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No such thing as secular

Updated: 2017-03-22T19:53:00Z


Sanctuary Cities and the Church


The term “sanctuary city” has been popping up in the news a lot lately. While Posted on 03/22/17 The term “sanctuary city” has been popping up in the news a lot lately. While not an official title, it is used to describe cities who welcome refugees and immigrants and refuse to completely comply with federal immigration laws. While some have referred to the practice as “jihad against immigration enforcement,” others applaud the movement as a way to serve as “a conscientious objector” to “unjust immigration laws.” A recent, two-part series from the 99% Invisible podcast explored sanctuary cities’ historical roots within the Christian church. The series begins with Rev. John Fife and Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. In the early 1980s, droves of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala began pouring into the United States, driven from their homeland by civil unrest. After a chance meeting between Fife and an El Salvadorian refugee in the waiting room of a hospital in Tucson, Fife eventually made a decision that has helped shaped the recent sanctuary city movement. What began as a simple plan to offer housing and food to those fleeing unrest eventually grew into something more. A member of Fife’s congregation challenged him to think about their religious obligations to assist the refugees by smuggling them over the border and moving them throughout the country within a series of networks akin to the underground railroad. 99% Invisible producer Delaney Hall said, “Their efforts would mark the beginning of a new—and controversial—social movement based on the ancient religious concept of ‘sanctuary,’ the idea that churches have a duty to shelter people fleeing persecution.” Deriving from the Latin word sanctuarium, the term “sanctuary” was originally used in religious contexts to describe a sacred container, typically holding the holy relics of the church. Over time the word became associated with any holy space set apart for worship or safety. In modern times, sanctuary is used to describe the sacred space in a house of worship, but in medieval times, the term was also used to designate churches as a temporary place of refuge for criminals. Fife and his congregation borrowed this aspect of the church’s past in their efforts to provide sanctuary. Today, in light of stricter immigration policies supported by President Donald Trump, other churches—and cities—are following Southside Presbyterian’s pattern. At the heart of this story is the longstanding and complicated debate surrounding the separation of church and state. While many argue that the church has an obligation to follow and uphold the rules of a government, an institution established by God, others contend that Christians are citizens of another kingdom and hold a higher allegiance. Federal rules are to be obeyed only to the extent that they follow the mandates of God’s kingdom. Speaking to CNN about the current sanctuary movement, Rev. Zach Hoover said, "The God that I worship sent a person to earth in the name of Jesus who did not always get along with the authorities. I feel really convicted that I answer to God at the end of the day. That's who I'm going to see when I die." Immigration is one of many issues that complicate the church’s relationship to the government. Whether facing questions of racial justice, gender identity, gay marriage, or travel bans, every citizen of the kingdom is responsible to be both educated and involved, to know what we believe and why. Despite the fact that such an exercise often stretches our minds, it also strengthens our hearts. If we are to remain faithful to the Lord’s Prayer—“your kingdom come, your will be done”—then the one response that is never acceptable is for the church to remain silent. Comments (0) [...]

Get Out and Galatians 3:28


Editor's note: This piece originally ran at the Reformed African American Network. Posted on 03/21/17 Editor's note: This piece originally ran at the Reformed African American Network. From the moment I watched the preview for Get Out, I knew it would either be a daring feat or an awkward failure. The film has gone on to be a hit and a showcase for the courageous creativity of its writer and director, Jordan Peele. What excites me about it is the spotlight it puts on racial tensions in America. Comical yet suspenseful, Get Out offers the dominant culture a sense of the woes, fears, and anxieties of black people. Peele’s story emphasizes the reality of cultural assimilation: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who is dating a white woman named Rose (Allison Williams), goes to visit her family for the weekend, where uncomfortable situations begin to hint at something more sinister. Through this plot, Peele brings out many of the tensions and emotions that black people often feel about being “the other.” Early on, Chris’ nonresistant nature touches on the passivity that assimilation often requires. This is depicted during the couple’s confrontation with a police officer on their way to her parents. Rose defends him as the cop begins to unfairly question him. All the while, Chris’ pose is one of submission, due to his understanding of the injustice that could easily come his way. Get Out also depicts how assimilation strips away the norms of an underrepresented culture in order for it to become compliant with the majority. This theme of assimilation and acceptance is emphasized as the couple interacts with Rose’s family. They try to bridge the tension of cultural differences with excessive friendliness and affirmation. The movie also considers the difference between pursuing racial acceptance and seeking racial reconciliation. Racial acceptance is easy, in that all one has to do is accept someone is of another race and culture. Racial reconciliation is difficult because it means integration, equity, and service. Throughout American history, we have seen the negative realities of accepting different races, while rejecting the notion that those outside of the dominant culture still hold the  image of God within them. Redlining, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration are all examples of what racial acceptance and assimilation look like, without biblical racial equity and justice to go along with them. Racial acceptance may come off well, but without God and a biblical approach, it can serve the wicked system of supremacy, envy, and power. Though Peele dresses these themes up with horror and humor, the implications in Get Out are stark. This movie shows racial acceptance and assimilation are not progress. The cultural implications of this are quite alarming—not only for the culture, but for the church as well. In the film, hypnotism is used to reinforce racial supremacy and control. In the church, the misinterpretation of Galatians 3:28 is used as a similar tool. The Apostle Paul writes in this passage that there is no distinction in the body of Christ, and that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Though this is a profound truth, many have misused this passage in an attempt to eradicate the cultural and ethnic differences we possess as image bearers. Such differences are a beautiful representation of the grandeur of who God is. Yet some have used this passage to push an agenda of colorblindness. I completely reject the notion that Paul is teaching us to ignore our racial and cultural differences. What Galatians 3:28 teaches, rather, is that there are no more racial, political, or cultural hurdles to salvation. Anyone can be saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once we are saved, we all become part of the body of Christ, unified together. Division, superiority, and inferiority have been eradicated in Christ Jesus. We are unified in Christ within our diversity. The reality of this passage should mo[...]

