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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Animals as People

By now you may have heard that a judge in Manhattan has ordered a hearing that will determine whether chimpanzees can be considered “legal persons” in the eyes of the law.

If you hadn’t heard this by now, no, I am not making this up.

The case is trying to determine whether the two chimps are being “unlawfully detained” because they are in cages at Stony Brook University. There are groups that support the idea that some animals, such as chimps, are “legal persons” with the right to “bodily liberty.” 

Critics of such positions contend that nonhuman animals do not have legal rights any more than they have legal responsibilities. 

This is not the first case of its kind.

A Spanish parliamentary committee adopted resolutions that would give great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the right to life, freedom from arbitrary captivity and protection from torture. In other words, the same legal rights as humans. 

The reasoning was based almost entirely on what it means to be human which, according to the naturalistic philosophy in place in our world, is entirely genetic. “Chimps...share 98.5% of human DNA, making them as genetically close to humans as horses are to zebras,” noted an article in USA Today

A court case from Austria went further, wanting to actually declare a chimp a person so the animal could have a legal guardian and funds for upkeep.

So why not treat man’s closest genetic relative with the legal and cultural rights they so genetically deserve? What else, to a naturalistic mind, would there be to consider?

I have often told my graduate students in theology that the most pressing doctrine of our day may very well be the doctrine of humanity. It is the area of Christian thought that is most challenged by the world in which we live – and the one where we have the least to draw from historically.

Find a reflection from Origen or Athanasius, Luther or Melanchthon, Barth or Brunner, that speaks to stem-cell research, human cloning, or transsexualism.

Or declaring chimps to be “persons.” 

As the first five centuries hammered out Christology, and later generations tackled everything from the Holy Spirit to revelation, ours may be the day that is forced to examine the doctrine of humanity in ways that serve the church for years to come.

But we’d better get to it.

Because right now, our thinking seems to be little more than just a bunch of,

(sorry, can’t resist)

…monkey business.

James Emery White

 

Sources

“Judge Orders Stony Brook University to Defend Its Custody of 2 Chimps,” Jesse McKinley, The New York Times, April 21, 2015, read online.

“Chimpanzees Take a Huge Step Toward (Some) Human Rights,” Brandon Keim, Wired, April 21, 2015, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Squishy Center

Last week the Pew Research Center released an update to its massive 2007 study of the American religious landscape with an equally expansive look at how things have changed over the last seven years.

They found that the “nones” have continued to rise, now representing nearly one out of every four adults, and that Christianity is shrinking, falling from nearly 80 percent of the adult population to barely over 70 percent.

So is the Christian sky falling?

No.

Any informed observer knows the following:

*Christianity is on the rise worldwide, particularly in the global South

*Evangelical Christianity is holding its own in the U.S.

*Christianity remains the world’s largest faith, and the most distant projections to 2050 holds it maintaining that lead (this includes the U.S., with 70 percent currently affirming a Christian faith)

So rumors of Christianity’s death are premature.

But…

Any informed observer also knows the following:

*the rise of the “nones” throughout the West is real and cannot be ignored

*Islam is growing faster than Christianity

*the “squishy center” is shifting away from Christianity, and is changing the American cultural landscape

The last one leave you a bit puzzled?

It’s something I endeavored to explain at the 2015 Church and Culture Conference. It came in partial answer to the question, “What is driving the rise of the “nones?”

Most would just say it’s happening because we live in a post-Christian world. That processes like secularization, privatization and pluralization have taken their toll.

And that’s true.

Secularization means there is less of a supportive context for faith. Privatization has made all things related to faith a private affair, like having a favorite color or food. But most devastating of all has been pluralization, where there are not only multiple faiths and worldviews contending for our attention, but the idea that they are all equally valid, equally true. 

But the real power of those forces is its effect on what I’ve been calling the “squishy center,” though the idea itself is not unique to me.

Let’s set up a couple of extremes.

On one end are the hard core secularists, the true card-carrying atheists. The Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, secular humanist, ACLU, Fifty Shades of Grey types.

_______________________________________________________
Secularists                                                                                          
   (10%)

Let’s say this is 10% of the country. That’s actually quite generous, but let’s make it easy math to demonstrate the dynamic. 

