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Interview: Mark Labberton: This Is the Best of Times for Following Jesus

The Fuller Seminary president sees the churchs moment of cultural exile as a moment of incredible opportunity.

Following Jesus has never been an easy task. All the same, from the time of the disciples until today, Christians have been called to strap on their sandals, so to speak, and walk the road their Lord calls them down. While the basic New Testament call remains the same, though, each age places unique speed-bumps and detours along the path of discipleship. In Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (InterVarsity Press) Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, gives a bracing assessment of the challenges facing the North American church, as well as a hopeful invitation to trust the promises of God as we respond to the call of Jesus in the world. Derek Rishmawy, a minister to students and young adults in California, spoke with Labberton about that vision.

You talk about the crisis and the promise of following Jesus. In a nutshell, what’s the crisis?

The crisis we’re facing is that many people outside and inside the church don’t understand what it’s supposed to be about. It has become encrusted with so many cultural, historical, political, economic forms. As these get thicker and thicker, they distance us from the core affirmation of living as disciples of Jesus. If you look at the New Testament and ask “What is the church?” I think the primary answer is: people living their lives as an act of worship and response to Jesus Christ and seeking to live as daily disciples in community and for the sake of their world. The crisis is that Christians inside the church don’t seem to view this way of life as necessary. This leaves outsiders puzzled about the purpose of the church, because so little of it seems related to Jesus.

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Review: Abraham Kuyper Goes Pop

A brilliant new film series pictures how to live out our salvation.

Genre:ReligiousTheatre Release:March 31, 2014 by The Acton Institute

The statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper is all but forgotten in his native Netherlands, but his reputation continues to flourish in the United States among Christians looking for better ways to imagine their role in Western society. They often come to Kuyper for his account of the “cultural mandate”—the biblical theme of responsibility for the world so often neglected in narrower versions of conservative Christianity. But they stay for Kuyper’s most distinctive contribution, his carefully developed account of culture’s “spheres,” each with its own features, functions, and significance. The family, government, science, art, education, and more are each essential. None can be reduced to the other, and each requires particular virtues and bequeaths us particular forms of flourishing.

Now, the Dutch Reformed heartland of western Michigan has given us a cultural product that Kuyper surely never imagined, but that would surely make him proud. It is designed to help the church reclaim our true calling: to live out our salvation, in the words its title borrows from the Orthodox writer Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.”

Here Comes Everybody

A curriculum of seven films each lasting 15 to 20 minutes, For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles advances a sophisticated theological anthropology. Schmemann’s breathtaking sacramental view of ordinary life is here, as are Kuyper’s distinctive spheres. Kuyper’s fellow Dutch Reformed thinkers Herman Bavinck and Lester DeKoster contribute a high view of common grace and human work, respectively. Catholic theologians such as Josef Pieper and Hans Urs von Balthasar testify to the significance ...

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News: New Poll Finds Evangelicals Favorite Heresies

Survey finds many American evangelicals hold unorthodox views on the Trinity, salvation, and other doctrines.

Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.

A survey released today by LifeWay Research for Ligonier Ministries “reveals a significant level of theological confusion,” said Stephen Nichols, Ligonier’s chief academic officer. Many evangelicals do not have orthodox views about either God or humans, especially on questions of salvation and the Holy Spirit, he said.

Evangelicals did score high on several points. Nearly all believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead (96%), and that salvation is found through Jesus alone (92%). Strong majorities said that God is sovereign over all people (89%) and that the Bible is the Word of God (88%).

And in some cases the problem seems to be uncertainty rather than heresy. For example, only 6 percent of evangelicals think the Book of Mormon is a revelation from God, but an additional 18 percent aren’t sure and think it might be.

Jesus, Almost as Good as His Father?

Almost all evangelicals say they believe in the Trinity (96%) and that Jesus is fully human and fully divine (88%).

But nearly a quarter (22%) said God the Father is more divine than Jesus, and 9 percent weren’t sure. Further, 16 percent say Jesus was the first creature created by God, while 11 percent were unsure.

No doubt, phrases like “only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) have led others in history to hold these views, too. In the fourth century, a priest from Libya named Arius (c.250–336) announced, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning. … There was a time when the Son was not.” The ...