What TurboTax Teaches Us About Lent


There's something liturgically appropriate about the alignment of Lent and tax season. Posted on 03/20/17 There's something liturgically appropriate about the alignment of Lent and tax season. Both are solemn occasions for discipline and self-reflection, and both anticipate the promise of new life—well, at least for those expecting a refund. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that many in our congregations will likely spend as much time on the TurboTax website as they do in church during Holy Week. Like many others, I depend on TurboTax’s software to unravel the increasingly convoluted process of filing my family's tax return. I’ve combed through the IRS instruction booklet and worked its schedules enough times to appreciate the way TurboTax reduces this cumbersome annual ritual to a series of intuitive questions and colorful animations. But according to a recent feature in The Atlantic, most of those animations—including the “progress bars” that indicate computing time—are bogus. Nothing’s happening while they run, even though they suggest that the software is diligently crunching numbers in the background. It’s a trick, one that software developers call “benevolent deception.” But don’t worry; it isn’t as evil as it sounds. Programmers insert these animations not to waste our time or to dupe us into believing the software is doing something it's not, but to “humanize” the automation so that we’ll trust the results. We’re skeptical of things that seem too easy, even for a computer, and so they let us believe that the program is working “harder” on our behalf. Technically, these frivolous delays introduce an unnecessary inconvenience, but developers find that we’re more satisfied with the experience because it reminds us of the difficulty we’d face trying to reach the same figures on our own. Maybe there’s a Lenten message in that for us. After all, these 40 days of penitence, with their fasting and prayer, can seem utterly frivolous, too. Jesus dismissed those who challenged his disciples for feasting while others piously fasted, saying, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” And since the risen Christ now dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, there’s no reason to sorrowfully fast as though he’s still dead in the tomb—right? Strictly speaking, we don’t need the solemnity of Lent to appreciate the joy of Easter. Yet there’s wisdom in pausing before the biggest feast day of the church year to meditate on the sorrow of Calvary. The salvation we proclaim at Easter is truly inscrutable to the world. No other religious worldview teaches that hope is to be found not in the good works we’re capable of doing, but solely in the finished work of another on our behalf. When people hear that salvation is a gift rather than a reward, they’re tempted to discount it as easy or cheap. Lent reminds us of the enormous ransom our Savior paid to purchase our freedom. It does so not to burden us with guilt or to demand that we pay it back, but to deepen our assurance of its eternal sufficiency and to gladden our response to Jesus’ call to take up our own cross and follow him. Rightly observed, these 40 days function much like the artificial progress bars in TurboTax: they “humanize” Jesus’ unfathomable obedience so that we can more genuinely appreciate the miracle of his empty tomb. But the gospel of our risen Lord is no benevolent deception. The real lie is the one proffered by the world—that if we study the instruction booklet closely enough, download all the right forms, and triple-check our calculations, we can work out our salvation on our own. Lent reminds us that the blood of the Lamb has already taken care of the hard work once and for all. It wasn’t easy, and it came [...]

All Rivers, Great and Small


I have lived most of my life in cities bisected by rivers and have often used a quiet spot Posted on 03/16/17 I have lived most of my life in cities bisected by rivers and have often used a quiet spot by the river to clear my head and listen for God’s voice. At the Kebar River in Babylon, God spoke to Ezekiel. At the River Jordan, God spoke to the assembled crowds at the baptism of Jesus. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet describes a river that flows from the temple of God, bringing life and healing to the land. Revelation 22 tells us that this river flows from the very throne of God. Like the Holy Spirit, a river can bring restoration and renewal, it can pass with a whisper or a roar, and it can instill peace or awe. A river is a sign of God’s merciful provision through creation. As followers of the one who was baptized in the Jordan, we are called to care for all of God’s creation. We do this work not to bring about the new creation, but out of faithfulness to our savior, who has already guaranteed that glorious day. Out of gratitude for the love that God shows us, we do what we can to recycle, change our lightbulbs, and consider our carbon footprints. Environmental laws hold us as a community to the high standards we long for, even while we as individuals struggle due to greed, laziness, and apathy. The Clean Water Act is an important piece of environmental legislation that has equipped the Environmental Protection Agency to protect rivers, lakes, and streams for more than 45 years. This law has been quietly keeping pollution from our waterways for decades, but it became a political flashpoint after a 2015 rule change. The new rule is called Clean Water Rule: Definition of “Waters of the United States.” This rule change expanded the size, scope, and number of bodies of water that are protected by the Clean Water Act. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin to scale back the new Clean Water Rule. (He followed that up this week with a proposed 2018 budget that would cut EPA funding by 31 percent.) The question being addressed by both the Clean Water rule and the executive order is this: how large, or interconnected, does a waterway have to be to earn federal protection? At the signing, Trump said, “The Clean Water Act says that the EPA can regulate ‘navigable waters’—meaning waters that truly affect interstate commerce. But a few years ago, the EPA decided that ‘navigable waters’ can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land, or anyplace else that they decide, right? It was a massive power grab. The EPA’s regulators were putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands, and regulations and permits started treating our wonderful small farmers and small businesses as if they were a major industrial polluter. They treated them horribly. Horribly.” To my mind, the new definition was not a power grab, but rather a response to overwhelming scientific evidence that has helped us see how interdependent our waters are. Various studies and reviews have demonstrated “that streams, regardless of their size or frequency of flow, are connected to downstream waters and strongly influence their function.” Basically, we now recognize that a polluted creek next to a new suburban development, farm, or golf course will not remain a local problem. Developers, farmers, and golf course owners dislike the rule change because it allows the EPA to regulate how they interact with waterways on land that they own. They are fighting a scientifically based correction of the old definition out of fear that it will affect how they deal with fertilizers, pesticides, or animal waste. They are afraid it might hurt their bottom line. They are afraid something might be taken from them. But should such fears prevent us from being faithful to our call as God’s stewards? No one but Go[...]

