The Greatest Living Christian Apologist

Tampa to Charlotte. 6B is reading a book about how Christians can pick apart scientists’ arguments and successfully evangelize the masses.

My age, fighting Father Time with the help of a toupee. I can’t help but think how different our lives have probably been. We make small talk, and then in a temporary lapse of sanity I say, “Good book?” And he was off to the races.

He was surprised I knew what apologetics was and quickly informed me that he was supposed to be in First Class with his 83 year old dad who is the “World’s Greatest Living Christian Apologist”. Damn, I didn’t know that was a competition. Where, I wondered, could I find the complete rankings. I have close friends in the ministry, are they in the Top 20 I wondered? And how do the competing apologists keep track of total souls saved? Do you self-report and just trust your competitors aren’t inflating their numbers?

He didn’t know what to make of me. “Are there many other people like you in your church?” In other words. You’re one of those social justice whack jobs I’ve read about. I’ll pray for you.

There was some disappointment that I didn’t know his dad, but hell, he didn’t know mine, and mine was the World’s Greatest Wearer of Plaid Pants. Apparently, his dad built two seminaries and they travel the world debating atheists and others about Christianity. My dad was far too smart to ever hire me.

A Dallas Seminarian who believes in biblical inerrancy, he lectured me about the three different kinds of Christian apologetics and shared some of his strategies for convincing others to think just like him.

I told him about my Nigerian friend who was the most fervent Christian I had ever met and that if he was born 100 miles north of where he was he probably would’ve been an influential Muslim Iman. And that very, very few Christian parents in North America introduce their children to different faith traditions. That when it comes to one’s faith, the time, place, and family in which you’re born is probably even more influential than the Holy Spirit.

But turns out, he’s the exception. He’s talks with his 6, 8, and 10 year old (“started my family much later”) about other faiths all the time and encourages them to ask questions. And I’m SURE if one of them commits to a different faith in the future he’ll be completely understanding.

Lord, please temper my cynicism and grant 6B some humility.

[Remember, eavesdropping is perfectly okay. You just have to expect and accept returns of serve. “I noticed what you were reading,” 6B said with furrowed brow. The Ethicist essay in the New York Times Magazine titled, “Do You Tell a Friend That His Daughter is Having Sex?” Bahahaha!

The Constitution and Christmas

Last Sunday the wife’s Sunday school class on making Christmas less stressful and more meaningful went really well. At least for the first fifty minutes. During the last ten it devolved into a gripe session about public school and state government political correctness. Then on Monday a grad student of mine sent me an email conveying the same things. Here’s an excerpt. “At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter to eliminate Jesus, in all public matter. And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith. Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace. The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded. The reason for the season , stopped before it started.”

At the end of the Sunday school class I sat in silence because I knew there was nothing I could say in a few minutes that would change anyone’s mind. Good thing probably because the teach may not have appreciated my stirring the pot. But that pot needs to be stirred.

Here’s what my conservative evangelical Christian friends would have me believe. The “founding fathers” were Christians and we are a Christian nation, a shining city upon a hill. As a result, public schools and other public places should allow the public expression of Christian faith whatever the form: the posting of the Ten Commandments, group prayer, the singing of Christian songs at Christmas, or the display of nativities or crosses. For the majority, Christianity is our common heritage, the national default if you will. People of other faiths should go ahead and celebrate in whatever ways they want in private, but as a distinct minority, they shouldn’t expect public schools and public places to accommodate their preferences.

In contrast, I believe the following.

1) We are a religiously pluralistic nation made up of many Christians mixed together with Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, atheists, and on and on.

2) Our greatest strength is our Constitution which protects minority rights against majority rule and creates a level playing field with respect to citizens’ diverse religious beliefs. Mutual respect undergirds that neutrality and enables us to peacefully co-exist.

3) Selflessness is a central tenet of Christianity; as a result, Christians should take some time to think about what it would be like if public schools and places were primarily Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or anti-religious. The alternative is for Christians to forgo selflessness, devalue Christianity, and continue to insist on a “majority wins” approach to governing public places.