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Blessed Are the Broke

. . . and rich are the financially desperate. Just ask my family.

It had been more than a year since I had seen her. We’d had our share of good conversations when our kids had attended Christian school together, but her frown moving toward me through the crowd left me looking for escape routes.

She arrived with hands held out to hold my shoulders as she looked me over, shaking that frown at me.

“We’ve missed you,” she said. “How horrible that you had to leave.”

I breathed. “It’s not horrible. Far from it.”

She grabbed my hand.

“No, really,” I said. “Public school is where God wanted us. It was hard to leave, but the school has been a blessing.”

She winked. “It’s good you can say that.”

“I’m not just saying that. I mean it.”

“I’m sure you do.”

And I did. We had left the school because we couldn’t pay the tuition. Years of facing under- then unemployment, compounded by mounting medical debt, will do that. But I had sensed God calling us to our local public school for a long time.

Frowny Face obviously couldn’t believe that. Neither did the people who pitied us during our “terrible” season of being broke. Not with a quiet belief system that’s grown rather insidious among the faithful.

It’s a belief system implied every time a Christian told me to have faith, to keep our kids enrolled in the Christian school because God will provide. It’s a belief system that many Christians don’t name and claim outright but still subtly embrace. It’s the belief that God confirms our faithfulness by adding zeroes to pay stubs, by keeping us healthy, by giving us spouses and babies. That while God may ...

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Bless This Tackle? Not a Prayer

Christians misguided fight for football devotions isnt working.

After asking a player to lead the team in prayer, a varsity football coach at an Arizona public prep school recently received a two-week suspension. Coach Tommy Brittain’s punishment has become a rallying point for area Christians who view it as another example of secularism crowding out religion in the public square.

Conservative television and radio have fan the flames of discontent, even though the question of whether or not coaches, chaplains, or any other adult may lead public school teams in prayer has long been a settled legal matter. Further challenges have come from atheist groups such as the American Humanist Society (AHS) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

Any football fan knows that religion on football fields and locker rooms is nothing new. Over a half-century before Philadelphia Eagle Heb Lusk kneeled on the field and sent up the first-ever end zone prayer during a 1977 NFL game, a brand of Christianity had already become a familiar fixture in football locker rooms. As far back as 1893, a journalist reported that following its victory over Yale in the great Thanksgiving Day game, the Princeton team, “naked and covered with mud and blood and perspiration,” stood in its locker to sing the Doxology “from the beginning to end as solemnly and seriously, as they ever did in their lives.” Today, prayer in professional football is as predictable as The Star Spangled Banner, so much so that heads are no longer turned when NFL teams meet at the center of the field for prayer after each game.

But religion inserted into games sponsored by public institutions is another matter, destined to raise questions about separation of church and state. Following a series of cases, ...

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Interview: The Softer Face of Calvinism

Reformed theology is more irenic and diverse than you think, says theologian Oliver Crisp.

Few figures in church history have been so much loved or hated, admired or despised as John Calvin. Calvinism—the theological orientation bearing the French theologian’s name—has also had mixed reception. Reformed theologian Oliver Crisp, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, says Calvinism and the Reformed tradition is more diverse and amiable than is often thought. CT assistant online editor Kevin P. Emmert talked with Crisp about his new book, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology (Fortress Press), and the landscape of Reformed theology.

Why do you think it was important to write Deviant Calvinism?

I see a lot of misrepresentations of Reformed theology, among people both inside and outside the Reformed tradition. Many people think Reformed theology coalesces around five points or around the soteriological “doctrines of grace” rather than around historic confessions. And I see a lot of Calvinists who aren’t confessional, when in fact the Reformed tradition very much is. If you truly are a Calvinist, then you should be interested in Reformed confessions, I think. And when we look at the confessional tradition, it seems Reformed theology is broader than the more narrow five-point Calvinism.

Also, a number of people outside the Reformed community tend to associate the Reformed tradition with a narrowly dogmatic—in both senses of that term—way of thinking about the Christian faith. And they are rather disparaging about that. But not all of us are narrowly dogmatic. So I thought, Maybe the time has come to make a case for a more irenic, more sanguine, broad approach to the Reformed tradition, because there are great riches in the Reformed ...

