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A Sobering Mercy

The second time I surrendered to Christ, I was on a dirt road with no memory of how I had arrived there.

One of the advantages of growing older is the perspective it provides. From a vantage point of more than seven decades, I increasingly marvel at the sovereignty and love of God. Only the passage of time enabled me to see that my salvation has been God-initiated.

Two events separated by more than two decades bring into focus an unbroken chain of God’s grace. At the time, they seemed to be singular and unrelated situations coming from a God with whom I had no relationship.

For many years, I believed my initial encounter with God came a few months after my 15th birthday. My parents and I were living in Birmingham, having recently moved there from Kansas City, Missouri. Despite having been baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church, I never understood why it was important to have a relationship with Jesus. My parents must have had similar thoughts, since we attended church sporadically.

Our family’s relationship with the Lord changed greatly one hot Alabama night. Walking home from a summer job, I took a shortcut through the campus of Howard College (now Samford University) and came upon a sight totally foreign to me. A large tent adorned the football field. Inside, a dynamic preacher paced across an elevated platform.

Later I learned that I had come upon a Baptist revival meeting. The magnetic preacher, Eddie Martin, spoke on the Prodigal Son, applying the parable to the congregation gathered. He declared there were some prodigals inside the tent and that they needed to “come home.”

I was not a particularly errant lad, but I knew I was one of those prodigals. I was not inside the tent, however, and when the invitation came, I was not sure I would be welcome. You see, in the 1950s my family ...

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Do Christian Schools Produce Good Citizens? The Evidence Says Yes.

Christian private school graduates are just as engaged in their communities as their public school peers—if not more.

According to their critics, private Christian schools foster an attitude of isolation and withdrawal from society. And according to their boosters, public schools provide a unique and essential preparation for citizenship in a diverse nation. For the past five years, my colleagues and I at Cardus have been studying these claims, and last week, we released a new study that shows just how little data exists to support them.

Do private schools (whether religious or not) foster social isolation? Do public schools uniquely help to create the “social capital” that comes from diverse friendships and working relationships? Based on the data we released last week, the answer seems to be no on both counts. Adult graduates of Evangelical Protestant, Catholic, non-religious private, and public schools were all as likely to have a close friend who was an atheist or of a different race. The only statistically significant difference we found was that Evangelical Protestants were marginally less likely to have a close gay or lesbian friend—about 57 percent of evangelical Protestant graduates, compared to 69 percent of public school graduates, report a friend or relative who is gay or lesbian.

The Cardus survey, collected in March 2014 and analyzed by the team at the Cardus Religious Schools Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, was designed to give a comprehensive account of how different kinds of high schools contribute to the academic achievement, cultural engagement, and spiritual formation of their graduates.

The results of this survey were mostly consistent with a similar survey we conducted in 2011. While it’s inevitably most interesting to look at the differences among graduates of these different ...

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Why Can't Men Be Friends?

Men and women alike increasingly say they are lonely. It doesn't have to be this way.

In January 1944, several months after he had been imprisoned by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, he reflected on what their relationship meant to each of them. Bonhoeffer wrote that, in contrast to marriage and kinship, friendship "has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality."

As he penned those lines, Bonhoeffer must have had his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, in mind. With Maria, Bonhoeffer knew where he stood. They were pledged to be married, and all their family and acquaintances recognized their love and were prepared to witness their wedding ceremony, provided Bonhoeffer was released. With Eberhard, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer admitted there wasn't a similarly public recognition. That led to a question: What were Eberhard and Dietrich to one another, and how might their love be preserved and sustained?

Years later, Eberhard addressed an audience member who had come to hear him speak about his friendship with Bonhoeffer (one explored in depth by Charles Marsh in the acclaimed biography Strange Glory). Surely, the questioner said, theirs "must [have been] a homosexual partnership." What else could Bonhoeffer's impassioned letters to Eberhard have signaled?

Bonhoeffer was aware that his friendship with Eberhard was breakable—that no public ceremony or vow kept them tied. That awareness that friendship is fragile has grown more pronounced since Bonhoeffer wrote his letters from prison. Words like suspicion, unsettledness, and doubt best describe our instincts about friendship. We are uncertain about it—perhaps especially between people of the same sex. And, like ...

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I Didnt Marry My Best Friend

Couples need more than just each other.

