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The Dance of Suffering and Love

What to do with our grief for the world.

The recent martyrdom of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya in late February continues to roll around in my heart. The shock of the early news reports has worn off, and a redemptive news story has emerged: The Bible Society of Egypt is using the event to publish tracts that proclaim the power of Jesus in the midst of such a tragedy. So the grief has been softened. But it hangs on. And it settles in deeper as I read about subsequent events, like ISIS dragging another 100 Christians into captivity.

In a world instantly connected, where all manner of tragedies flash before our eyes every day—well, what are we supposed to do with the ever-deepening grief? And what can we possibly do about the events that prompt it?

We feel helpless. The temptation is to drown it out with entertainment or hobbies or more frenetic work, maybe even church work. Or to simply not read the news. Or a hundred other creative solutions. For the sake of our sanity, we need to retreat to these shelters now and then. Yet we want to do more than escape.

As I ponder this, I find myself increasingly trying to fathom the mystery of love. Precisely because love is a mystery, and a divine mystery at that, we will never be able to completely fathom it. But we can understand at least this much: that there is no love without suffering, that we never learn to love until we learn to suffer. We may not be able to fathom why love and suffering embrace, but that it is written into the fabric of existence—that much is clear.

And because of the dance of love and suffering, we can move into grief with reverent awe, knowing we are participating in the very life blood of God.

As Holy Week approaches, we read once again about the divine marriage of love ...

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What Christianophobia Looks Like in America

New Study: Champions of religious freedom tell Christians, 'Keep your faith to yourselves.'

As America’s religious landscape grows more diverse, we see Christianity’s cultural dominance fading. While a vast majority of the country and our leaders still identify as Christian, many conservative Protestants sense a growing animosity toward themselves and their beliefs.

For the Christian Right, recent conflicts around homosexuality, church-state separation, abortion, and other hot-button issues are viewed as threats, indicators that their values are no longer embraced or even tolerated, but under attack.

When Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran was fired earlier this year over a self-published book that briefly critiqued homosexuality, conservative Christians saw the incident as further evidence that they are losing their religious freedom.

Are these Christians worrying for no good reason?

Well, anti-Christian hostility is certainly real, captured by the American National Election Studies, which include questions about animosity toward various social groups. About third of respondents rated conservative Christians significantly lower (by at least one standard deviation) than other religious and racial groups.

The only group to fare worse was atheists, who received low rankings from nearly half the respondents. But while atheists drew more global hostility than any other group, the negative rankings for conservative Christians came from a disproportionate number of white, highly educated, politically progressive, and wealthy respondents.

As this survey illustrates, animosity toward Christians involves racial, educational, and economic factors; the people most likely to hold negative views of conservative Christians also belong to demographic groups with high levels of social power. Rich, white, ...

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Should Unaccredited Bible Colleges Be Allowed to Grant Degrees?

Some Christian schools challenge an Illinois requirement. Experts weigh in.

College students strive for one goal: a degree. Dayspring Bible College and Seminary wants to give them one after they complete its programs. But the suburban Chicago school only issues certificates and diplomas. The Illinois Board of Higher Education forbids Dayspring from offering a “degree” because it doesn’t meet accreditation standards.

Earlier this year, Dayspring and a handful of other Illinois-based Bible colleges filed a federal lawsuit accusing the state board of overstepping the First Amendment and infringing on their rights to free religious exercise and free speech.

The lawsuit argues that the current ban financially hurts unaccredited Bible colleges because it communicates that their education is inferior and thus dissuades prospective students. And if the schools pursued accreditation, which is costly, they would become unaffordable. (According to the lawsuit, Bible colleges generally run 25 to 30 percent of the cost of a liberal arts school.)

Twenty-eight states currently exempt Bible colleges from regulation. One of the most recent states to deregulate was Texas.

In 2007, the state supreme court ruled that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board could not forbid the unaccredited Tyndale Theological Seminary and Bible Institute from calling itself a “seminary” or using words such as degree, bachelor, master, and doctor. Such terms belonged to the church before the government claimed them.