Beauty and the Beast and Boycotts


Editor's note: TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The Posted on 03/15/17 Editor's note: TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The denomination's position statement on homosexuality can be found here. Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast would have gone largely unnoticed by me if not for a miniature controversy that has sprung up around it. It seems that some Christians are troubled enough by one possible element in the film that they’re calling for a Disney boycott. In a recent USA Today article, Jonathan Merritt notes that the boycott, spearheaded by evangelist Franklin Graham, came about after word spread that Beauty and the Beast featured a gay supporting character. Graham considered this an attempt to “push the LGBT agenda into the hearts and minds of your children.” While I cannot speak to the movie’s messaging or merits given that I, like Graham, haven’t seen it, I can speak about the call for Christians to boycott. Without dismissing the legitimate concerns one might have about messaging in children’s movies, I must say I’ve been struck by the utterly uncreative response of the church in instances like this. I have written previously at TC about the limits of this strategy, and I think the cultural landscape has shifted in a way that makes boycotts even less effective now than they were then. The church must be willing to abandon outdated rules of cultural engagement if it desires to minister within what is quickly becoming a post-Christian nation. Historically, the American church has enjoyed the luxury of playing a leading role in shaping the conscience of the nation by embodying biblical values and traditions shared by a majority of its citizens. In recent decades, such influence has been eroded by denominational splits, theological liberalization, mission drift, and the changing views of a new generation who considers themselves “spiritual,” but not religious. In this new environment, old paradigms simply become unworkable, including boycotts. By their very nature, boycotts are only successful when they are conducted by those who hold power and influence. This is why, for example, you seldom see Haiti calling for sanctions. Regardless of the pragmatism of boycotts, the church needs to wrestle with the theological and ecclesiastical implications of reducing our influence in society to economic coercion. As Alan Noble wrote at Christ & Pop Culture, “Whether it is through votes or dollars, coercing someone to accept our position is nihilistic: it suggests that real change—-change of heart and mind—-is impossible, or unlikely, and so the safest bet is to make it profitable to adopt our beliefs.” Furthermore, as Merritt notes in his USA Today piece, boycotts are often used as a quick solution to a complicated problem, a posture of reaction which “diverts energy from a more worthwhile effort: teaching Christian children to coexist in a pluralistic society.” Last year I found myself gripped by the FX series The People v. O.J. Simpson. Of particular interest to me was not the outcome of the trial (which we already knew), but the brilliance of O.J. attorney Johnnie Cochran. I could not help but be impressed by his ability to free a man who, by every conceivable measure, appeared undeniably guilty. Cochran’s advice to the defense team: “Our job is to tell our story better than the other side tells theirs.” If the church desires to maintain influence in a post-Christian world, we must tell our story better than others tell theirs. If Christians believe that same-sex marriage is not what God intended, then we must tell a better story about what God offers us within the boundaries of traditional marriage, rather than boycott any hint of homosexuality whenever and wher[...]