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A Word Can Be Worth a Thousand Pictures

Why the pulpit—and not the screen—still belongs at the center of our churches.

Long ago the apostle Paul wrote, “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, NRSV used throughout). Preaching, he implies, is essential to God’s purposes. At the same time, Paul tacitly acknowledges that preaching hardly looks like a sensible means to God’s ends. Just words? And inevitably imperfect words at that. Foolishness! Foolishness even then.

But had Paul lived today, in a culture as visual—and as increasingly inattentive to extended verbal discourse—as ours, might he have spoken differently? Might he have said that God has decided to use the foolishness of our feature films, our advertising, and our visual art to save those who believe?

After all, we have learned to be sensitive to cultural context of both the historical possibilities constraining the writers of the biblical texts, who had never seen a movie screen or a television or a tablet computer, and the demands of our own situation. Paul said in the same letter, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Evangelicals in particular have been quick to adopt new methods, eager to use all suitable means in the hopes of saving some. We can’t deny the power of the visual to move us, to connect with the heart as well as the head. Preachers have long been taught to speak so that people can picture what they are talking about. Images, especially moving images, compel us in ways words alone generally do not. Surely we should take advantage of these gifts.

Besides, God did make a physical, visible world. He did not choose to create solely spiritual creatures entertaining abstract ideas. He became incarnate ...

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Toward a Definition of "Religious" Cinema

A modest proposal, lowercase and capital.

Here is a small project for a chilly Thursday night: let's rethink the way we talk about religious movies. (In other words, if you’re at the end of a long work day, maybe go pour your drink of choice and get fortified to help me out with some vaguely philosophical inquiry.)

This reflection is provoked by the nagging feeling I've had—I suspect you have, too—that there's a wide gulf between the various definitions of religious movies that we've been using. But because we're using the same word, I think we too easily get confused and talk past one another.

Here’s one sense of “religious movie”: a film that self-consciously seeks to boost a particular religion, usually with the intent to evangelize the viewer into joining that religion. Let's call this Religious, capital R. It's a movie that is religious by virtue of being of its religion, which almost necessarily is the religion of the filmmaker(s).

Another sort of religious movie is one that deals with and depicts the specifics of religious practice, the type my friend Mike Leary listed here as being of use in the comparative religion classroom. This is a list compiled by someone who knows what he's talking about, and it includes some marvelous films. But I'm going to leave this out of definitions for now, because I don't think this is actually what most people mean when they talk about a religious film—perhaps, unfortunately, because we tend to think of religion as a system of organized belief, rather than a complicated structure of practice and belief. (But do check out his list.)

So I want to talk about another religious—religious, lowercase r. Lowercase-r religious movies ...

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What a Christian Ethic Looks Like Outside

Beauty for the many: Why I side with conservationists over nature mystics.

As I write, my eldest daughter and her family are having a wonderful vacation at an Arizona mountain cabin. This cabin rests on land that my father bought more than 50 years ago from a retired missionary in our church.

The private property is surrounded by public lands. They were originally created as part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s larger effort to preserve America’s most beautiful countryside for the benefit of all its citizens. During his presidency (1901–08), Roosevelt set aside 230 million acres for public use—5 national parks, 150 national forests, 18 new national monuments, 51 bird reserves, and 4 game preserves. He also established the U.S. Forest Service, headed by his good friend Gifford Pinchot, the first American to make forestry his profession.

As real outdoorsmen, Roosevelt and Pinchot hated to see the wilderness despoiled by business interests that did not comprehend the fragility of the forests. Roosevelt, an avid hunter, grew concerned that efficiently organized commercial hunters were driving a number of game species toward extinction. This led him to commit to the conservation movement.

Roosevelt and Pinchot fought battles on two fronts. Railroad and lumber interests controlled Congress, which resisted funding Roosevelt’s Forest Service and setting aside lands for public use. When Roosevelt founded the Bull Moose Party, its 1912 platform reflected this struggle: “Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of the statesmanship ...

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Social Media, Civil Discourse, and the Fear of Missing Out: A guest post by Amy Whitfield

Our fear of missing out affects how we discuss with others on social media.

