the common good.  These principles, when exercised and enjoyed, lead to the realization of the full potential of human life.  The authors suggest that these three trends present the Church with a new “audience.”

Even more, the authors describe North Americans as persons who understand themselves as citizen with rights and freedoms to be exercised at all times and at all costs.  Individuals are also consumers, viewing all of life (including church life) as something to be consumed.  North Americans have also constructed roles and identities (career, job title, political affiliation, etc.) that serve as their primary identity markers.  Finally, modern individuals have become a product of product of technique using science-based technology to manipulate the social and natural world.

One of the major implications of these trends of the “new” individual is that one’s context matters for who one is and how he or she understands him or her self.  Each person brings assumptions to his or her search for truth. Objectivity and facts are always contextual.  For the Church (or church leaders), we must wrestle with the notion that one’s understanding or quest of God/Truth is always an interpretation relative to one’s context and cultural understanding.  We must ask, how can the church address a world in which rational and autonomous individuals are free to make decisions, but they do so without normative content common to all persons?  Even more, what might the growth of a North American pluralist society through immigration, migration, or technology mean as we seek to define context and community?

The authors offer much to digest in chapter two about the new cultural currents the church faces.  However, it is interesting that there is very little mention of race or socio-economic status as factors within the North American context.  It seems these things have played a vital role in the formation of the North American culture, yet the authors do not discuss them as factors to navigate in the current discussion.

I might also add another factor, or characteristic, that seems prominent in the North American context: time and priorities.  In a culture that is constantly moving with more activities demanding more time, the North American “audience” will increasingly be asked to arrange priorities.  How will we spend our time?  What is a faithful use of our time?  What activities consume our hours?  The church will need to discern this “time-crunch” and be prepared to speak into the busy lives of those who may feel too busy to listen to the Church or God.

This is the second review in a ten-part series looking at Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder.

America losing religion?

A recent AP story claims more Americans say they have no religion.

Here are a few claims of the American Religious Identification Survey:

* 15% of respondents said they had no religion (14.2% in 2001, 8.2% in 1990)

* Northern New England is the least religious region, with Vermont reporting the highest share of those claiming no religion (34%)

* The numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state

* Latino immigration in the Southwest is shifting the Catholic population

* Nationally, Catholics are the largest religious group (57 million).  The Church gained 11 million followers since 1990.

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* In 2008, Christians comprised 76% of U.S. adults (77% in 2001, and 86% in 1990)

* Over the last seven years, mainline Protestants dropped from just over 17 % to 12.9% of the population.

* About 12% of Americans believe in a higher power, but not the personal God.

* Evangelical or born-again Americans make up 34% of all American adults, and 45% of all Christians and Catholics.

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