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The Civil War Is More Than a Historical Fascination

Why the clash between North and South remains relevant, 150 years later.

Americans have written more than 70,000 books about the Civil War—1 for every 19 hours since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. We are awed by its sheer magnitude, staggered by its appalling human cost, and inspired by its looming heroes. According to James McPherson, a leading Civil War authority and retired Princeton historian, these factors help to explain why the war fascinates us, but not how it continues to shape us a century and a half later.

The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford University Press) brings together a dozen of McPherson’s essays about the conflict. They range widely, investigating the morality of the war, President Lincoln’s effectiveness as commander in chief, and the cultural impact of such unprecedented death and destruction, among other topics.

But McPherson’s most provocative writing explicitly addresses the war’s enduring relevance. He emphasizes three basic factors. The first involves what caused it. “Many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought still resonate today,” he observes. These include “matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; [and] the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments.”

Equally striking are the war’s consequences. The United States as we know it was conceived not during the American Revolution but in the crucible of the Civil War. The struggle prompted an expansion of the role of government, transformed the US financial system, dramatically expanded the role of the federal court system, and—in the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau—introduced the first major social service agency.

Finally, the ...

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Messianic Judaism Flourishes in Holocaust Towns

Ukrainian Jews who follow Yeshua also plant congregations worldwide.

Nearly one year after Jews for Jesus launched one of its most successful and controversial evangelism campaigns, more than 1.3 million people worldwide have watched That Jew Died for You.

The three-minute YouTube video depicts Jesus carrying the cross to a gas chamber. The film’s goal was to “reshape views of Jesus and his relationship to the Holocaust.” Pegged to Yom HaShoah, a day when Israel remembers the Holocaust (held the evening of April 15 this year), many Jews called it the “most tasteless YouTube video ever.”

In Ukraine, where nearly 1 million Jews were murdered during World War II, Holocaust references are usually used to make political points. During January’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Russian and Ukrainian leaders compared each other to Nazis and publicly fought over which country should get the credit for freeing the concentration camp in occupied Poland.

But Ukraine’s Messianic Jewish community is talking about the Holocaust in its evangelistic efforts. And now Messianic congregations are thriving in many of the same communities that suffered the deepest Holocaust wounds.

Remembrance and education

The Soviet Union suppressed information about the Holocaust in its effort to create a “common Soviet people,” said Igor Rusniak, director of the Bible college at Kiev Jewish Messianic Congregation (KJMC). Thus, many Ukrainian Christians still don’t grasp that the Holocaust targeted Jews in particular. Rusniak says, “Practically every Jewish family in Ukraine has relatives who were murdered by Nazis during the war.” For these Jews, the Holocaust only proved that Christians with power are not to be trusted.

One ...

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Why the Time Is Ripe for Pro-Life Reform

Despite what you may have heard, more Americans than ever want abortion access restricted.

“The test of a democracy is not whether the people vote, but whether the people rule,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. In other words: Does the average citizen see her values and concerns reflected in public policy?

Charles C. Camosy, a Catholic ethicist at Fordham University, argues that a moral consensus has emerged in the United States around the issue of abortion. Yet neither the major political parties nor the federal government reflects that consensus. Citing poll after poll, from sources across the political spectrum, Camosy demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans would prefer much more limited access to abortion.

In Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans), Camosy takes stock of the polling data and concludes that abortion policy could comfortably shift in a restrictive direction. Under his preferred settlement, national public policy would allow abortion only in cases of imminent danger to the life of the mother, conception by rape or incest, and a few other extraordinary instances. To this end, Camosy outlines an actual legislative proposal, what he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA).

State of the Debate

The abortion debate has long been framed as a deadlock between two extremes. Camosy—who has written elsewhere on animal compassion and health care—argues persuasively that this framing persists because it serves the interests of major news media, political parties, and advocacy groups. Polarization and demonization attract viewers and listeners, galvanize supporters, and mobilize volunteers. Binary categories harden edges, stiffen spines, and arouse passions.

Polls show, however, that two-thirds of Americans identify ...

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Boring Work: Good for the Soul

No matter how monotonous, unseen, or ordinary, our jobs can powerfully transform us into Christlikeness.