Nearly 30 Bible colleges were established in the decision’s wake. Yet not all similar schools in Texas liked the ruling. B. H. Carroll Theological Institute continued pursuing accreditation in spite of the outcome. Its spokesperson said, “Accountability is a biblical ...

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The Best Way to Become Like Jesus? Let Jesus Fill Your Vision

An excerpt from 'Rejoicing in Christ.'

Since Christ is our life, the one we are brought to enjoy and the one in whom we live and move and have our being, he must be the secret or mystery of godliness. Only through knowing and relying on him can we become like the living God and share his vitality.

This means that before anything else it matters where we look. Before anything else it matters what fills our vision. For whatever it is that occupies our attention (or, to use Jesus’ words, whatever it is that “remains” in us), that will steer and shape our every thought, motive, and action. You are what you see.

Life, righteousness, holiness, and redemption are found in Jesus, and found by those—and only those!—who look to him. Perhaps I should be clearer: It is not that we look, get some sense of what Christ is like, and then go away and strain to make ourselves similar; we become like him through the very looking. The very sight of him is a transforming thing. For now, contemplating him by faith, we begin to be transformed into his likeness (2 Cor. 3:18), but so potent is his glory that when we clap our eyes upon him physically at his second coming, then “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

That full, unveiled, physical sight of the glorified Jesus will be so majestically effacing it will transform our very bodies around us. The sight of him now by the Spirit makes us more like him spiritually; the sight of him, then, face to face, will finally make us—body and soul—as he is. Contemplating Christ now is thus rather like seeing the morning star at the break of day: both enchanting and full of hope. It is light for now with the promise of so much more to ...

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Beth Moore: When a Big God Escapes Us

We sometimes fail to see Jesus for who he really is, even when he stands right before us.

I was the second-youngest child in a family that took up the better part of an entire pew at our Baptist church. My maternal grandmother lived with us, which meant that every Sunday I heard three generations of my own flesh and blood sing from The Broadman Hymnal. We lived in a college town in the green hills of Arkansas, whose denominations in those days were as distinct as the seasons.

Everyone I knew headed somewhere to church on Sunday morning. Whether we were people of faith was not the question. We were people of church. Still, true faith could be found down the heel-scuffed halls of my church.

All who filled the pews had secrets. Though my family’s could have qualified for daytime television, I know now that no one there was what he or she seemed. We all needed Jesus worse than we pretended. We all had wounds that Sunday mornings had not mended. We needed a Savior willing to stuff himself into the crowded car with us after church and venture behind the dark drapes of our homes. Some of us needed a wonder-worker who could wring honest-to-God miracles out of a house doused in madness, a proper Savior for improper people.

The order of our service usually mirrored that of the previous Sunday. After all, people like order, and my people liked bulletins. We liked to know in advance what hymns we’d sing, who’d bring the special music, and whether we were baptizing anyone that day. We could usually tell the latter by the curtain over the baptistery. (If it was open, somebody was going under.)

The church bulletin also served as a checklist through which one could work toward the goal: the benediction. At our church, it always came in the form of a song, and sometimes we would join hands. The lyrics ...

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Why We're Hooked on Heaven and Hell

What pop culture's afterlife obsession tells us about ourselves.

Ever since humans started telling stories about life, they have also told stories about life after life. We show an unquenchable obsession with the world beyond the grave, and today’s pop-culture narratives offer ample testimony to that fact.

In his workmanlike study Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination (Oxford University Press), Austin, Texas–based writer and scholar Greg Garrett explores this obsession. He looks not only at our tales of heaven and hell, but at tales of the undead (vampires and zombies), of death’s denizens (angels, demons, and the Devil), and of purgatory. For a relatively short book, Entertaining Judgment is a strikingly thorough inventory of these topics, as they appear in such movies and TV shows as The Hunger Games, Doctor Who, Lost, Field of Dreams, Twilight, and even, somehow, professional football. Garrett—a lay Episcopal preacher who teaches fiction, screenwriting, literature, film, and popular culture at Baylor University—manages to namecheck Dante, Milton, Barth, Augustine, and various mythological traditions.