At many weddings these days, whether on picturesque hillsides or at funky warehouses or in swanky ballrooms, newly minted husbands and wives proudly declare to friends and family, “I married my best friend.”

If you attended a wedding this summer, you likely heard the phrase, now so standard in romantic rhetoric that we forget it’s not part of the traditional ceremony. “I married my best friend” appears in vows, program dedications, toasts, and other aww-inducing moments (not to mention the cards, frames, cufflinks, wine glasses, and other Etsy-inspired wares that attend modern weddings).

The sentiment, repeated in Facebook posts on anniversaries, is shorthand for the special relationship with someone we are comfortable with, who listens, loves, and encourages. From secular folks to Christians who firmly believe that God sent them the one, nearly all the married people I know are “so blessed” (or “lucky”) to get to spend their lives wedded to their best friends.

Even if couples don’t announce that they’re marrying their best friend, many newlyweds live out this philosophy, dropping out of the friend-making game once they have a ring on their finger. Sociologists find that these days, we typically form our most meaningful friendships prior to age 28. Not coincidentally, that’s also the average age we get married.

Marrying your best friend is enough of a cultural expectation that if I admit I didn’t, people might pity me. But here’s the secret: I’m actually the lucky one. I have a husband who isn’t my best friend. And I have a best friend whom I’m not married to. They play different roles in my life, and I need them ...

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Table Manners: Why We Take Communion Every Week

It's a meal that often divides us. It needn't be that way.

I attended church twice a week growing up. I had no choice. It’s not that I disliked church. But like many children, I struggled to understand much of what went on. Easily growing bored, I found ways to entertain myself. I doodled on the bulletin and occasionally timed the pastor’s sermon. I counted the overhead lights, wall panels, and segments in the stained glass windows. While I occupied myself with trivial activities, two details caught my attention: the baptismal pool situated above the choir loft behind the pulpit, and the white table at the center-front of the sanctuary, etched with the words, do this in remembrance of me. Something about the white table got me thinking: Why do we eat bread and wine at the table every few months? And who can eat it?

My church celebrated the Lord’s Supper (also known as Communion or the Eucharist) four times a year. I remember asking why we celebrated it so infrequently. The answer I got never satisfied, and it still doesn’t: “If we do this very often, it will lose its meaning.” Precociously I thought, It doesn’t seem to mean much to us anyway, so why worry about it losing any more meaning? As I grew older, I discovered some churches took the meal weekly. I was then even more dissatisfied with the answer I had received.

Whether you’ve been a Christian since childhood or accepted Christ just recently, you likely have a story about the Lord’s Supper. Your story might include questions or frustrations, maybe even doubts. Our stories explain a great deal, not only about us as Christians but also about how important we think Communion is to our faith and practice.

Christians throughout history have traced their practice of ...

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Ladies, Put Down That Pink Bible

Jen Wilkin equips women to study Scripture more deeply.

I have a confession: I knew I would like Jen Wilkin’s new book, Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds (Crossway), before I read it. Having become familiar with Wilkin after finding her blog, I was struck by how she proclaims difficult truths without alienating readers. Her teaching—on display as a leader at the Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas—is saturated in scriptural insights and demands serious attention.

There is an increasing number of Bible resources for women rooted in sound theology, thanks to teachers like Beth Moore and Kay Arthur. Women of the Word goes further in equipping women with the tools to study Scripture rightly.

Wilkin identifies two significant problems among Christian resources for women: They tend to be emotion-driven and human-centered. Too often, women approach Scripture asking not “Who is God?” but “Who am I?” The latter question certainly has its place, but, as Wilkin objects, “Any study of the Bible that seeks to establish our identity without first proclaiming God’s identity will render partial and limited help.”

She warns against a list of mistaken approaches, such as the “Xanax Approach,” which “treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better,” and the “Magic 8 Ball Approach,” which demands that “the Bible tell us what to do rather than who to be.”

Wilkin then offers a five-step primer for studying Scripture, which she calls the “Five Ps”: Study with Purpose, Perspective, Patience, Process, and Prayer. The goal is to help women grow in Bible literacy. Although the approach is rigorous, Wilkin is quick to extend ...

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News: Should Satan Be Part of Evangelism and Early Discipleship?

Or is the Devil too distracting?

