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Christianity Today Magazine

News and analysis from the world's leading Christian magazine.

Last Build Date: Mon, 22 May 2017 13:13:57 PDT

Copyright: Copyright 2017, Christianity Today

The Theology Beneath the Trump-Comey Conflict

Fri, 19 May 2017 07:56:00 PDT

How the former FBI director’s interest in Reinhold Niebuhr shaped his approach to political power. Two months before he was fired, FBI director James Comey inadvertently revealed something about his theological leanings that may have pointed to his inevitable fallout with President Donald Trump. In March, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg followed a string of clues to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of a user named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who she believed to be Comey. Many of the user’s tweets had to do with the FBI, including one linking to a report about a meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and a Russian emissary. But what tipped off this particular account was its user name. While a student at the College of William and Mary, Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr. The Protestant theologian seems to have left an impression, judging from Comey’s references to him in public speeches and from this apparent pseudonym. Within a few days of Feinberg’s article, the owner shut the accounts down, though not before sending one last tweet that seemed to confirm the identification: a link to—perhaps a job offer to Feinberg—and a quote from the movie Anchorman: “Actually I’m not even mad. That’s Amazing.” Together with my colleague Sylvester Johnson, I published a book about the FBI and religion a few weeks before Feinberg outed Comey’s social media accounts. Our book traces the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities and addresses the beliefs of some of its leaders and agents. I realized that Comey and Niebuhr were a part of the story we were trying to tell. Niebuhr’s moral pragmatism As Gene Zubovich notes, politicians caught trying to balance moral idealism and clear-eyed realism often look to Niebuhr, ...Continue reading... [...]

Why Don’t the Gospel Writers Tell the Same Story?
New Testament scholar and apologist Michael Licona’s new book argues that ancient literary devices are the answer—and that’s a good thing for Christians. Though Michael Licona became a Christian at a young age, he experienced strong doubts while working on a master’s degree in religious studies at Liberty University. That led him to explore the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in his PhD work, and to engage in public debates with leading skeptics and atheists. Driven by a desire to follow the evidence wherever it led, Licona understood that journey might lead him away from Christianity. In 2010, Licona released his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which showed that the evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus is much stronger than any competing explanations, such as the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen by his followers or by his enemies, or that the disciples simply experienced hallucinations of the resurrected Jesus. Licona, formerly apologetics coordinator at the North American Missions Board, is now teaching at Houston Baptist University and has founded He recently released a new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press). What was your upbringing like? Did you grow up as a Christian? My parents were Catholic and split up when I was five. My mom remarried and we started attending a Presbyterian church. When I was very young, I was obsessed with getting to heaven. I was always asking, “How do I get to heaven, Mom?” And she said, “You just have to do more good than bad.” So, I was constantly thinking, Where am I on that scale? When I was ten years old, the Presbyterian church had a combined youth group event and they brought this Christian magician in. He did magic to illustrate the message of the gospel. ...Continue reading... [...]

The Precarious Task of Praying with Presidents in a Media Age

Wed, 17 May 2017 07:00:00 PDT

With the whole world watching, spiritual advisers face new challenges.


President Harry Truman was furious. Billy Graham had revealed the content of their private conversation to the media, going so far as to perform a “reenactment” of their prayer time on the White House lawn at the media’s request. It was the first time Truman had invited Graham to the White House, and it would be the last.

Earlier that day, Truman had sought Graham’s counsel on calming public hysteria around the Korean War effort. The meeting had gone well, according to Graham. They even discussed creating a National Day of Prayer, something Truman would implement two years later. But Graham’s unpolished enthusiasm and lack of experience with public officials cost him the ear of the President that Friday in 1950 and almost cost him his reputation altogether.

Calling the evangelist a fake, the President harshly reprimanded him. “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the newspaper,” Truman said of Graham. He did not speak to him again for years after that.

Graham’s meeting with Truman was the first of many encounters with American leaders over a span of more than 50 years. His blazing misstep with Truman, however, was a hard lesson he never forgot: When the world is watching, trust between a president and his spiritual advisors becomes even more fragile.

Billy Graham’s Mutual Respect

For Graham, presidential relationships were grounded in mutual respect. After his mishap with Truman, he never shared the details of private meetings he held with public leaders.