Items of pop culture, Garrett says, can function as “alternative wisdom traditions of a sort, helping readers and viewers to find comfort and make meaning about ethical and spiritual questions.” They help us make sense of challenging concepts, and “along the way, they offer us some peace of mind.”

As a scholar and experienced writer—his previous books include The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in ‘The Matrix’ and The Gospel According to Hollywood, plus some works of fiction—Garrett writes rigorous, readable prose. It is clear he has spent plenty of time with the ...

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Chen Guangcheng, the Voice of China's Voiceless

The 'Blind Lawyer' recounts his fight against Communism's corruptions.

Chen Guangcheng seemed an unlikely hero. Born in 1971 to a poor family in rural China, blind since infancy, and illiterate until his late teens, Chen became his country’s most prominent human-rights activist. His story made international headlines in 2012 when, under house arrest, he made a dramatic escape and sought refuge in the US embassy in Beijing. The Chinese government eventually allowed him to go to the United States.

The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China (Henry Holt) is Chen’s autobiography. It offers both an absorbing story of how a determined, courageous individual can make a difference in the lives of millions and an eye-opening portrait of the desperate conditions endured by China’s rural poor. Chen advised his countrymen about their legal rights, and the book’s title refers to the nickname by which they know him.

Chen’s activism began with a seemingly trivial incident: A ticket collector on a bus refused to let him ride free, as mandated under China’s law regarding those with disabilities. His outrage at this mistreatment propelled him into advocacy for people with disabilities, first at his school in Shandong Province and then on a national level. He educated himself on disability law, petitioned the government in Beijing for better enforcement, and used the media to call attention to violations.

He employed similar tactics to help other victims of official misconduct. When people began to sicken or die from drinking water polluted by a paper mill upriver from his village, he exposed the corrupt officials whom the mill owners had bribed to ignore environmental regulations.

Chen also turned his attention to the plight of women ...

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Review: Home

You'd be best off re-watching 'Lilo & Stitch.'

mpaa rating:PG (For mild action and some rude humor.)Genre:AnimatedDirected By: Tim Johnson Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes Cast: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez Theatre Release:March 27, 2015 by Dreamworks Animation Studios

Home is more of a blip than an alert, more of a whisper than a bang. It's like an unimportant story that airs only once on a local cable channel, at, like, 2:50 in the afternoon. If you happen to catch it, that's fine. If you miss it, though, nothing of value was lost.

Which is too bad—Home marks another dud for Dreamworks, whose animation studio work between 2008 and 2011 was as close to a "Golden Age" as the studio is capable of having. Their willingness to take a chance on new independent properties left us with the Kung Fu Panda and its sequel, How To Train Your Dragon, the criminally underrated Megamind, and the against-all-odds-watchable Puss in Boots. Besides Dragon, none of these movies brushed up against the same kind of artistic ambition as your average Pixar offering, but they were at least mildly ambitious, very entertaining, and occasionally moving.

Unfortunately, the same dry, rote movies whose failures forced Dreamworks to (temporarily, it seems) innovate are once again becoming their normal output. Whereas pre-2008 Dreamworks trafficked in capital-e-Edge (Shrek and its sequels and Shark Tale stand out here), 2015 sees the studio opting for a lowest-common-denominator approach of a different kind. Before they targeted bottom-of-the-barrel humor; now they're pandering for as broad a possible base of acceptance as possible.

Home is a great example of why relentless palatability and artistic "safety" ends up being way more boring than pleasant. The movie concerns the alien Oh (Jim Parsons, the character named for the unenthusiastic sound others make at his arrival), a Boov in the process of fleeing his planet due to another genocidal alien race. In the Booves’ attempt ...

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Muslim Actor: 'It's An Honor to Play Jesus'

CT talks to Haaz Sleiman, who portrays Christ in 'Killing Jesus,' which airs this Sunday.

From Jeffrey Hunter and Max von Sydow to Robert Powell and Willem Dafoe, the actors who play Jesus have been strikingly European, ethnically speaking. Even Campus Crusade's Jesus movie, which once advertised the fact that all the Jewish supporting characters were played by local Israeli actors, cast British actor Brian Deacon in the central role.