When I entered freshman year at a women’s liberal arts college, I heard a great deal about the benefits of single-gender education for females. One piece of evidence was interesting. We were told that in a classroom with both men and women, the men were statistically quicker to respond, and therefore the women did not get as much opportunity to interact in class. This advanced the idea that in our particular classrooms we would be freer to participate.

I never heard the source of that data, and had no proof that it was true. But it had an effect on all of us. First, it settled us in our environment and made us glad to be there. But second, it empowered us to speak. Perhaps it freed us from feeling we had to fight for the floor, but it also gave confidence that the thoughts within us were worth verbalizing. From day one I hit the ground running to jump in and make my ideas known. But I quickly learned a lesson.

Just because speech was empowered did not mean inarticulate or ungracious speech was welcome. If I spoke up in class without adequate preparation, without clarity, or without kindness, my professors would quickly shut me down. I suppose I could have responded by withdrawing, but in small seminar-style classes that wasn’t an option. Even as I maintained my views, I had to learn how to be articulate and respect my conversation partners— listening to them and responding with grace.

This is a lesson I return to time and again, particularly in a new day where conversation happens in a form I never imagined. Social media has changed everything—it is a two-sided coin, capable of beauty and horror.

Social Media and the "Speaker's Corner"

Social media has taken the concept ...

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Happy Birthday, Small Talk

Lots of exciting news about my book this week, but the best was a note from my son.

In my limited experience, the day a book launches often proves to be pretty much the same as any other day. Except for feeling kind of silly because it's supposed to be a special day. My newest book, Small Talk: Learning From My Children About What Matters Most, released on Tuesday, and the best thing that happened was the card William presented to me that morning

(see photo). It reads "happy birthday small talk. I think it will be a big success and if it is it will be good."

But in additon to that terrific show of support, I also am excited to report that I had a few articles and a television interview this week as well.

First, on Monday, I had an essay on "What I Learn From My Kids in Talking About Disability." The title pretty much says it all.

Then, on Wednesday morning I was interviewed for The Harvest Show. I had a terrific time with Valerie and Chuck, and we talked for about ten minutes about parenting, disability, and Small Talk. If you're interested in watching the video, my interview starts around minute 20 of the show. (My favorite part is when I told a story about knocking William over with a pillow and then the producers showed a photo of William with no front teeth. Classic.)

Finally, this morning I have an opinion piece in USA Today (page 9A if you have a paper copy) about talking with our children about hard things in the news. It's called "Parents, Take Your Kids Seriously."

I also appreciated blogger Mark Leach's review of Small Talk:

"Becker's prose, pace, and word choice convey an open, welcoming feel, drawing the reader into a conversation. Her writing sounds quiet, questioning without confronting or judging. It’s ...

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Bright Lights, Big Cities

Shifting demographics broaden opportunities for urban and suburban Christians.

Earlier this year, Nielsen reported on the millennial generation’s draw to cities, with Austin topping its list of places with high concentrations of people in their 20s and early 30s.

"Breaking from 'previous generations’ ideals, this group’s 'American Dream' is transitioning from the white picket fence in the suburbs to the historic brownstone stoop in the heart of the city,” Nielsen said. “And their dreams have the power to affect cities and towns across the U.S."

Americans love their cities—the sprawling metropolitan areas and fun mid-sized hubs. Young people go for the jobs and convenience. Christians are also enchanted by city life, with its culture and mission opportunities. They bring up the Bible’s references to cities and Augustine’s use city as a metaphor. City of God begins, “Two loves gave birth to two cities,” and goes on to explore these two cities as the selfless love of God and the love of self.

We see cities as places of connection and relational meaning. As the movies would have us believe, cities are where our dreams grow and come true. Augustine also reminds us that the earthly city reflects in some ways our ultimate destination, the heavenly city described in Revelation: “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:2).

Until we reach the heavenly one, we are stewards of our earthly ones. Tim Keller and his ministry may be today’s most well-known example of what it might mean to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7). Despite the Redeemer Church website claim that “Cities are the best place to serve God and love your neighbor," ...

