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Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama King

The theologian's career has been about helping Christians play their part in the great divine story.

When Kevin Vanhoozer returned to the United States after a year of ministry in France, he did something characteristically imaginative. He wanted to go to seminary. He already had an undergraduate transcript full of Bible and theology credits; the only problem was that it was already August, and classes would begin in a matter of days. Vanhoozer needed a way to convince a seminary to admit him, quickly.

A classically trained pianist, Vanhoozer and others with Greater Europe Mission had spent a calendar year talking to unchurched audiences about how “the joy of music” pointed to Christ. Flush from the success of the mission, he decided, “I don’t have time to apply to seminaries, I want them to apply to me.” So he designed “an inversion or parody of the recommendation form,” he says, with questions such as, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the seminary?” He promptly dispatched 60 forms.

“Professors didn’t get it,” Vanhoozer now laughs.

Except for one. Vanhoozer’s eyes light up as he describes it. John Frame, then a professor in the honors program at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote back. On the form, under “Weaknesses,” he scrawled,“Totally depraved.” For a Calvinist theologian, it was a wickedly funny joke. Vanhoozer loved it.

In many ways, his seminary admissions story captures a lot of what you need to know about Kevin Vanhoozer. Formerly a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, now a longtime research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, Vanhoozer is one of the biggest names in academic theology. The author of six books ...

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How We Made Too Much of Gender

Reclaiming an identity more meaningful than manhood or womanhood.

How do I live as a woman in this wild corner of the world? I couldn’t answer that when I first came to the Alaskan wilderness as a 20-year-old bride of a fisherman. I couldn’t even ask the question, mostly because I did not consider myself a woman. Nor did I think of myself as a girl.

I didn’t think about gender much, partly because I grew up in a genderless household, and partly because of the culture itself. In the ‘70s, men and women alike wore bell-bottoms, parted their long hair in the middle, and clogged about on platform shoes.

Science and media pundits told us that gender differences were purely social constructs—we were all products of our environment. Progressive parents gave their young daughters trucks underneath the Christmas tree, and boys received dolls. Even middle-aged and elderly couples walked hand-in-hand down the sidewalk in matching outfits.

My husband and I bought it all. In our dreamy stage, we decided we would work together in commercial fishing, and then we’d go ashore and cook dinner and wash dishes together. I quickly woke up from that dream.

And as a society, we’ve moved far from the ‘70s conception of gender. Last month, the split image of Bruce-turned-Caitlyn Jenner displayed his former exaggerated version of masculinity, through athletic prowess, and current hyper-femininity, obtained through surgery, hormones, heavy makeup, and a Vanity Fair photo shoot.

Advances in science, and particularly neuroscience, have delivered round after round of breakthroughs, concluding that—gird your loins—men and women were indeed different. In physiology, brain function, communication style, hormone pattern—starting in utero.

Nearly ...

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Membership Matters: 3 Reasons for Church Membership

Why does church membership matter? Why is church attendance not enough?

Bring up church membership and watch people squirm.

It isn’t that people in culture are against membership as an idea—Costco seems to be doing well.

Perhaps it is because church membership is not often defined well. It’s one of those things that when misunderstood seems a bit like eating your spinach—“at least try it before you decide you don’t like it.”

Makes you want to sign right up, doesn’t it?

But in the New Testament, people in churches are recognized as being in some sort of community. It’s just that the reality is how community is expressed in Scripture has fallen on hard times over the last couple of thousand years.

Membership is often misunderstood, misapplied or not applied at all.

Membership Reality

The reality is we have often thought of membership like belonging to a select club, or like the old American Express commercial where “membership has its privileges.”

That is not the way the Bible refers to membership. In fact, in 1 Corinthians Paul doesn’t say the church is like a body. He says the church is a body. The phrase he uses to describe the individual connectedness is we are “members of the body.”

The word “member” in the Bible is more closely related to the medical word “member” than it is to the common cultural term. As an example, some of you who are reading may have lost a finger or toe in an accident. On that unfortunate day, you were dismembered. That’s the actual technical terminology. A member of your body was separated from the body. That is a tragic thing.

Yet today in Western culture, being separated from the body of believers is not tragic. It’s almost ...

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The Epidemic of Bible Illiteracy in Our Churches

Small groups are key to studying and understanding Scripture.

When was the last time you read a book? For almost 1 in 4 of us, it was more than a year ago, according to Pew Research. That's three times the number who didn't read a book in 1978. In America, we have a literacy problem. But more concerning to me, we have a biblical literacy problem. Americans, including churchgoers, aren't reading much of any book, including the Good Book.

The Sad Statistics

Christians claim to believe the Bible is God's Word. We claim it's God's divinely inspired, inerrant message to us. Yet despite this, we aren't reading it. A recent LifeWay Research study found only 45 percent of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. Over 40 percent of the people attending read their Bible occasionally, maybe once or twice a month. Almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible—essentially the same number who read it every day.