Over the last few years, however, filmmakers have been aiming for greater accuracy in their depictions of Jesus and his kin. As controversial as The Passion of the Christ was, Mel Gibson did make a point of altering Jim Caviezel's appearance, going so far as to digitally change the actor's eyes from blue to brown. The Nativity Story cast a Maori girl as the Virgin Mary and Palestinian and Iranian actors as her relatives. The Lumo Project, whose Gospel of John came out on Netflix last year, cast an actor of South Asian descent as Jesus.

And now, Haaz Sleiman—born in the United Arab Emirates and raised in Lebanon—may be the first actual Middle Eastern actor to play the Middle Eastern carpenter at the heart of Christian faith in an English-language movie. The film in question, Killing Jesus, is an adaptation of the book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, and it airs on the National Geographic Channel on March 29 (Palm Sunday).

Sleiman, who was raised Muslim, might be best known for playing an illegal immigrant in The Visitor, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination in 2008. Sleiman spoke to me after attending the world premiere of Killing Jesus at the Sun Valley Film Festival in Idaho earlier this month. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

So how was it, seeing the finished film?

I have to see it again. That's ...

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Revisiting Evangelicals' Favorite Same-Sex Marriage Laws

Indiana draws criticism while Utah draws praise in latest attempts to balance religious and gay rights.

When it comes to balancing the rights of religious and LGBT individuals, there’s a big difference when lawmakers versus judges make the attempt.

The latest case studies: Indiana and Utah.

On Wednesday, Indiana became the 20th state to pass a state-version of the federal government's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Governor Mike Pence said the law will protect business from laws that might require them to violate their faith. Critics fear it will encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians. (An appeals court lifted Indiana's ban on same-sex marriage last October.)

In contrast, last week—in an unprecedented compromise—Utah passed two bills: one banning discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people; and on protecting the rights of those who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

“It’s a good deal,” said University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who helped Utah legislators pass the compromise. “Both for gay people and for believers, this is a whole new level of protection we haven’t seen before.”

The RFRA laws limit the government from placing a “substantial burden” on the practice of religion. It’s a complicated approach, said Wilson, requiring a four-fold test to determine if a government’s action was legal.

Wilson said RFRA works best in clear cases of laws that clash with religion, such as laws that ban steel wheels on Amish buggies or bans on religious symbols at cemeteries. But RFRA is not an effective way to deal with the social changes caused by legalized gay marriage, she said.

“If I want assurances about what I’m permitted to do and ...

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Contraception and Faith

A compilation of the past three weeks of posts about contraception.

I've been interested in the topic of contraception and faith for quite some time, both in light of my own unwillingness to think about contraception in theological terms in the early years of my marriage (an unwillingness I have observed in others as well), and also in the way decisions about contraception spill into the public square. As the series comes to a close, I wanted to recap the series of posts that provide personal stories and comprehensive views on contraception

Are Christians Afraid to Talk about Contraception?

As I wrote in this introdution to this series, "I hope that this range of voices and perspectives will aid us in thinking through these decisions in a way that brings God into the conversation. I hope they will provoke civil disagreement and growth. I hope they will expose our fears and open us up to life-giving possibilities."

Contraception Saves Lives, Rachel Marie Stone

Here, Rachel's experiences as a doula in Malawi prompted her to take a second look at Margaret Sanger, and, more importantly, to consider the social good of providing contraception for women who want to be able to limit the number of children they conceive.

Questioning Margaret Sanger, Amy Julia Becker

Rachel's post set off a storm of internet disagreement. I responded to the storm with both an apology for the confusion the post provoked as well as a plea to consider the central claim that contraception can save lives.

A Doctor's View on Hormonal Contraception, Dr. Emily Gibson

Many Christians worry that hormonal contraceptive methods work as abortifacients. Dr. Emily Gibson considers the ethical and personal questions that arise with the advent of hormonal contraceptive methods.

Why I Have Seven Children, ...

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The Selfishness of Digital Life On Demand

Tips for helping teens (and ourselves) find balance in high tech world.