Authority and Vulnerability in the Interrupted Professor Video


You may have seen the viral video in which professor Robert Kelly, a South Korean policy Posted on 03/14/17 You may have seen the viral video in which professor Robert Kelly, a South Korean policy expert, gets interrupted during a BBC interview when his children come barging into his office—one sauntering and dancing, the other following in a baby walker. Kelly apologizes when the news anchor mentions his children walking into the room, hand palms one, and continues with a laughing smirk (or perhaps a grimace) while his wife rushes in, grabs the children, and hastily closes the door on her knees, trying to stay out of the frame. What, exactly, has made the video go viral? The opportunity to judge in-the-moment parenting decisions? The sense of familiarity it offers to parents who work from home? Perhaps, but I also think the video hints at something deeper: the need for authority figures to be both strong and weak. In Andy Crouch’s book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing, he makes the compelling case that that we need to embrace both authority and vulnerability in order to lead and live well. When we live full of authority but low on vulnerability, he argues, we become exploitative. When we have high vulnerability but lack authority, we suffer. When we lack both authority and vulnerability, we withdraw. Flourishing comes when we embrace both vulnerability and authority together. When Kelly’s children burst onto the scene, we see an authority figure suddenly exposed to his own vulnerability. He is no longer speaking from the ivory tower,  but just a dad with two kids who want to see him. The arrival of his children humanizes him and even (the viewer hopes) makes him laugh. How refreshing to see someone who is authoritative, but also vulnerable—in short, someone who is human. To be human means that we are entrusted with more authority than any of God’s other creatures. Yet we are vulnerable too. As Christians, we are called to use our vulnerability not for manipulation, but in the service of others, exposing ourselves, in Crouch’s words, to “meaningful risk.” In addition, our “capacity for meaningful action”—our authority— is not for ourselves, but for those who we are called to serve. If Kelly holds authority—as a political science expert speaking on live television—the sudden appearance of his children and his ensuing embarrassment should not lessen his authority, but actually endear him to us. Look, he is one of us. He is frustrated, confused, embarrassed, and unsure, too. Perhaps if Kelly had pulled his children up on his lap—acknowledging his own vulnerability instead of trying to cover it up—he would have shown something akin to the flourishing Crouch describes (and avoided some of the online criticism that has come his way). But he’s also human, party to all the ways our own ambition, greed, confusion, and failures call the shots. In our sin, we retreat, we exploit, we play our victim cards. Perhaps we see ourselves in Kelly when we hear that questionable laugh and see his grimace, when he realizes he’s vulnerable. Will he embrace vulnerability with authority? Can we? Perhaps it’s in his laughter—and the family’s good-natured Wall Street Journal interview about the video—where we see flourishing most clearly, after all. As Crouch writes, “If you want one last picture of authority and vulnerability together, laughter will do the trick.” allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="" width="560"> Comments (2) [...]

Rod Dreher on Cultural Engagement and The Benedict Option


“There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Posted on 03/14/17 “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” So suggests Rod Dreher in his new book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher claims that the West has come to reject the principal tenets of Christianity. In fact, he says, not only has society at large bought into nominalism, come to value individualism above all else, and embraced the ethos of the sexual revolution, even the church has fallen in line with such thinking. In the face of this tumult, Dreher offers the Benedict Option. Based on the teachings of Benedict of Nursia, a sixth-century monk, Dreher's proposal is a “strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant counterculture.” I spoke with Dreher about the alarmist nature of his call to action, the role parenting plays in the Benedict Option, and what it implies about our engagement with the arts. That conversation follows, edited for clarity and length.  TC: Early in the book you summarize the journey that Western civilization took from medieval metaphysical realism (which didn’t see the physical world as separate from the spiritual world) to a 20th-century dismissal of the spiritual as hocus pocus. And you refer to our own age as a "new Dark Age," engulfed by the enlightenment's project to replace religion with reason. To many, this will sound like hyperbole intended to push us into hiding. How is the Benedict Option more than that? Dreher: It is true that I write with alarm, but that's because there is much to be alarmed about. The news is very bad for Christians, though most of us prefer to keep our heads in the sand. Outside the church, small-o orthodox Christianity is in retreat. Popular culture has swung so swiftly and so surely towards embracing the sexual revolution that those who dissent are treated as bigots and marginalized. This is not going to stop anytime soon. If you talk to law professors and others who keep a close eye on this, they foresee a future in which believers are pushed farther and farther out of the public square, unless they are willing to burn a pinch of incense to the idols of the day. Within the church, it's a rolling disaster, though one that most of us conceal from ourselves. Social science research in recent years reveals an unprecedented falling away from the church among millennials. Plus, the invaluable work of sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues has revealed that even among those millennials who profess the faith, a staggeringly small number of them know even the fundamentals of Christianity. These aren't bad kids. These are kids who have been failed by their families and their churches. The Benedict Option, then, is a call for strategic withdrawal from the toxic, post-Christian culture around us, so that we can form ourselves and our children in strong, thick Christian community. It's about deepening our prayer and worship lives, putting down deeper roots in Scripture and in the ancient traditions of Christian culture. This is not for the sake of living in some sort of isolated community, high up in the mountains. If we are going to be for the world who Christ demands that we be, we are going to have to radically change our relationship to that world, because we are being assimilated into it. Go-along to get-along cultural Christianity is no longer enough, if ever it was. But first, we have to recognize the world as it is, not as we wish it were. This is real. This is alarming. It cannot be ignored, not by Christians who want to hold on to the faith, and who want their children to do so as well. Having [...]