Because we don't read God's Word, it follows that we don't know it. To understand the effects, we can look to statistics of another Western country: the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Bible Society surveyed British children and found many could not identify common Bible stories. When given a list of stories, almost 1 in 3 didn't choose the Nativity as part of the Bible and over half (59 percent) didn't know that Jonah being swallowed by the great fish is in the Bible.

British parents didn't do much better. Around 30 percent of parents don't know Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the Good Samaritan are in the Bible. To make matters worse, 27 percent think Superman is or might be a biblical story. More than 1 in 3 believes the same about Harry Potter. And more than half (54 ...

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After Mars Hill, Will the Multisite Church Movement Grow Up?

More small churches are joining big ones in order to keep their doors open. Can multisite congregations grow without treating congregations as little more than real estate?

After two decades of wandering, Evergreen Christian Fellowship had finally come home.

Founded in 1990, the 800-member church had met for years in temporary locations. In 2008, they opened their first building—a 30,807-square-foot big-box church in Sammamish, Washington, about a half-hour from downtown Seattle.

Getting the 20 acres had been a godsend. The property first belonged to Plateau Bible Fellowship, which was about to close its doors. They had hoped giving it to Evergreen would ensure years of fruitful ministry. For Evergreen members like Tami Floyd, it was a time to celebrate. “It’s a great place to call your own after 20 years,” she told the Sammamish Review.

But two years later, Evergreen had shrunk to 200 people. The ensuing financial crisis left the church on the edge of shutting down.

Enter Mars Hill Church, a then-thriving 12,000-member congregation meeting in a dozen locations in the Pacific Northwest. (You may have heard of it.)

Afraid their church would close, Evergreen leaders approached Mars Hill about joining as a satellite campus. Although it would mean the end of Evergreen as an independent church—all of its assets would transfer to Mars Hill—the merger would allow the church to live on.

In 2011, Evergreen members voted to join Mars Hill.

“This is a big, grace-filled gift from God,” Mark Driscoll told his congregation in a blog post. At the time, Mars Hill seemed to have the perfect strategy for growing membership, finances, and ministry, much of it hinging on the appeal of a charismatic pastor with a national following.

Church planter Neil Cole wrote in 2010 that he once heard the strategy for starting new Mars Hill locations summed up ...

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You Go, Smart Girls

How Amy Poehler helps me praise the Lord.

When I skim through social media, in the midst of news headlines, pop culture updates, and theological and political spats, there are a few bright spots I can count on to make me smile. (No, I’m not just talking about pet memes like @emrgencykittens.)

Amy Poehler’s organization Smart Girls, @smrtgrls on Twitter, fills my feed with stories from women and girls, encouraging them to “change the world by being yourself.” Among its many women-empowering activities, Smart Girls serves as an Internet cheering squad.

Won the big game? Get a retweet full of smiling emojis. Are you a female engineer? Heart-eyes and exclamation points for you. Send a tweet to @smrtgrls saying you’re scared or nervous about an exam to a presentation, and you’ll get back a winsome, encouraging reply.

Poehler, a comedian, actress, and writer known for Parks and Recreation and Saturday Night Live, champions women, kindness, and intelligence wherever she can. Even as a TV A-lister, Poehler has endured sexism in the workplace. The Smart Girls website describes it as an organization “dedicated to providing a healthy alternative to so much that is being marketed to young people on the Internet.”

Poehler’s Smart Girls is not alone in its efforts to highlight and inspire young women. A Mighty Girl (@amightygirl) shares resources for raising “smart, confident and courageous girls.” They point to endless examples of female role models, from academics to authors to artists. Toward the Stars (@GirlEmpowerment) offers marketplace for goods that “inspire and enable girls.” They sell items like books featuring girls climbing, building, and leading as well as female action figures. ...

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God and Country: Americans' Views of God's 'Relationship' with the U.S

What do Americans think about the United States and God? Fascinating new data.

Happy Fourth of July weekend folks, my American readers!

Two hundred thirty-nine years ago tomorrow, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, nearly a month before it would eventually be signed. I hope you're having a fun weekend, getting to enjoy some time with family and friends.

As I explained in a post last year:

Christians are, in a sense, dual citizens-- of the Kingdom and of the nation where they live. I live in a country that is not without fault, but I am proud to be a citizen of that nation. I teach my children to be proud of their nation-- not unaware of its challenges-- and patriotic citizens.