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When We Don't Get A Happy Ending

Even when our lives don't go as we had hoped, not all hope is lost.

People resonated with the story of how I closed my church plant a few years ago. Here is one final reflection about that difficult but formative time.

I doubt closing a church is easy in any situation. But the Riverside was not just any church. I had planted it myself, and its closure felt especially personal. The deepest experiences of my life were inextricably bound to that community, and so it was wrenching to see those ties severed. For two years, my life revolved around three themes: my family, my church, and my wife’s cancer. My family would survive my wife’s cancer, but sadly, my church would not. Perhaps this explains why the closure of my church affected me so profoundly and so negatively.

But I also think it has something to do with happy endings.

America loves happy endings where the good guy gets the girl and the bad guy his just deserts. Many a studio executive has discovered this when they are bold enough to produce a film with an ambivalent ending, one in which it is not manifestly clear that everyone is better off than when they began. Test audiences howl at the injustice of it all and demand their money back, even though they saw the movie for free. In fact, the endings of some famous films have been rewritten because of this fact.

But this goes far beyond our taste in movies. It is a reflection of American culture as a whole, specifically, the American dream. The American dream revolves around the belief that if a person works hard enough and generally treats others well, he will thrive in this country. And this is why we love happy endings. They are consistent with the American dream and serve to reinforce the rightness of that worldview. Without these conclusions, we experience uncomfortable ...

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Houston Mayor Drops Pastor Subpoenas

National debate over religious freedom prompts withdrawal.

Update (Oct. 29): Houston mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday morning that she is directing America's fourth-largest city to rescind subpoenas issued to five local pastors.

The decision came a day after Parker met with Houston pastors (including Chris Seay, who wrote about the subpoenas for Leadership Journal), as well as clergy leaders from across the country who have defended the subpoenaed pastors’ religious freedom.

"It was never our intention to interfere with clergy and their congregants,” Parker said. “I don't want to have a national debate on freedom of religion when my purpose is to defend ... a city ordinance."

According to Parker, the subpoenas—once modified to exclude sermons—are “legal, valid, and appropriate," but unintentionally pushed the city into a broader religious debate that wasn’t good for the city or its efforts to defend its new ordinance. “This is not about silencing my critics; this is about doing the right thing,” she said.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the subpoenaed pastors, called the decision a triumph of pastors' First Amendment rights over government intimidation.

As a part of a national campaign against the subpoenas, people have been sending Mayor Parker hundreds of sermon notes and Bibles. Parker said the city will be distributing the Bibles through the police force: “The Bibles were a loving gift for the city of Houston, and we’re going to pass them on.”


Update (Oct. 17): New subpoenas issued Friday by the City of Houston do not ask five local pastors for sermon notes, instead limiting their request to instructions regarding a petition to repeal ...

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All My Children Are My Own

The theological significance of adoption language.

Editor’s note: In honor of the upcoming Orphan Sunday, author and mother Sara Hagerty shares with us the following essay about how the language we use around adoption reflects our understanding of our adoption into the family of God.

“We prefer not to refer to our children as ‘adopted children’ as we see adoption as having been a one-time event. We just call them our children,” Hagerty said.

“If Mommy gets a baby in her belly, will you send me back?” my daughter asked, with nervous eyes searching the floor, inhaling the shame of those words as if they were her indictment.

It’s often near the surface for this one — not the year she was “chosen” and a mommy and daddy flew all the way across the ocean to look her in the eyes and call her daughter — but the too-many, earlier years that still seem to weigh heavier. These days, she lives buoyant and giddy. Her eyes have found a sparkle, and we see them more than we see those hands that spent nearly a year awkwardly covering them. My little girl laughs. A lot. And this week when I hugged her I could tell her body wanted to melt (not stiffen) in my arms.

But just within her reach is the shame she feels about her life on the other side, when her given last name tied her to no one. One phrase or question or hint of her past and I watch those eyes, which just harnessed a sparkle, go dark.

Adoption saved her and it haunts her, because of its open-ended definition to her. It’s still a question. She, like many of the rest of us, has yet to reconcile the power of this one act.

Children of My Own

I hadn’t even kissed their foreheads or tickled their feet and this stranger’s words about ...

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