Though he did publicly call out President Lyndon B. Johnson on a position during one of his Crusade meetings (as Graham details in his autobiography), they became close during Johnson’s time in office. ...

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Five Things You Should Know About Reinhold Niebuhr

Fri, 19 May 2017 10:30:00 PDT

From Carter to Comey, the legacy of "Washington's Favorite Theologian" endures. Nearly 50 years since his death, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr still routinely makes headlines. A high-profile documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuted earlier this year. Recently deposed FBI director James Comey “almost certainly” used his name for his private Twitter account. Ten years ago, TheAtlantic declared “Everybody Loves Reinhold”; last month, Religion & Politics called him “Washington’s Favorite Theologian.” He commands respect from left (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama) and right (John McCain, David Brooks). So what’s the attraction? Here are five aspects of Niebuhr’s work that help explain his enduring relevance. 1. He thought big. Niebuhr titled his 1938–40 Gifford Lectures (the most illustrious theology lecture series in the world) “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” On page 1 of the published volume 1, he wrote, “Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself?” By page 2, he was pondering “the admitted evils of human history,” “the question of the value of human life,” and “whether life is worth living.” These are not questions limited to a single church, era, or school of biblical interpretation. The resources Niebuhr brought to bear on them were similarly broad, encompassing Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; ancient, medieval, and modern theology and philosophy; and the social sciences. Positively, the grand scale of Niebuhr’s work meant that he could engage almost anyone. Who hasn’t wondered about the problem of evil or the value of human life? (Scribner’s was sufficiently convinced of the appeal of The Nature and ...Continue reading... [...]

Cover Story: Inside the Popular, Controversial Bethel Church
Some visitors claim to be healed. Others claim to receive direct words from God. Is it 'real'--or dangerous? I have seen a man dance holding a translucent scarf, the fabric billowing around his spinning form like a garment made of stars. I have prayed for strangers’ healing from high-blood pressure and unspecified neurological disorders. I have wept with salt-faced abandon as four women prayed over me; I have walked through a “fire tunnel”; I have seen a woman bob in Hasidic fashion over the Bible app on her smartphone. I experienced all this at the increasingly famous (and, to some, infamous) Bethel Church, and I did so as an evangelical Christian of Reformed persuasion. My parents named me for the Welsh pastor-theologian Martyn Lloyd-Jones. My father is a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Jonathan Edwards is one of my guiding lights, Wheaton College is my alma mater, and I attend a Presbyterian church in Toronto where I have never heard anyone speak or pray in tongues. Yet Bethel has been on my mind since a friend prayed for my healing at a campground in Wisconsin in 2010. She introduced me to the teachings of Bethel’s senior pastor, Bill Johnson, and gave me a few of his books. As Bethel grows, you might very well hear from a few people in your congregation who have traveled to Redding to find out if Bethel is “real”—and who come back proclaiming that revival is under way. When I set out for Bethel Church—a hub of a global revival movement—I half-expected to discover a rogue organization of hucksters intent on subverting the faith. And I half-expected to discover a community of believers more earnest and devoted to God than anyone I’d ever met. In the end, what I discovered in Redding, California, didn’t fit either narrative neatly. Bethel Church sits ...Continue reading... [...]

Even in Canada, Conservative Churches Are Growing
Mainline churches with evangelical leanings outpace their liberal counterparts, study says. Amid the decades-long decline in mainline Protestantism in North America, researchers in Canada recently found an “elusive sample” of congregations whose growth has bucked the trend. The key characteristic these exceptional Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and United churches had in common? Evangelical theology. With fewer evangelicals and more secular surroundings than their brethren in the United States, Canada’s mainline denominations collectively lost half of their members over the past 50 years. Last year, a team of sociologists suggested that conservative theological beliefs—including emphasis on Scripture as the “actual word of God” and belief in the power of prayer—may be the saving grace keeping attendance up at 9 of 22 Ontario churches studied. “Most people, especially academics, are hesitant to say one type of belief system is better than another,” said David Millard Haskell, the study’s lead author. “But if we are talking solely about which belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner.” The mainline congregations that kept growing by at least 2 percent a year emphasized markers typically associated with evangelical beliefs. For example, such churches described evangelism as the main mission of their church, were more committed to personal spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, and saw Scripture as a singular authority. Haskell’s study was one of the most popular papers published in the Review of Religious Research last year. His findings among Canadian churches echo trends that researchers in the US have been tracking ...Continue reading... [...]