Just this week, LifeWay Research released some new data on how Americans view their country and how God relates with it. Here's an excerpt from our report:

In a nation founded on religious liberty, most Americans believe God has a special relationship with the United States, and they’re optimistic the best is yet to come. Despite headlines lamenting the global decline of the United States since the Cold War, 54 percent of Americans believe the nation is on the upswing, according to a September survey by LifeWay Research. Only 4 in 10 think “America’s best days are behind us.” And though the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of God, 53 percent of Americans say they believe God and the nation have a special relationship, a concept stretching back to Pilgrim days. Even a third of atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious preference believe America has a special relationship with God. “‘God Bless America’ is more than a song or a prayer for many Americans,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “It is a ...

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Pastor Exposed as Faithful to Wife of 17 Years

Despite the headlines, marital scandals dont define the church.

My husband and I bought a house today. It’s a green house on a little hill, built in 1927, and owned since 1966 by the local fire chief and his wife, now recently widowed. “Oh, the Flaherty house!” people around town said to us, “What a great family! What a great house!”

And so we bought it—the well-loved kitchen and bedrooms and front porch—the settings of half-a-century’s worth of lazy Saturdays and Sunday dinners and hectic Monday mornings. And lugging our cardboard boxes through the door, we found a note on the kitchen counter: “We hope,” she had written in the fragile penmanship of the elderly, “you have many happy years as we did in this home.” My house tells the story of a happy marriage.

The church, too, is a kind of house (1 Pet. 2:5, Heb. 3:6). Yet, tragically, the marriage stories of its well-known members and leaders are not always the happy kind.

Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in my own denomination, recently resigned over an affair. He joins what seems like a long list of pastors whose reputation for sin now precedes them. Turning in disgust from our unrelenting newsfeeds, we might shake our heads and sadly accept the pronouncement of a Christian Post op-ed: “Moral failings among [Christian] leaders are becoming an epidemic.”

We are right to lament moral failure. Forgiveness and reconciliation are central to our Christian faith, but Tchividjian’s sin (and the sin of every pastor who is unfaithful) will still have grave consequences for himself and for the lives of his wife, his children, and the woman with whom he committed adultery. The effects will extend to the members of his church and to those who have read ...

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God and America: It's Complicated

Surveys show fewer think America is a Christian nation, but many see special relationship with God.

This Fourth of July, God and America have a complicated relationship.

A third of Americans say the United States is a Christian nation. But more than half say the country has a special relationship with the Almighty.

Those are among the findings of two newly released reports from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and LifeWay Research.

According to LifeWay's report, slightly more than half of all Americans (54%) say the US has a special relationship with God, with 35 percent strongly agreeing with this perspective.

African Americans (62%) are more likely than white Americans (51%) to claim that America has a special relationship with God.

More than two-thirds of evangelicals (67 percent) believe in this unique relationship. Others who strongly hold this perspective include Southerners (59%), those with a high school degree or less (66%), women (58%), and older evangelicals over 45 (71%).

“‘God Bless America’ is more than a song or a prayer for many Americans,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. “It is a belief that God has blessed America beyond what is typical for nations throughout history. I am sure that would spawn many theological conversations, but it’s important to note most Americans think God has a special relationship with their country.”

LifeWay also asked Americans whether they agreed that “America’s best days are behind us.” More than half of Americans (55%) disagree with the statement, including 35 percent who strongly disagree. In contrast, just 21 percent strongly agree and 19 percent somewhat agree.

Optimism is highest among the most highly educated Americans. Only one-quarter of those with a graduate ...

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How Dante's Poetry Rescued Rod Dreher from Despair

The popular blogger leaned on 'The Divine Comedy' when his world was falling apart.

Walker Percythe novelist, philosopher, and Christian convert—once expressed his bemusement at those who read Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy merely for its “poetic structure.” Percy knew, of course, that the poet carefully constructed his three-part epic (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) around complex allegories. He also knew that readers can learn a great deal about the medieval mind by reading it. Yet Percy was mystified that anyone would follow Dante’s arduous journey without getting the real point: Dante wants to save our souls no less than his own.

Rod Dreher gets it. The popular blogger’s new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem (Regan Arts), does more than retrace Dreher’s own Dante-driven recovery of life and faith. Just as the poet Virgil leads Dante into the pit of hell so that he might climb to the edge of paradise, Dreher hopes to lead readers out of their own “dark wood” toward heavenly delight.

Yet Dreher doesn’t turn Dante into a preacher. On the contrary, he attends to the Comedy’s poetic nuances, its rich characters and events, its stunning metaphors, and its piercing insights. Even so, this book is more about Dreher than Dante, and I don’t say this to damn with faint praise. By filtering his own personal struggle through the greatest of all Christian poems, Dreher strikes depths not otherwise possible.

Return to Roots

How Dante Can Save Your Life is, in effect, a sequel to Dreher’s 2013 best-selling memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. In that book, he narrated the marvelous life and crushing death, from cancer, of his schoolteacher sister. Unlike ...

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