Antonio is a man in his 50s who works on a fruit and vegetable farm in Dutchess County, New York. From sunup to sundown six days a week, he spends every hour picking peas or apples, depending on the time of year. For the grueling work, he is paid $8 an hour with no overtime pay. “I’m tired,” he told The New York Times last summer. “Right now my knees hurt a lot because all day I work bending over or down on my knees.” Like the millions of other US workers who harvest much of the food we eat, Antonio’s days are monotonous, long, and seemingly devoid of spiritual meaning.

Stephanie is a young mother with four children. Her typical day includes waking up at dawn, diapering and feeding one child while clothing another, preparing lunches for the rest, doing a couple loads of laundry, cooking dinner, and putting the kids to bed—all before falling into bed herself, exhausted. The exhaustion runs deep. Aren’t there more important things I should be doing? she asks, lamenting that she doesn’t have the energy for prayer and study. Many days, she suffers quietly and alone.

For all of us who struggle to find spiritual meaning in our daily work, Antonio and Stephanie’s stories resonate. And the longer we stay rutted in our routines, the more pressing our questions become: How is this work shaping my heart and mind? Is it strengthening my relationship with God and others? Does it even matter in the world?

To answer these questions, many contemporary church leaders and writers describe the ways that work, paid and nonpaid, can shape our communities and bless our neighbors. And that’s true. But we also find rich answers among men and women of the fourth and fifth centuries, ...

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More Martyrs: ISIS Executes Dozens of Ethiopian Christians in Libya

Propaganda video released the same day Justin Welby arrives in Cairo to honor the previous 21 victims.

Once again, ISIS has orchestrated and filmed the dramatic mass killing of African Christians who refuse to deny their faith.

This time, the approximately 28 men targeted by the Libya affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as Daesh) were Ethiopian Christians. In February, the killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Christians drew widespread horror and fears of future massacres, but also led to Egypt's largest Bible outreach.

Describing the 30-minute propaganda video released Sunday, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) explained:

The exact numbers of victims in the latest incident cannot be confirmed. The video of the executions, entitled “Until there came to them clear evidence”, switches between a scene on a beach in eastern Libya, where an estimated 15 men in orange boiler suits are beheaded by masked militants in camouflage, and a scene in a desert area in southern Libya where similarly dressed Daesh members execute a similar number of men in black boiler suits by shooting them in the head. A subtitle refers to both groups of victims as "worshippers of the cross belonging to the hostile Ethiopian church."

The video also includes scenes depicting the destruction of churches in Syria and Iraq and condemns the doctrine of the Trinity as a form of apostasy. Prior to the executions, an English-speaking masked narrator dressed in black warns that "the nation of the cross" must either embrace Islam, pay the jizya tax or face death.

The New York Times reports more details on the video, as does CNN. Regarding how Mosul Christians were told to convert to Islam or pay a protection tax, the speaker in the video says, "The Christians never cooperated."

The video ...

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But Jesus Didnt Say

All of Scripture speaks to Jesus message.

Remember the old bumper sticker that proclaimed, “God says it. I believe it. That settles it.”? An updated version might read, “Jesus didn’t say it. I don’t believe it. That settles it.”

From Hollywood celebrities to famous pastors, Jesus’ silence is being cited as the final authority on issues ranging from homosexuality to masturbation to street evangelism. This negative hermeneutic is the logical extreme of Red Letter Christianity.

Red Letter Christians emphasize the words of Jesus printed in red in some modern versions of the Bible. The movement made its official entrance onto the evangelical platform nearly ten years ago, setting out “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Red Letter Christians claim, “You can only understand the rest of the Bible when you read it from the perspective provided by Christ.”

But practice can’t be separated from interpretation.

While the highest levels of biblical and literary hermeneutics seem to confound us, a basic and valid interpretive lens for reading the Bible can be as straightforward as approaching a great literary work. (Of course, as most college freshmen will tell you—and this English professor will confirm—skillful reading of literature doesn’t come naturally. It must be learned.)

The inspired Word of God, the Bible is also a literary work written with artistry, a narrative arc, and themes both major and minor. Just as there are valid and invalid approaches to reading Huckleberry Finn, there are right and wrong ways to read the Bible. ...