Sarah Ruden’s Rebellion Against Our ‘Just the Facts’ Bibles

Tue, 16 May 2017 06:00:00 PDT

How her approach to translation recovers the emotion and artistry of God’s Word. God spoke. And not just the world, but the Bible too came into existence. Then again, Isaiah, Luke, and Paul also spoke, using human voices and tools to do the work we’ve come to expect words to do. It’s been an interesting partnership. Some of us have wanted to consider only one side or the other in this co-endeavor, preferring to think of the Bible as simply and clearly God’s Word, or else discounting the divine and focusing exclusively on varied expressions of ancient religious experiences of . . . something. But the best and most interesting way to see the Bible has always been to embrace it as fully human and fully divine at the same time. These are our own words on some great godly errand. If we take seriously what the Bible says about itself (insofar as it talks about itself), then the Bible is a divine speech act—a collection of words meant to do things on God’s behalf, to effect change and inaugurate new realities. Yet God has chosen to do all this in and through regular people doing regular human things. Some angry prophet denounces the injustice he sees. A worried leader dictates some letters. Storytellers capture and hold audiences with their skillful narrations. A visionary somehow transcribes his fantastical dreams and nightmares into language, so others might catch a glimpse. Our words, God’s work. Losing Touch For a long time now, human words have been more than bare symbols of basic meaning. Maybe that’s what they were when we first started using them. But we’ve learned how to shape those sounds and intonations in special ways to add depth and strength, crafting more powerful and moving expressions of things like pain and humor, beauty and pathos. With these new, ...Continue reading... [...]

Is Suicide Unforgivable?
Question: What is the biblical hope and comfort we can offer a suicide victim's family and friends? —name withheld People who ask this question seek biblical grounds for giving hope to the kin of believers who take their own lives. The burden of proof, I should think, lies not with those who offer the solace of grace but with those who deny it. Will Jesus welcome home a believer who died at her own hands? I believe he will, tenderly and lovingly. My biblical basis? It is the hope-giving promise of Romans 8:32, that neither life nor death can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus. How can I trust in this promise and then deny its comfort to people who doubly grieve for brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who in horrible moments of despair decided to end their lives? I believe that Jesus died not only for the sins of us all but for all of our sins, including the forgotten ones, including suicide--if indeed he reckons it always as sin. The Bible does not seem to condemn suicide. There are, I think, six accounts of suicide in the Bible, the most notorious being those of King Saul (1 Samuel 31:2-5) and Judas (Matthew 27:3-5). Others are Abimelech (Judges 9:50-54), Samson (Judges 16:23-31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), and Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20). As far as I can tell, none of the six is explicitly condemned for taking his life. Some say that suicide cannot be forgiven because the person who did it could not have repented of doing it. But all of us commit sins that we are too spiritually cloddish to recognize for the sins they are. And we all die with sins not named and repented of. When I was a child, I heard compassionate people comfort the loved ones of a suicide victim with the assurance that anyone who commits suicide is insane at that moment. So, being mad, a suicide victim would not be held accountable by God, despite ...Continue reading... [...]

Why Tish Harrison Warren Gave Up on Being a ‘Good Church Kid’

Wed, 17 May 2017 10:00:00 PDT

The Anglican priest, writer, and mother on how discovering grace invigorated her faith and ignited her calling. Long before Tish Harrison Warren entered the Anglican priesthood, she suspected that serving the church would be her calling. By her own admission, she was a “super churchy, super ‘good’ kid” growing up—the kind of person who, in the Baptist circles she ran in, seemed destined to be a missionary or a pastor’s wife. What she didn’t expect was how challenging grace can be. As she recalls, “The first part of me discovering the gospel was figuring out I was a lot worse than I thought I was. Even though I was a ‘good church kid,’ there were dark parts of my heart—and still are—that run from God and want nothing to do with him….That’s what the cross was about.” That realization transformed her, as well as her ministry. Now balancing her work as a wife, a mother, the co-associate rector (with her husband, Jonathan) at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, Warren is refreshingly open about her neediness. “I am weak,” she says, “and this is such a big call. You have to live your life as a mother—and as a mother in the church—completely dependent on Jesus for grace and mercy that is above and beyond you.” For today’s episode of The Calling, CT managing editor Richard Clark sat down with Warren—the author of the kickoff piece to CT Women’s much-talked-about #AmplifyWomen series—to learn more about growing up as a youth group poster child, her conversion to Anglicanism, and the surprising path that led her to the priesthood. On discovering the gospel after growing up churched: “My understanding of the Christian life was that it was about becoming ...Continue reading... [...]

In ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,’ Big Questions Take a Backseat to Punchlines

Mon, 15 May 2017 08:30:00 PDT

While the high-spirited superhero sequel brings back the laughs, it occasionally loses sight of its own cosmic ideas. This article contains potential spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Near the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, hero Peter Quill and the film’s main villain are ready for their big fight. Before it begins, though, Quill angrily lashes out at his enemy: “You shouldn't have killed my mom and squished my Walkman!” This outburst encapsulates the movie in microcosm: It wants to get us hooked on a feeling of real human emotion and struggle, but also wants to instant-mix such moments with the safety represented by its jokey nods to 1980s popular culture. Like director James Gunn’s 2014 breakout Guardians of the Galaxy, the sequel aims to make equal space for both humor and heart. Fans of its stellar cast—Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voice by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (voice by Vin Diesel)—will find plenty to enjoy about this misfit space crew’s mercenary adventures. But as Peter suggested near the first film’s end, he and his new friends accomplish “something good, something bad, a little bit of both.” Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at Vol. 2’s very literal fulfillment of this promise. When the filmmakers show discipline by focusing separately on the crew’s very human griefs, with humor that helps power these struggles, the film blasts off. But moments of uncertainty—especially when the story retreats from its own big ideas in favor of tiny ideas or distracting jokes—threaten to undermine the film’s own fun characters and original ideas. Something good In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy explored new worlds even while following the standard ...Continue reading... [...]

Pursuing a Christian Idea of Criminal Justice in the Jeff Sessions Era

Thu, 18 May 2017 07:35:00 PDT

Prison Fellowship's Craig DeRoche on the attorney general, America's drug policy, and his organization's unlikely partnerships. Since assuming office, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown little interest in expanding the efforts of his predecessors in curbing policies that criminal justice reform advocates blame for America’s high rates of mass incarceration. Instead, he’s doubled down, recently instructing federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties for drug dealers and gun violence offenders. (Read his memo.) Sessions’ intentions are discouraging news for those who have long pressed for reform, a group which includes Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship. They also present an opportunity for Christians to speak into America’s anti-drug policy, one of the “biggest catastrophic failures in American history,” says Craig DeRoche, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and public policy. Christians ought to get “involved because our values are are at stake and a lot of human lives that God cares about...are at stake,” said DeRoche. “This is an invitation for Christians to engage.” DeRoche joined assistant editor Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the good intentions behind mandatory minimums, what the Old Testament has to say to our current legal climate, and how Prison Fellowship ended up partnering with the NAACP and ACLU to support previously incarcerated people. What is Quick to Listen? Read more. You can subscribe to “Quick to Listen” on iTunes. Follow the podcast on Facebook and Twitter. Follow Morgan on Twitter Read Morgan’s cover story on criminal justice reform and the church Follow Craig on Twitter Subscribe to Mark’s newsletter, The Galli Report Quick to Listen is produced by Richard Clark and Cray AllredContinue reading... [...]

Modern/alternative rock "In your house I long to be/Room by room patiently/I'll wait for you there like a stone/I'll wait for you there alone" — from "Like a Stone" Audioslave is like a "mash–up" done the old–fashioned way, combining the vocals of one band with the instrumentation of another. In this case, it's not a matter of digital editing but combining the remnants of two popular bands from the '90s. Screaming rap–rock band Rage Against the Machine replaced lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, one of the great rock metal bands from Seattle during the early '90s grunge movement. The combination works better than anyone expected. Who knew that Rage could tone down enough to play more of a classic hard–rock sound, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Queen? How can a band go wrong with one of the best lead vocalists in rock, ranking with the likes of Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone? It's one of the best rock albums of the last year, but I'm just as impressed that the Rage members turned over all lyrical control to Cornell. Rage Against the Machine has a reputation for bad language and controversial worldwide political causes; you can view them for yourself at Cornell, on the other hand, has been known to explore spirituality and Christianity in his lyrics as far back as his days with Soundgarden. His words on Audioslave don't disappoint, except for the strong rocker "Set it Off," which drops the f–bomb twice. The album's single "Like a Stone" has enough content to warrant its own essay. The chorus (excerpted above) is a strong plea for salvation and to be in God's presence. No doubt many will be hung up on the lyric, "On my deathbed I will ...Continue reading... [...]