Parents and godparents will no longer have to promise to "reject the Devil and all rebellion against God" at baptisms in the UK's largest denomination, and will instead pledge to "turn away from sin" and "reject evil." Mark Burnett's Son of God film dropped Satan scenes to prevent viewers from focusing on him instead of Christ. Most Christians may not miss him: A 2009 poll found that nearly 60 percent of U.S. Christians view the Devil as only a symbolic character. We asked experts whether Satan should be part of evangelism and early discipleship, or whether it's better to talk about evil and re-educate people on the devil later on. We're posting responses below on a spectrum, from those who think it's better to wait up top, and those who think Satan should be part of early discussions near the bottom of the article.

"For many people, the Devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence. The problem is helping people with little doctrinal appreciation to understand what we mean by affirming that the Devil is a defeated power."
Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man, Church of England (in comments presenting the revised baptism liturgy to the church's General Synod)

"No, and for some good cultural reasons. C. S. Lewis said that there are two errors to avoid regarding the Devil—to ignore him and to become fascinated with him. The problem is that many in our culture seem unable to engage the concept of the demonic without becoming fascinated in problematic ways."
Jim Beilby, professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Bethel University and coeditor, Understanding Spiritual Warfare

"In Jesus' ...

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Memoir in the Me-Generation

How social media helps us tell our stories.

Among Christian writers and bloggers, we all likely know someone whose book proposal—whose personal story of struggle and second chances—has been rejected by publishers. We’ve seen their disappointment and frustration from the lack of interest.

As a friend, I try to offer words of encouragement. That it might not be the right time. That if it is supposed to get published, it will. I remind her there are a myriad of reasons a book might not find a publisher.

But as someone who sifts through book ideas and book proposals on a frequent basis, I’ve come to believe memoirs are a somewhat dubious venture. (This is not to say they can’t be beautifully and successfully done.)

For one, there aren’t very many memoirists—people who write repeated memoirs. Of course, there are the Donald Millers and Anne Lamotts, the splendid exceptions. But how many of us live interesting enough lives to write more than one memoir? (I’d argue that even celebrities don’t. It’s uncanny that someone like Justin Bieber could write two memoirs before the age of 18.)

Additionally, some Christian publishing insiders think memoirs can be—but not always—hard to sell. Is this because they don’t have a good place on the bookshelf? Or because Christian book-buyers tend to prefer Bible studies and non-fiction?

These personal curiosities jostled when I read Dani Shapiro’s article “A Memoir is Not a Status Update” in The New Yorker. In the piece, Shapiro, author of multiple books (three of which are memoirs), laments the effects of social media and today’s me-culture on the memoir.

She describes how the slow-drip of 140 character tweets and status ...

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What Evangelicals Think About Scotland's Independence Vote

After a vote against independence, British Christians call for church to take the lead in building the 'new Scotland'

Update (Sept 19): 55 percent of Scottish voters voted no on a referendum Thursday that would have granted it independence from the United Kingdom. Following the announcement that the fight for independence had failed - an event which saw over 80 percent of Scots flooding the polls to participate in the highly contentious election - the Evangelical Alliance Scotland called for unity.

"The Christian Gospel provides the catalyst for reconciliation and as Christians we recognise our responsibility to model grace, forgiveness and reconciliation to our fellow citizens. During this campaign all Scots have rallied around a flag," EAS Scottish National Director Fred Drummond said in a statement. "But as Christians our identity is not based on a flag or a national boundary but on the radical grace of being adopted into God's family."

Drummond also exhorted the referendum’s victors to graciously embrace Scottish nationalists and challenge themselves to "love our neighbour."

"As Scots now consider what kind of nation will now emerge from this campaign, the church must lead - and be allowed to lead - the way to ensure the new Scotland is one that reflects God's values in the economy, the family, our communities and our environment,” “As Christians we passionately believe that these values will shape our nation for good."

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As Scotland votes today on independence from the United Kingdom, Christians lack consensus on whether Yes or No is the way to go.

A survey released last month by the UK’s Evangelical Alliance suggested that British evangelicals at large would disapprove of Scotland’s departure: 74 percent of its response panel said earlier ...

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How Grace and Truth Unleash the Contagious Nature of the Gospel: A guest post by Eric Mason

Grace and truth both play crucial roles in how the Christian loves others.

I consider myself a movie buff.