The use of technology can cause any of us to become self-centered. It’s so focused on the consumer! If you trawl online one afternoon for a certain kind of T-shirt or new boots, advertisers for T-shirts and boots will appear on your Facebook news feed for weeks. When you buy a book on or borrow one via a library app, book suggestions will appear, tailored just for you based on your buying preferences and books that other people bought who also purchased the book you did. That computer seems to know you and be conforming to your particular needs! The computer reinforces the untruth: It’s all about me!

But believing what the computer seems to be telling us can lead us straight toward ignoring people around us and their expectations of us. We’re so used to having things our own way, we can become inordinately demanding, always wanting what we want. Without intervention, impressionable teens with their brains still developing are at greater risk of negative beliefs and behaviors becoming the norm than those of us who are older.

Teens can scroll social media, paying attention to who likes their posts. They can comment on what they want to. They may ignore those who ignore them. When they do comment on other posts, it’s often with the intent of drawing attention to themselves. They are in control of what they like, where they spend their moments online, and who or what they’ll ignore or pay attention to. Using search engines and certain websites, teens can investigate what they want to. They can ignore what they decide is irrelevant. They may be curious about a celebrity in their current favorite movie. They may look up details about the launch of a new game.

School assignments ...

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The Unexpected Defenders: Meet the Women Apologists

Apologetics has long been a bastion of men—until now.

Holly Ordway began her conversion to faith in a casino in Reno, Nevada, surrounded by slot machines. She had just competed in a North American Cup fencing tournament and was having dinner with her coach and his wife. “One of the Narnia films had just come out,” Ordway told me. “Our discussion of the film led to the question, Does God exist?

As they talked late into the night, she traveled through a Lewisian wardrobe that landed her in a mysterious new country. “I discovered it was possible to think rationally about the faith,” says Ordway. “There were arguments that at least stood up to preliminary testing. That was a fundamental aha moment, when my intellect was able to wake up and say, Okay, this is interesting. It was frightening and exciting.”

At the time, Ordway was in her early 30s and teaching literature and composition at a public college in Southern California. Since graduate school, she had thought of Christians as superstitious, Christianity as a “blemish on modern civilization,” and the Bible as a collection of fairy tales. “I was radicalized as an atheist and hostile toward Christians in general,” says Ordway.

But as she continued talking to her coach and reading works of apologetics—including N. T. Wright’s defense of the Resurrection—Ordway confessed faith in Christ. Now she finds herself in another new country, directing the master in apologetics (MAA) program at Houston Baptist University (HBU), a small liberal arts college in the heart of the nation’s energy capital. There, she is among a burgeoning group of women who are reshaping apologetics in the West.

“These women are expanding the scope ...

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The Morning After the Pentecostal Murders

Ten years ago, scandal put Swedens free churches on edge. Now their prospects are brighter than ever.

Our taxi driver feigns nonchalance, but we are lost. More than once he has reversed our sedan back down one of these serpentine streets, only to try another route to a park that’s supposedly tucked into this residential hill overlooking Stockholm. Perhaps to relieve some of the pressure building in the cabin, I open my window. I can hear the faint strains of Vampire Weekend, so I tell the driver we can take it from here.

We follow the bass line, cutting a path between two homes, then up and to the right. There we’re greeted by a stack of speakers, a Spider-Man bounce house, and a crowd eating hamburgers hot off a nearby grill garnished with tiny American flags. It’s past 8 p.m., but the summer sun is just starting its descent, bathing the city below in a warm light that amplifies its medieval splendor. Red, white, and blue bunting blows in the slight breeze. Snoop Dogg thumps into rotation. Welcome to the Fourth of July, Hillsong Church–Stockholm style.

“We take any chance to have a party,” says senior pastor Andreas Nielsen, smiling at the thought of reporters traveling 4,000 miles only to balance paper plates of potato salad and Frescas at a Fourth of July picnic. Throughout the summer, Hillsong Stockholm hosts weekly parties like this one—“barbeque parties, beach parties, whatever we can come up with”—to let members mingle and invite unchurched friends. It’s a somewhat counterintuitive evangelistic strategy: Swedes get more vacation days than almost anyone in the world, and they spend much of the summer away from the city.

“There’s this perception that no one comes to church in the summer. And a lot of churches shut down for eight to ten ...

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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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