Directions: You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
Q: The New Testament seems to support divorce for a narrow range of reasons, but does it support remarriage?—K.A.Miller, Wheaton, Illinois A: There are three New Testament passages that bear most directly on the subject of divorce and remarriage. I suggest that when they are carefully considered, they prove to be both more demanding and less restrictive on the question of divorce and remarriage than evangelicals have often acknowledged. Luke 16:18 is a very bold, straightforward saying that seems to settle the issue quickly: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (all quotations from the NRSV). Both divorce and remarriage are just plain wrong—right? Almost all New Testament scholars agree that this saying is an abbreviation of a saying of Jesus that appears in its fuller form in Matthew 5:31–32 in the Sermon on the Mount. After discussing his views contrasted with those in Judaism, Jesus remarks, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." It is noteworthy that Jesus clearly sees some circumstances that legitimize divorce. A marriage continues to be valid until one party dissolves the marriage through unfaithfulness. This so-called exception clause appears here in Matthew 5 and again in Matthew 19 but does not occur in either Mark or Luke. In a similar passage in Mark 10:11–12, Jesus widens the scope of the teaching to show that such dissolution may apply to the behavior ...Continue reading... [...]

The Real History of the Crusades

Fri, 06 May 2005 13:00:00 PDT

A series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics? Think again. With the possible exception of Umberto Eco, medieval scholars are not used to getting much media attention. We tend to be a quiet lot (except during the annual bacchanalia we call the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, of all places), poring over musty chronicles and writing dull yet meticulous studies that few will read. Imagine, then, my surprise when within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant. As a Crusade historian, I found the tranquil solitude of the ivory tower shattered by journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop. What were the Crusades?, they asked. When were they? Just how insensitive was President George W. Bush for using the word crusade in his remarks? With a few of my callers I had the distinct impression that they already knew the answers to their questions, or at least thought they did. What they really wanted was an expert to say it all back to them. For example, I was frequently asked to comment on the fact that the Islamic world has a just grievance against the West. Doesn't the present violence, they persisted, have its roots in the Crusades' brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world? In other words, aren't the Crusades really to blame? Osama bin Laden certainly thinks so. In his various video performances, he never fails to describe the American war against terrorism as a new Crusade against Islam. Ex-president Bill Clinton has also fingered the Crusades as the root cause of the present conflict. In a speech at Georgetown University, he recounted (and embellished) a massacre of Jews after the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 ...Continue reading... [...]

Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
In the Apostles' Creed, there is a statement about Jesus descending into hell. Did he literally go there?—DEBRA BLACK, Alton, IllinoisEach Sunday, millions of Christians around the world recite the Apostles' Creed, including that statement: "I believe that Jesus … descended into hell." Yet a few years back at one Christian college, a series of chapel messages on the Apostles' Creed had to omit this item, because none of the 12 professors of Bible and theology believed it. Actually the statement is not found in the earliest form of the Apostles' Creed. It echoes Acts 2:31, and seems to be there simply to make the point that Jesus' death was real and complete. Jesus went to hades, which in the Greek signifies the world of the departed—paradise for some, pain for others. When the Apostles' Creed took its English form in the sixteenth century, "hell" meant hades as such, rather than the final state of the lost (which Jesus called gehenna), as it always is today. So, should those who accept the Bible as their supreme authority for belief hold to the Creed's doctrine on this point? Scripture tells us very little about Jesus' state between his death and resurrection. The most commonly cited biblical passages are Acts 2:31 ; Ephesians 4:8-10 ; 1 Peter 4:6; and, most importantly, 1 Peter 3:18-20. Ephesians 4 is likely a reference to the Incarnation, and 1 Peter 4:6 could apply to any preaching of the gospel. But numerous interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 exist. Some say the 1 Peter 3 passage should not be taken literally—that it is symbolic, conveying in graphic form the idea that redemption is universal in its extent. This, however, involves a more spiritualized hermeneutic than usually practiced by evangelicals. Others contend that ...Continue reading... [...]