I am especially fond of movies that are based on heroic, mythical characters. For example, I have certain “authenticity” requirements that I use for evaluation when a new movie is released. Whether it’s a historic figure based on our past, or a superhero like Superman, Batman, etc., I want to see a beastly portrayal of the character(s) that I have admired. My rationale is that authentic portrayals allow others to experience in the movie what I experienced when I read about them.

In John 1:40–42, the disciples’ experience with Jesus was so exciting that it became contagious. They were motivated to talk to their circle of influence about the heroic character, now come to life, called Messiah. It isn’t recorded what their evening with Jesus was like, but it is clear that it was an influential time. In the same way that we might go on and on about a new movie with our friends, they unashamedly told their closest associates about Jesus.

This wasn’t a manufactured response, either.

Just look at the wording of the first part of verses 41, the middle of 41 and the beginning of 42: “He first found . . .we have found . . .He brought Him to Jesus.” These statements reflect the contagious excitement that flows from an authentic experience with the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you experience Jesus for who He is, you cannot help but run to your circle of influence and engage them with the one who changes everything.

Jesus Changes the Game

I remember when music went digital.

The digital flow of music will forever change how we experience music. In 2004, everyone was talking about how much music they had access to on Napster. (Of course, ...

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Slammed in the Spirit

Hope for a Christian blogosphere that focuses more on God than each other.

Earlier this summer, my daughter came home from Vacation Bible School wearing a thick purple bracelet with bright orange lettering. “Watch for God,” it read. To me, it seemed like an incomplete sentence. Watch for God to what? But my mental sluggishness only revealed a spiritual truth: God seems distant lately, and it’s difficult to see him working.

Overwhelmed with bad news, we tend to view the world through our own small, distorted prisms. Fred Rogers told of how his mother would comfort him as a child when confronted with scary news, “Watch for the helpers,” she’d say. “There’s always someone trying to help.”

But what if we don’t hear about those stories? What if those stories are buried under the rubble of the pessimistic 24-hour news cycle, in which the critical commentator reigns supreme and bad news outweighs the good by 17 to 1?

It’s not just the news’ fault. What really blinds me to the work of God in the world is the troubling public discourse between Christians. We have picked up the cynics’ dialect; we have adopted the tone of negative sensationalism.

Christians too often bury the good and beautiful ways God is working through our constant criticism of one another. Christian bloggers war with one another in battles big and laughably small. Critical articles outweigh positive articles by 3-to-1 on some Christian sites. Almost every viral article or blog post contains a negative component. Out of principle, I’ll refrain from linking to examples, but these headlines should be familiar:

  • “What Christians Get Wrong”
  • “What Christians Need to Stop Saying”
  • “Myths Christians Believe”

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The Strange Legacy of Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg

He vehemently defended the Resurrection but denied the Virgin Birth. He was hugely influential but leaves few disciples. What you need to know about the German giant who died this month.

On September 5, an important voice in academic theology was lost. Wolfhart Pannenberg, one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century, died peacefully at 85 at his home near Munich, Germany.

Born 1928 in Stettin, Germany, Pannenberg was raised as an atheist under the Nazi regime, more fluent in modern criticisms of Christianity than in Christian doctrine itself. “I was nourished on Nietzsche’s philosophy,” he said. Yet at age 16, as World War II was nearing its end, Pannenberg had a life-changing, mystical experience as he walked home from a piano lesson:

The sun was setting, and, though I had experienced many sunsets before, there was a moment when there was no difference between myself and the light surrounding me. This is not easy to describe. It may be the kind of experience that young people at the age of sixteen have otherwise (I don’t claim uniqueness to that experience), but it made me think. It opened me to the mystery of reality.

Shortly thereafter, he and his family became refugees after the Russian invasion, and he was drafted into the Nazi army, to be saved from the front lines only by scabies. As soon as he returned to school, he began studying philosophy and soon became intrigued by Christianity. He said,

I became interested in studying Christianity because our teacher in German literature, though a Christian, did not fit the picture of Christian mentality which I had received from Nietzsche. Contrary to my expectations, this teacher obviously enjoyed and appreciated the fullness of human life in all its forms, which he was not supposed to do, according to Nietzsche’s description of the Christian mind. I decided that I had to find out about this.

Thanks ...

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Lecrae Brings Reformed Rap to Jimmy Fallons Tonight Show

Performance with The Roots will be the first by a Christian rapper on late-night TV.