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O for 7,000+ Tongues to Meep

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word birthed many more.

According to the 2015 edition of Ethnologue, the catalogue of the world’s languages produced by SIL International, there are 7,102 living languages in the world today. This number alone is staggering—but now think about how many dialects there are in the language shared by readers of this article. How could we break it down? By nation: American, British, South African, Canadian, Indian, Nigerian, and Ugandan English, to name just a few. By location: multicultural London English, Appalachian English, Newfoundland English. By community: African American, Chicano, and Jewish English. By social group: the upper-class British variety known as BBC English, the fresh-faced language used by young people sometimes called teenspeak, the informal everyday English used in Singapore, called Singlish.

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, which can be seen as a problem for those who want to preserve some pristine form of English, saving it from the barbarians who are constantly subverting it with slang. But diversity in language, far from being something we ought to loathe, is a remarkable aspect of our bearing the image of God.

When we think of the works of beauty humans have made over the millennia, from cathedrals to frescoes to pottery to pop songs, it’s no surprise that our creativity extends to language, the one creative tool that makes us unique among all other living things.

This seems counterintuitive to those familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel, which seems to suggest that the existence of many languages is a sign of God’s judgment. But that is not the only way to read this story.

Note that the story doesn’t glorify the era when “the whole world had one language and a ...

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Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Roundup

The highlights include lots of documentaries, and lots of religion.

The Tribeca Film Festival, which ends today, is basically a regional festival, with nearly all screenings and events located in downtown Manhattan. It’s lately getting a reputation as one of the finest festivals for documentary film, but there were a number of buzzy narrative premieres as well as movies that previously played at Sundance and are slated for release later this year, plus panels with filmmakers and mini-events about video games, interactive technologies, television, and more.

Some of the flashiest events didn’t fit my work schedule, but I saw eleven movies. Below are some of the highlights.

The Survivalist is a striking, chilling debut from Northern Irish writer/director Stephen Fingleton. It’s the story of a man (Martin McCann) living alone in the woods after some kind of unspecified apocalypse, which seems to have happened quite a while in the past. He finds food. He gardens. He protects his land. And he’s always on edge, especially when two women show up, a mother (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter (Mia Goth).

I’ll be honest: the film is so raw that it can be hard to watch and pretty graphic, as I’d imagine it would be after the apocalypse. Our pop culture is flooded with post-apocalyptic stories; this one reminded me most of The Road, except it feels more real and just as dark. But it’s a remarkable first film, and I can’t wait to see what Fingleton does next.

In My Father’s House, a documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, follows Grammy-winning rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith after he buys the house in which his father Brian grew up, then goes looking for him. It turns out that after being absent for most of Che childhood, ...

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Reconciler

Jeanne Bishop has helped thousands of clients make amends for their crimes. Now shes helping the man who killed her sister make amends for his.

On April 7, 1990, David Biro broke into the affluent suburban Chicago home of Nancy and Richard Langert armed with a glass cutter and a revolver. When the Langerts returned home that night, Biro, then 16, was waiting. He rejected the couple’s attempts to negotiate, which likely included money; police discovered ­$500 in cash abandoned at the scene. Biro shot Richard in the head and Nancy, who was pregnant, three times. He left her bleeding in the couple’s basement.

“It was Palm Sunday,” remembers Jeanne Bishop, Nancy’s sister. Bishop was at choir rehearsal at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. “The secretary came and said, ‘You have a phone call.’

“I said, ‘Can you take a message?’

“She said, ‘No, you need to come with me.’ ”

Bishop immediately thought of her elderly father. But it was his voice she heard over the phone: “Nancy and Richard have been killed.”

An image of a truck crushing the couple’s compact car on the expressway flashed through Bishop’s mind.

“What do you mean, killed?” she said.

“Somebody killed them.”

A week later, Bishop learned the details of her younger sister’s last moments. Nancy had remained alive for roughly 10 minutes after Biro shot her in the elbow, back, and abdomen. Before she died, she crawled over to her husband’s body and used her own blood to draw a heart and the letter U.

No Division

Six months after the murders, the police arrested Biro. An honors student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, Biro had once been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for trying to poison his family. He had bragged to his ...