4) The “wall of separation between church and state” principle is misunderstood by Christians who instinctively view it as problematic. Christianity can be taught in public schools as long as it’s done in a comparative, non-evangelical way. Many Christians conflate religious neutrality and anti-religiousness.

5) One Sunday schooler took a swipe at Kwanza and “other minor religious celebrations.” Christians who complain about religious neutrality in public schools and public spaces are struggling to come to grips with the fact that demographics have changed in the United States and they resent that they have to change any aspect of how they grew up experiencing Christmas. It’s difficult to exaggerate the deep symbolic meaning Christmas-oriented language and music in public schools from yesteryear has on many middle-aged and elderly Christians.

6) It’s utterly and completely ludicrous for Christians to suggest anyone is “forbidden to speak of salvation and grace”. It compromises their credibility as thinking people. How much of an adult Christian’s life is spent in public schools and spaces, five percent? Ninety-five percent of the time there’s absolute freedom to speak of one’s religious beliefs and convictions in whatever way one chooses. The “forbidden” argument couldn’t be more disingenuous and it makes a mockery of believers of different faiths who are truly persecuted by their governments.

7) The historical Jesus lived in a religiously diverse world. Instead of complaining that the first century world in which he lived wasn’t explicitly Christian enough, he focused on spreading his message through example, and in essence, competing on a level playing field. Christians today should do the same.

Religious Life and Leadership 2

After the too lengthy “Religious Life and Leadership 1” post, I feel like I can be relatively concise here. 

I agree with my mother who says “variety is the spice of life,” but religious services are amazingly predictable. On some level, routines are comforting, but more than that, they probably contribute to a nostalgia for years gone by. But religious leaders and organizations don’t seem terribly reflective about how the exact same traditions that long-standing members find value in, may not resonate as much with younger, more diverse visitors.

I’m curious as to why there’s not more experimentation, especially with forms that promote interaction between religious leaders and members and between members themselves.

One of the most consistent routines is a mid-service sermon or homily by a religious leader or pastor. He or she typically speaks somewhere between 10-40 minutes depending on denominational traditions. Within my Lutheran denomination, you could go from church to church, and pastor to pastor, and find quite a few commonalities.

In contrast to Baptist or Pentecostal preachers, Lutheran pastors are much more subdued. More like a poet at a public reading than a union organizer at a large rally. I was reminded of this while visiting a Baptist church on MLK day. As the visiting Pentecostal pastor grew increasingly animated, I wondered why on earth he was using a microphone. Maybe Lutheran pastors would get more worked up if Lutherans threw a “call and response” switch which is about as likely as the Phoenix Cardinals making it to the Super Bowl.

Lutheran pastors tend to focus their sermons on the biblical excerpt for the day. Their exegesis is more historical than contemporary in nature. The classic Lutheran style is literary, my poetry reading reference was intentional. It’s rarely clear what the implications of the scripture might be for young people at school on Monday morning, middle-aged people in their respective families and workplaces, and the elderly in the various contexts in which they live. The pastor reveals relatively little about his or her spiritual struggles and probably to keep the political peace, pressing controversial issues are tip-toed around.

I’m not even sure if “good” sermons are remembered from one Sunday to the next.

I’m not sure I’d like to see more passionate, applicable, authentic sermons as much as a complete rethinking of the model where the same person communicates a few insights each week with little to no participation from anyone else. Imagine a pastor finishing her sermon and instead of moving straight to the offertory music, saying, “So what do you think? Let’s take some time to hear a few reflections, questions, or even differing perspectives.” My guess is the 50+ set would say “What the heck, I don’t want to have to participate in the service. Isn’t it written somewhere in the bible that ‘Thou shall go from the sermon to the offertory music?!” 

I’ve attended churches where a more informal, alternative, interactive, hippy service has been introduced only to be poorly attended and then given up on. So I suspect I’m in the minority.

I just wonder, if religious leaders were more reflective about the outline of their services and found ways to promote interactivity, if more people would engage.