The Love Connection in The Lego Batman Movie


It’s not only the dark side of Gotham City’s villains that we see in The Lego Posted on 03/13/17 It’s not only the dark side of Gotham City’s villains that we see in The Lego Batman Movie. We also see the dark side of the dark knight. While the constant comedy of this family movie keeps the content lighthearted, the character development of Batman himself gives the film a sense of depth. The conflict Batman/Bruce Wayne faces is lurking inside the crevices of his heart; his change involves unmasking himself so he can learn to give and receive love. Batman lost his parents to the crime-ridden streets of Gotham, which creates in him a passion for fighting crime. The Lego Batman Movie suggests he uses this mission as a way to avoid dealing directly with his traumatic past. In one scene, his butler Alfred catches Batman lost in thought as he gazes at a wall of family photos. Alfred suggests that Batman settle down and give up the mask. But Batman puts on his mask of denial and avoids facing his greatest fear, which, Alfred claims, is having a family again. Batman has kept himself safe from experiencing pain by being a loner, acting independently, being egotistical, and by staying focused on the physical aspects of his life. All of these are mechanisms that help numb himself to feeling any strong emotions. Later, Bruce Wayne reluctantly heads to a city gala—forgetting to take off his Batman mask until Alfred reminds him. Once there, he meets an orphan named Dick Grayson. Dick sees Bruce Wayne for who he truly is, in the light of his broken past, when he points out that they both grew up without parents. He feels a connection with the real man behind the mask, which makes him confident enough to ask Bruce to adopt him, thereby instigating Bruce's  move towards a new family. Bruce is also moved by a video he's shown later in the film, a montage of how rude, selfish, and arrogant Bruce is when he’s wearing his Batman mask. It’s then that he finally confronts the dark parts in him, the ones that push other people away. This is when he begins to embrace relationship and vulnerability. We all have masks we put on to protect ourselves. It's hard to admit we’re just ordinary people with flaws and insecurities. But when we isolate ourselves it is our own downfall, because we were created for relationship. When man was alone God said it wasn’t good. What’s more, all human relationship was created to flow out of the center of divine relationship. As St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”   As Christ’s church, we are members of one body. God intends to use us in each other’s lives as his vessels of love. George Macdonald makes this connection when he writes, “We shall never be able to rest in the bosom of the Father, till the fatherhood is fully revealed to us in the love of the brothers.” Macdonald suggests that until we love others in the church (and outside of it), we won’t find rest. What’s more, we won’t fully understand the love of the father if we don’t spend our lives giving and receiving love from brothers and sisters in Christ. There is an interconnectedness in these divine and human relationships, a harmony that imparts rest and peace to us. We can only truly be ourselves—the real person God made—when we take off our masks and connect with others. Comments (0) [...]

Tasting Heaven in The Great British Baking Show


He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took Posted on 03/09/17 He told them still another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Matthew 13:33) Jesus apparently loves food. Eating and tasting accompanied much of his ministry, from his first miracle of turning water into wine to his approval of his disciples picking heads of grain on the Sabbath to the various meals he shared in people’s homes—and all culminating in the Last Supper. Jesus even calls himself “the bread of life.” Often he used the image of a feast or banquet in his enigmatic descriptions of the kingdom of heaven, a future reality breaking into the present, and perhaps best seen through the cultural significance of a meal. As I watched seasons 2 and 3 of The Great British Baking Show, now streaming on Netflix in the United States, I became increasingly aware of this kingdom-of-heaven reality being enacted on the screen. TGBBS is, paradoxically, a compassionate competition show. Twelve contestants show off their baking techniques before a pair of judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, who award a “star baker” each week and send home someone else whose skills didn’t quite make the cut. In stark contrast to the ruthless ambition or verbal abuse often portrayed in similar reality shows, there is an ethos of kindness in the massive tent erected in the British countryside, which serves as the makeshift bakery. Hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc use their quirky British humor to keep spirits light, and the contestants applaud each other’s successes and grieve with each other’s failures. The show is incredibly diverse in every way imaginable—food, ages, ethnicities, faiths, and locations. It doesn’t necessarily highlight this diversity either; this reality simply is, a unity of rich and various cultural backgrounds and contexts. The emphasis is placed on each baker’s personality, their creativity in using flavors, decorations, and techniques to achieve that perfect bake. To riff on Galatians 3:28, there is neither male nor female, old nor young, rich nor poor—all come together under one big tent of baking. Despite being uplifting, there isn't a mawkish, Kinkadian sentimentality to the show. Mistakes are made and critiqued accordingly, and the tent is often a scene for chaos or panic. It’s quite stressful to stand before a judge and present what you have created, especially if things have not gone according to plan. In the first episode of season 3, a baker pulls up the acetate holding her showstopper cake in place, only to have the entire bottom layer melt like a chocolate volcanic ooze. The shock and pain on the baker’s face is palpable, but where another show might attempt to isolate her as a buffoon or offer another contestant’s harsh appraisal in order to foster drama, TGBBS chooses the way of compassion. Sue, the co-host, places her arm around the distraught baker’s shoulders in a moment of genuine tenderness, and whispers, “It’s just a cake. It doesn’t mean you’re going to go home.” In TGBBS, mistakes are acknowledged and judged, but grace is also present. When the perfect bake is achieved, it’s a moment for genuine joy. Of course, nearly every contestant does eventually go home—until they’re brought back for the final episode in a celebratory lawn party. There’s little sense of jealousy or wounded pride. The entire closing ceremony feels akin to a homecoming, where old friends are reunited and praise one another as they feast on a smorgasbord of baked goods. In crowning the winner of season 2, [...]