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The Moral Stakes of Everyday Life

An excerpt from 'The Road to Character'.

Today the word sin has lost its power and awesome intensity. It’s used most frequently in the context of fattening desserts. Most people in mainstream conversation don’t talk much about individual sin. If they talk about human evil at all, then that evil is most often located in the structures of society—in inequality, oppression, racism, and so on—not in the human breast.

We’ve abandoned the concept of sin because we’ve left behind the depraved view of human nature. In the 18th and 19th century many people really did embrace the dark self-estimation expressed in the old Puritan prayer, “Yet I Sin”: “Eternal Father, Thou art good beyond all thought, but I am vile, wretched, miserable, blind. . . .” That’s simply too much darkness for the modern mentality.

But sin, like vocation and soul, is one of those words it’s impossible to do without. Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral drama. No matter how hard we try to reduce everything to deterministic brain chemistry, no matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like mistake or error or weakness, the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. The person struggling against sin understands that each day is filled with moral occasions.

In places like Abilene, Kansas, the big sins, left unchallenged, would have had practical and disastrous effects. Sloth could lead to a failure of a farm; gluttony and inebriation to the destruction of a family; lust to the ruination of a young woman; vanity ...

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Why Christians of All People Should Get Their Vaccines

For the love, folks.

As I lay in a hospital bed, the doctor and I tried to figure out why red, purple, and blue patches were erupting all over my body. My blood platelet levels were so low, I could have developed spontaneous internal bleeding. ER residents crowded into the room, curious to see my skin. We went down the list of potential causes: a family history of bleeding disorders, recent medication exposures, cancer symptoms, recent infections.

Then I remembered. Three weeks prior, I had received several vaccines to prepare for a medical missions trip. As I endured much testing over the following weeks and years, only one explanation persisted for my immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP): A vaccine had tricked my immune system into attacking my own platelets, the parts of blood cells that bind them together.

I know the risks of vaccines quite intimately. Even so, I continue to take vaccinations, I ensure that my children get them, and I recommend them to all my patients. Before becoming a family doctor in Baltimore, I studied immunology in medical school, learning how and why vaccines work in order to offer them to my patients. Like all parents—including, of course, those who refuse vaccines—I want what’s best for my children. As I have thought about my own story and studied vaccines, I’ve grown confident in this: The benefits of vaccines are far too great for us to refuse, and the risk of refusing them extends far beyond our own families. This is not just a medical issue, but an issue that touches on our faith and our public witness.

The Worry Over Vaccines

In recent years in the West, including among Christians, concerns about vaccines have grown, leading to measles outbreaks in pockets of the United States ...

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Forgive Us Our Debts: Family Christian Turns to the Law for Grace

Bankrupt bookstore chain searches for a new buyer.

Blame it on the economy, the digital revolution, and a huge debt. These are the culprits that Family Christian Stores (FCS)—the nation’s largest Christian retail chain, with 266 stores in 36 states—said pushed it into bankruptcy this year.

Three years ago, FCS bought itself back from private equity owners. In 2013, it promised to donate all profits to serving widows and orphans around the world.

Since then, the company has contributed $300,000 to charities—a small sliver of the $450 million in gross sales it generated over the same 2 years. This shows how slim the profits really were, according to Christian literary agent Steve Laube. (FCS gave away another $1 million by asking customers in stores directly for donations.)

When FCS filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, it owed $57 million to lenders and $40 million to suppliers and vendors. “I wish that we had alternatives, but we do not,” said president and CEO Chuck Bengochea.

Carrying debt is a normal part of business, said Michael Anderson, president of the Association of Christian Economists. But “when plans go awry,” he said, “it has to be resolved in a way that is fair to everyone.”

FCS hopes to resolve its debts without any layoffs or store closures, but the collapse has pained Christian publishers, trade vendors, agents, and authors. Barbour Publishing announced layoffs, naming the FCS bankruptcy as a factor. Hendrickson Publishers stated that receiving no payment would “pose a very difficult financial burden.” Additional publishers delayed royalty payments.

Dozens of Christian publishers sued FCS over its initial proposal to use $20 million worth of consignment inventory ...