Update (Sept. 19): On The Tonight Show Thursday, Jimmy Fallon congratulated Lecrae for his No. 1 album, Anomaly, and invited him to return for another performance.

For the night, Lecrae joined Fallon’s house band, The Roots, for musical interludes between segments. He rapped portions of songs from his new album, including “Nuthin,” “Fear,” “All I Need is You,” “Say I Won’t,” and “Welcome to America.”

James Poyser and Frank Knuckles, both members of the band, posted pictures with Lecrae, as fans and friends tweeted along. #LecraeOnFallon trended nationwide.

“I'm really excited for Lecrae,” tweeted fellow Christian rapper Sho Baraka. “I pray for wisdom for that brother. This can't be easy navigating new waters. #116Circa03.”

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To borrow some popular lingo, Christian rapper Lecrae is blowing up.

His latest album, Anomaly, topped iTunes on the day it was released and took the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top 200—a first for a Gospel act.

On Thursday, Lecrae will become the first from the resurgent ranks of Reformed rappers to appear on a late-night network show when he sits in with The Roots, the house band for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He is expected to perform his single, “All I Need is You.”

Listeners began a Twitter campaign to get #lecraeonfallon months ago, and once the appearance was announced on Monday, Lecrae’s label, Reach Records, attributed the decision to his fans.

...

The prolific hip hop-soul band The Roots joined Jimmy Fallon when he took over Late Night in 2009, and they’ve invited several legendary artists to sit in with them, including Aerosmith’s ...

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Loving the Lost: Churches Without the Broken are Broken Churches

It's easy for Christians to love each other, but it's important for believers to love others as well.

It is a natural thing for Christians to want to be around other Christians. Something special happens in the fellowship of believers.

We can worship freely, study deeply, and communicate clearly. Hanging out with like-minded people who (appear to) “have their stuff together” can be a wonderful thing.

But how well are we engaging those who aren’t as spiritually stable as we (think we) are?

I’ve been fascinated by the fact that a lot of Christians don’t seem to like non-Christians—otherwise known as “the lost,” “the unchurched,” or whatever other term you may want to use. They want to keep away from the messy people-- perhaps missing the obvious that we are messy as well.

Who Is on Your Friends List?

It is kind of interesting that after coming to Christ and growing in knowledge, we often end up distancing ourselves from some of our former friends. And then, as we begin to grow in spiritual maturity, we find that we have less and less time for the hurting and struggling.

We have found the one thing that meets the need in our lives, but we keep our distance from those who need the very thing we’ve found. I don’t think this separation is intentional, but it does happen, and in the end, our intentions don’t matter.

Our needs get met and we move on, oblivious to a world that is falling apart all around us.

That is not the way of Christ.

Jesus lived differently. One of the common criticisms Jesus faced was that He spent too much time with sinners. He associated with the unwelcomed and unappreciated of society. How many of us could be accused of spending too much time with the “riff raff?"

It wasn’t that Jesus was ...

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Strong Performances Highlight TIFF 2014

The six stars who shined brightest at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), like most festivals, tends to be an auteur-focused affair. In the weeks leading up to the event, press releases fly, reminding critics which directors have new films dropping.

But crowds rarely line up on the street across the screening venue hoping to catch a glimpse of Bennett Miller, Jessica Hausner, or Olivier Assayas. Directors’ names carry prestige, but we are still a star-driven culture. People have their favorite directors, but they are in love with their favorite stars.

And, truth to tell, TIFF offered a plethora of great performances. Looking back over the festival, here are six of my favorite.

Aleksey Serebryakov plays Kolya in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. The TIFF catalog compares Zvyagintsev’s work to Tarkovsky’s. While I see some obvious thematic resemblances, particularly in the use of religious language as a frame, I don’t recall Tarkovsky’s work works eliciting the sorts of memorable performances we get here. Kolya might be a bit of a stock figure for American viewers; he is a stern, Russian patriarch. Serebryakov makes him seem real, though, and that holds are interest until we start to see more to the character than what appeared at first glance.

When I mentioned on Twitter that Kristen Stewart was having a good festival, one of her many fans replied asking if I was being sarcastic. Those who love the actress for her turn as Bella in Twilight are apparently not used to her being treated with much esteem. Stewart shared the spotlight with Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria and Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Both films were vehicles designed to feature the talents of the lead actress, but both needed—and ...

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