Spiritual Intimacy and Silent Knicks


Last Sunday the New York Knicks hosted the Golden State Warriors at Madison Square Garden Posted on 03/09/17 Last Sunday the New York Knicks hosted the Golden State Warriors at Madison Square Garden for a Sunday matinee of basketball. The Knicks have been desperate for good PR, given that a star player has been feuding with the front office and a former player recently had to be forcibly escorted by security out of the arena, so maybe that’s why they decided to try something new Sunday: a first half without any noise except for the sounds of the game. At the start of the game, the jumbotron displayed a message that read: “The first half of today’s game will be presented without music, video, or in-game entertainment so you can experience the game in its purest form. Enjoy the sounds of the game.” This decision has been met with both praise and criticism. The loudest voice speaking against it was Warriors forward Draymond Green, who said, “It was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game, it changed everything.” I have to agree with him on that last point. Silence does change everything. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Why is it so hard for us to embrace silence and stillness?  After all, there are benefits to both. What struck me about the Knicks’ jumbotron message was its suggestion that silence would help the crowd to “experience the game in its purest form.” Stripping away the glitz and gimmicks of the modern NBA experience allowed people to focus on what brought them there in the first place: basketball. I work as a student coach for an NAIA basketball team in the Chicago area. Some of the most memorable games I’ve attended were not played in packed, loud arenas, but rather in a rented recreation center or an empty gym. The less distractions there are, the more you can really pay attention to the beautiful game of basketball. This was the Knicks’ goal, but off-court gimmicks have become the norm in sporting events. Except for basketball purists, no one wants to only watch basketball. They want a bigger experience. Something similar can happen in our spiritual lives. God calls us to strip away all of the distractions and the things of the world that get in the way of meeting him. Whether it is work, recreation, aspirations, or even other relationships, many distractions get in the way of truly seeing God. Even things that seem to be seeking God can distract us. We can listen to the one pastor we like, listen to the one Christian band we like, or read the one Christian author we like, sometimes to the point that those “off-court” experiences of Christianity dominant our understanding of God. How long before we've encased ourselves in a pre-packaged bubble that has no space for an intimate relationship with him? The Lord calls us to be still and silent in his presence. In Psalm 46 we are told, “Be still, and know that I am God.” The rest of the psalm is about the strength of the Lord and how powerful He is. For us to recognize that, we sometimes must submit to stillness and silence. Famed preacher Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “Nothing teaches us so much the preciousness of the Creator, as when we learn the emptiness of all besides.” It is easy to forget that the core of an NBA game itself is the sport of basketball, not the experience of being in a place like Madison Square Garden, with its blaring music, audience giveaways, and fan contests. Similarly, it is easy to forget that the core of our life is our one-on-one relationship with God, not all of the other distractions that come with modern life or can be added to the religious experience. Just as the Knicks wanted those in attendance to have an int[...]

How Secure Do We Need to Feel to Follow Christ’s Call?


A recurring theme I hear from Christians who support President Donald Trump’s Posted on 03/08/17 A recurring theme I hear from Christians who support President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration—both his now-scrapped Jan. 27 attempt and this week’s revised one—is the firm belief that foreign-born travelers, especially refugees, pose a grave danger to the United States. At the same time, I hear other Christians arguing that Jesus’ call to care for the hungry, the thirsty, and those in need of clothing and shelter should take priority in this debate. It’s hard for a vigilant but compassionate Christian to know how to reconcile these positions. Among the government’s most basic responsibilities is to ensure the security of its citizens. Security is important, and we should expect our elected officials to do what they can to provide it. But in order to decide what steps should be taken, we must first have a solid understanding of the threats that exist. Only then can we balance governance and compassion. It turns out that under the pre-Trump immigration and refugee-vetting process, Americans were quite secure. A 2016 study by the libertarian Cato Institute, which examined all murders caused by terrorists on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2015, revealed that: the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year the chance of being murdered by a tourist on a B visa, the most common tourist visa, is 1 in 3.9 million per year CNN summarized the study this way: “You have a 0.00003 percent chance of dying in an attack by a foreign-born terrorist.” After wading through this information, I can’t help but wonder: how secure do we need to feel before we’re willing to heed Christ’s call? I’m not sure we should use math to decide whether or not to obey God’s commands, but if we did, surely these figures would make the choice clear. Should a 0.00003 percent chance of dying keep us from meeting the needs of those who are suffering? And they are suffering. The majority of those seeking refuge in the United States are average people like Faez al Sharaa, who fled Syria with his wife Shaza after his small farming town had been decimated by fighting between government and rebel forces. (Syria is still one of the six Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s latest executive order.) Now the father of two girls, al Sharaa works the graveyard shift at a Dallas-area Walmart. Trump’s travel ban makes it more difficult for our local churches and other Christian organizations to help people like Faez al Sharaa and his family. When we defend such policies or lobby for them, we are allowing an unfounded fear for our own security to prevent us from heeding God’s call to meet those in need. A University of Chicago report revealed that a record 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump for two reasons: security and the economy. Yes, this is a dangerous world. There are those in other countries determined to do America harm. Yet we need not meet this reality with unfounded fearfulness and a desire to protect ourselves at all costs. The Bible calls us to do many things that go against our self-interest. That’s Christianity. Today, we are called to meet the worst migrant and refugee crisis since World War II. As Matthew Soerens has written previously at TC, Romans 13’s encouragement to honor our governing authorities—when taken alongside Jesus’ call to make room for those on the margins—compels us to advocate for public policies that would both provide reasonable security and extend compassion to vulnerable immig[...]