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Under Discussion: Should Churches Dim the Lights for Worship?

Does low lighting set a better mood, or mimic entertainment too much? Experts weigh in.

Bob Kauflin recently explained why his WorshipGod conferences intentionally leave the lights up. Many churches debate whether low lighting sets a better mood or mimics entertainment too much.

Here's how experts weighed in. Answers are arranged on a spectrum from “yes” answers at the top to “no” answers at the bottom.

“The ability to ‘turn down’ the lights probably best encapsulates the lighting levels for Christian worship for centuries, when the ‘brightness’ of modern lights was not a possibility. Lights that are too bright can make it difficult to experience a gathered sense of corporate worship.”
~Bruce Benedict, chaplain of worship, Hope College

“A song’s energy and tempo will rise and fall, so why shouldn’t your lighting? I’m not suggesting strobing your houselights. But your lighting needs to reflect what’s happening from the stage. During slower, introspective songs, the lighting can be lowered to create an intimate atmosphere.”
~Camron Ware, founder, Visual Worshiper

“Worship lighting is a preference and should be appropriate to the
style of your worship space. Traditional sanctuaries with traditional worship and stained glass should be well-lit, while contemporary worship in contemporary venues should make use of modern lighting techniques.”
~Don Chapman, arranger and composer

“If most people in your church like a darker room, then don’t fight a needless battle to bring in more light. No matter how dim you go, however, please consider guests and those like me who have terrible eyesight and stumble around in a dark worship space.” ~Sam Rainer, senior pastor, Stevens Street ...

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Interview: Go Where People Are Hurting

Noel Castellanos reflects on a career ministering to outsiders.

Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), knows about ministry to underserved communities, having served for more than 30 years in urban Latino neighborhoods. In Where the Cross Meets the Street: What Happens to the Neighborhood When God Is at the Center (InterVarsity Press), Castellanos shows how ministries can address inequality and injustice without forsaking evangelism and discipleship. David Swanson, pastor of Chicago’s New Community Covenant Church, spoke with Castellanos about forging faith and community at society’s margins.

You write, “We can no longer maintain our old paradigms of ministry that compartmentalize and truncate the work of the kingdom.” How does this principle guide your work?

In most evangelical churches, evangelism and discipleship are the bread and butter. But to bring the full gospel to poor and marginalized communities, we need further tools.

CCDA’s biblical framework begins from a foundation of proclamation and formation. But from my experience in urban and Latino communities, I learned that we needed to put compassion front and center. Compassion is a language Christians can understand in our hurting world: the need for a cup of water, clothing, shelter, or some other practical form of love.

We want to help create economic opportunity—to teach people how to fish, and even to own the pond. We want to restore dignity by restoring the ability to care for oneself and one’s family.

As I got involved with the struggle for immigration reform in the United States, I realized that confronting injustice would be essential.

Where can churches look for examples of putting the full gospel into action?

Think of ...

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Should Christians Confront Mormon Missionaries When They Knock on the Front Door?

Three Views.

Yes, Jesus Would

L. L. (Don) Veinot Jr.

Holy confrontation has become a lost art, in part because we misinterpret 2 John 1:10–11: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.”

Some Christians use this verse as a reason to not invite Mormons into their homes. But this stance ignores the passage’s context. In the early church, churches met in homes. When Christian teachers arrived in a community, they looked for the home in which the faithful met. The Lord instructed the disciples to do this. In today’s language, we would write, “Do not take them into your pulpit.” It is a warning to not let false teachers into authority where they could mislead the unwary.

As a missionary to members of cults and new religions, I reach out to those who are not Christians and know they are not Christians (atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews); those who think they are Christians because they go to church; and those who are not Christians but are in pseudo-Christian groups (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses).

People in this last category use the Bible and Christian terms but with different definitions. An aspect of proclaiming the gospel is exposing these differences. That is our task in confronting—not to shame, embarrass, or manipulate.

Paul gives excellent guidance on how to sanctify confrontation in 2 Timothy 2:24–25. First, never be quarrelsome. Apologists and defenders of the faith must take this advice to heart. We should not be ready to argue at the drop of a hat.

Second, offer kindness to everyone. Demonstrate a generous demeanor. The individual on the ...

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