When the Bible is No Longer a Book


“A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing.” Rev. Dr. Posted on 03/07/17 “A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing.” Rev. Dr. Pete Phillips I still remember the first time I preached a sermon with an iPad. Fearing my congregation’s response, I walked to the pulpit with notes and a Bible concealing the glowing screen. I continued the practice of bait and switch for several years until I sensed people growing less nervous. While there are still some who would be suspicious of an iPad near the altar, most Christians have embraced (if not come to expect) the presence of technology in church. From video screens to online giving to wifi in the sanctuary, technology that some deemed a distraction to worship just a decade ago is now accepted as the norm. A recent BBC article, in fact, highlighted the growing preference for digital Bibles over print ones, and wondered what this might mean for how readers relate to the text. “Studies suggest that text read on screens is generally taken more literally than text read in books,” the article notes. “Aesthetic features of a text, such as its broader themes and emotional content, are also more likely to be drawn out when it is read as a book.” Rev. Dr. Pete Phillips, Director of the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University, argues in the article that digital Bibles inhibit our ability to experience the words as more than mere information. “You end up reading the text as though it was Wikipedia, rather than it being a sacred text in itself,” he says. The downside of this is that it allows readers to enter Scripture without a full grasp of the overall narrative or context. Phillips observes, “You just go to where you’ve asked it to go to, and you’ve no sense of what came before or after.” Without the framework of an overarching metanarrative, such practices can often lead to a devaluation of the authoritative nature of Scripture, demoting the story of God’s interaction within human history in favor of a search for a favorite quote to share with followers and friends. “Apps and social media accounts tweeting out Bible verses allow a private expression of faith that takes place between a person and their phone screen,” the BBC article notes. “And the ability to pick and choose means they can avoid doctrine that does not appeal. …Pick-and-mix religious beliefs are not new. But it is easier than ever to fashion an individualized faith.” According to recent Pew research, a rise in the pursuit of personalized religious expression is demonstrated by the fact that 20 percent of people who identify as Catholic and 25 percent who identify as mainline Protestant “seldom or never” attend organized services. The magnitude of religious options available now through podcasts and video streaming are offering an attractive alternative for those who are searching for a religious experience outside the boundaries of an institutional church, through which they can be the sole authority and primary content controller. Those who do choose to step inside a church come with this paradigm playing in their minds and often unconsciously evaluate their religious experience through new assumptions about community and authority. Heidi Campbell, researcher at Texas A&M University, says in the BBC article that “people come with a certain expectation of what a community looks like and what freedom they’ll have, and religious institutions need to either adapt to that or be an exception.” While questions of the relationship between religion and technology a[...]

Talking Science and Faith with Morgan Freeman


Who has best portrayed God in cinema? My vote is for Morgan Freeman’s version in the Posted on 03/06/17 Who has best portrayed God in cinema? My vote is for Morgan Freeman’s version in the theologically profound Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty. Freeman gave the role gravitas, tackling a number of vexing theological questions in a humorous and endearing way. Thirteen years after his initial portrayal of God, Morgan Freeman is hosting National Geographic Channel’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, which recently kicked off its second six-episode season. In each episode, Freeman explores topics such as the afterlife, Armageddon, miracles, and the problem of evil with genuine curiosity and—in spite of his belief that God has been invented by humans—a decent measure of respect. In a January episode, "Proof of God,” Freeman explored alleged evidence of God’s existence and presence in the modern world. “Have we cut God out of our modern lives,” Freeman muses, “or are there special moments where God breaks through and makes his presence known?” The episode begins with Freeman introducing us to an Indian-born Christian who believes he experienced God’s comforting Spirit while his wife was trapped in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. As the episode progresses, we encounter practitioners of West African divination in Harlem; Ethiopian Orthodox observers of Meskel, an omen-filled religious holiday celebrating Saint Helena’s fourth-century “discovery” of Jesus’ cross; and a Tibetan master of Tantrayana, one of Buddhism’s various paths to enlightenment. Freeman further introduces us to the ancestral spirit-channeled healing practices of southern Africa’s San people and an Islamic scholar who believes the Koran to be “God come to earth in book form.” Last, but certainly not least, Freeman interviews Ard Louis, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University and a member of the board of directors at BioLogos, which advances harmony between science and biblical faith. “Religion,” Freeman observes, “often seems at odds with another way of understanding the world: science. Some even see science as supplanting faith.” Voicing over images of Christian protesters carrying signs that read, “evolution is a lie” and “god created man,” Freeman quips, “Physicists discovered the God particle, so … do we still need God?” As they walk through the New York Botanical Garden, Louis draws Freeman’s attention to the intricate veins in a large, broad leaf. He argues that the beauty and complexity in nature, as demonstrated by the leaf, gives us a sense of “awe and wonder … something beyond ourselves,” and that this beauty points to—but does not necessarily prove—the existence of a rational divine creator. “There’s a widespread sense,” counters Freeman, “that as scientists discover more and more about the natural world, they’re kind of taking away the wonder and taking away the awe.” Louis acknowledges that many feel this way, but thinks Freeman has it backwards. “I think the more we learn about the world,” says Louis, “it points more towards God, rather than less.” Louis uses an example from the world of mathematics to demonstrate his point. The Dirac equation, first proposed in 1928 by British physicist Paul Dirac, not only predicted particle behavior at high energies and velocities equivalent to the speed of light but, as Louis informs Freeman, also predicted antimatter, whose existence was observati[...]

Do Zoos Have a Future? Should They?


On a hot, humid, July afternoon I took my daughter to our local zoo. The air was thick and Posted on 03/03/17 On a hot, humid, July afternoon I took my daughter to our local zoo. The air was thick and chewy and the thermometer neared 100. We pushed through the turnstiles in pursuit of lemonade and her favorite section: the polar bear exhibit. On this particular day, the polar bears were in the shade, sleeping off the heat, rather than splashing into the pools and wrestling one another as they normally did. My daughter tugged at my arm and asked, “Mommy, don’t they like snow? Where is their snow? Don’t they live by the icebergs? It’s too hot here for them.” Variations on her questions have been asked by others, from animal-rights activists to zoological organizations. Time magazine recently ran an article exploring the future of zoos, covering proposals such as “mega zoos,” which would give animals more room to roam, and “high-rise zoos,” which would allow birds to spread their wings in open air. The basic questions remain, however. Is keeping and displaying animals in captivity fair, appropriate, necessary, educational, or cruel? Is there a healthy intersection where education, entertainment, and conservation co-exist? As I tried to sort through this dilemma, it occurred to me that perhaps the question for people of faith is not, “What is the future of the zoo?” but rather, “What is the future of God’s creation?” Genesis 1 reminds us that in the beginning, humanity and the natural world existed in perfect harmony. There were no fences or cages, no vanishing habitats or need for animal rights and rescue. God’s creation was one of balance and abundance. We now find ourselves at a stage of human history where thousands upon thousands of species are extinct and resources increasingly scarce. Greed and unchecked development have led to the destruction of entire ecosystems. On the one hand, zoos can help raise awareness and educational opportunities to prevent further destruction. Many hope that they will inspire future generations of conservationists and activists. On the other hand, they can stand as shrines to the sort of exploitation that led to the destruction of many species. When operated thoughtfully and safely, zoos provide an opportunity to recapture some of the majesty and wonder of creation. They can offer sober reminders of what once was and what God will one day restore. However, the fact that we have zoos at all is an indication of how far we live from God’s plan for this world. God invited humanity to be stewards of creation. We were told to live in such a way that promoted the health and flourishing of people and creation alike. Instead, we pillage and plunder it for our own agendas. Zoos hold treasures for us to celebrate, but they also are a reminder of our broken world. A world where destruction, deforestation, captivity, and greed are rampant, where a polar bear curled up in the corner of a Midwestern zoo is normalized entertainment. Pause for a moment and consider how shockingly far that image is from the world God created. For the Christian, the “future of the zoo” question is in many ways a question about our own future. For American Christians, our way of life and rate of consumption cannot be sustained. People and the planet are paying a hefty price to sustain our habits. The irony of the polar bears is that a day is rapidly approaching when they may be better off in a zoo than in their natural habitat. Warming temperatures, oil exploration, and habitat loss push them toward extinction. The God who gives[...]

Trump and the Transfiguration


It is easy to be overwhelmed by the noise and seeming chaos of the first days of the Trump Posted on 03/01/17 It is easy to be overwhelmed by the noise and seeming chaos of the first days of the Trump administration. The tweets, the hyperventilating media, the alternative facts, the pundits, pontificators, and protesters. The insults, the leaks, the fake news, the lies, the Facebook posts, the language of war, opposition, resistance. It’s all created a deafening roar. The world feels full of sound and fury. The Washington Post recently changed its tagline to read, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Some think “the media” are precisely the problem, that they represent the liberal global elite who would shade the world with lies. Others worry that truth is under attack and First Amendment freedoms are threatened. Things feel murky, dark, and dimly lit. Where is there an unmistakable light in our landscape? Where is there a light that we can see by? In this present darkness, what would illuminate our way? Almost every year on the last Sunday before Lent, we revisit the story of Christ’s transfiguration. In the unfolding narrative of God reclaiming creation, it’s a high point. But it’s also unmistakably mysterious, dense, odd, and bursting with light. The disciples join Jesus to pray—only to doze off. The text reads that their sleep was heavy and hard to shake. Maybe as they woke to Jesus shining like lightning they thought they were still dreaming. They couldn’t quite focus on what felt like fantasy. The transfiguration is, in fact, an epiphany. It is a luminous and mysterious revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It is God pushing through the detritus to announce his presence, his activity, his way, and his will in Jesus. Atop this high mountain, where the membrane between heaven and earth is thin, God breaks in to say, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” At this moment God doesn’t say, “Believe in him.” Or, “Trust in him.” Or, “Open your heart and let him in.” God says, “Listen to him.” Listen to him. Don’t be too confident in your own assessment of things. Listen to him. Given all the voices in this world, pay attention to his. Listen to him. Above the din and distraction, give heed to the words of my son. Listen to what he says. Watch what he does. Follow where he walks. Listen to Jesus. I remember first discovering a “red letter” version of the Bible. Against the backdrop of black text the words of Jesus were highlighted in red. It was dramatic. Against the broad sweep of Scripture the words of Jesus stood out, as if to say, “Pay attention, here. Listen to these lines. These are the important points.” In recent years, Christians who didn’t see themselves or their faith embodied by baby-boomer-white-evangelical-conservative concerns have developed responses that highlight the teachings of Jesus. One of those movements is called “Red Letter Christians,” described by Tony Campolo this way: The Red Letter Revolution is not only about preaching a savior who forgives sins and promises eternal life, but who also declared that the shalom of God was breaking loose in the here and now. We’re about furthering this kingdom message that is declared in both the red letters and the black letters of the Bible. We declare the whole gospel for the whole world. We want to help make Jesus and what he had to say in the red letters of the Bible the lens through which the entire Bible is read. In other words, what Jesus has[...]