On the other end are the hard core believers. The ones who are radically sold out to Jesus. These are the fish-sticker wearing, big-Bible carrying, Christian radio listening, Fox News watching, homeschooling types.

_______________________________________________________
Secularists                                                                              Believers
    (10%)                                                                                     (10%)

Let’s make that 10%, too, which also might be generous.

In between these two poles you have 80% of the country. They are neither hot nor cold. If they ever considered themselves “Christian,” it was with a small “c.”

They are the “squishy center.”

_______________________________________________________
Secularists                         Squishy Center                             Believers
    (10%)                                     (80%)                                         (10%)

As the “squishy center,” they move toward whatever is culturally most influential. Whatever way the culture tends to mold, shape or pressure is the shape they tend to be molded, shaped or pressured.

In the past, culture moved them to the right; to the Christian, believing side of things. It was, after all, a Christian culture. But culture has changed. It’s not moving people that way anymore. Most observers would call it “post” Christian. Now, everything in culture is moving people to the left; to the secular disbelieving side of things. 

So if you were floating in the 80% in the past, if asked, you would have said you were a Christian. That was the culturally normative thing to say. And you would have gone to church – at least on special days. There was pressure on you if you didn’t.

Polls, of course, reflected such influences.

But now, you say you’re nothing.

Because that’s the culturally normative thing to do.

And you don’t go to church.

Because that’s the culturally normative thing to do. 

That’s what I mean by the “squishy center.” And make no mistake; the center is moving left. And as the studies all show, moving rapidly. They simply have no anchor, and that’s where the inexorable tidal drift is taking them. They have little or no theological moorings, adrift through biblical illiteracy and tidal waved through media.

Now that such forces are decisively secular, and with a secular agenda, the center is being radically reshaped.

But here’s where I think I may differ, at least in emphasis, with some other observers. Rather than try to calm everyone down that we’re just losing the largely nominal population of believers – as if that’s not a big deal – I would argue that it is a very big deal.

The nominal population, no matter how it was being shaped, has always been America’s mission field. It’s who Wesley and Whitfield, Moody and Graham, won to Christ. The “squishy center” has always been the evangelistic target. 

The real news of late is that it’s become a much tougher target.

Which means that rather than heave a huge sigh of relief that Evangelical faith didn’t lose any ground in terms of percentage points, we must recognize that all that means is we held our own. But “holding our own” isn’t exactly the mission. 

And if that’s all that we do, then it won’t be long before those percentage points start to drop, and drop precipitously.

Instead, let this serve as an alarm that it can’t be business as usual.

Let this awaken leaders to engage in deep thinking, resulting in bold action, regarding strategy.

Let this open the eyes of the church regarding the power and direction of culture, and the importance of recapturing our prophetic voice and subversive role.

Let this remind us that the church is not called to be safe, tame, secure, popular, or accepted,

…but to be the church.

If so, then I have it on very good authority not even the gates of hell will be able to withstand its onslaught.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).

James Emery White, “The 2015 Cultural Snapshot: The Seventh Age and the Rise of the Nones,” 2015 Church and Culture Conference, download the mp3.

Pew Research Center, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," May 12, 2015, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Jesus told us to pray for God’s kingdom to come.

What does that mean?

One thing is certain: to pray it apart from all the courage you can muster would be failing to understand what you are praying. Particularly concerning God’s utter and complete sovereignty. “What would stand and what would fall?” reflects Frederick Buechner. “Who would be welcomed in and who be thrown the Hell out? ... Boldness indeed. To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

It’s true. When we pray, we are to pray for God’s kingdom, God’s will, to not only come into our lives and take root, but through us to spread throughout the earth. God’s kingdom was announced by Jesus, and makes its way into the world from that beachhead as individuals give their hearts and lives to Christ. In that sense, God’s kingdom has arrived, and we have been brought into that kingdom as believers. 

But the full consummation lies ahead. 

So to pray that the kingdom will come is to pray that His kingdom will grow as we pursue our witness to Jesus, and live lives of salt and light. So with the great commission comes a cultural commission. We pray for the kingdom to take hold on the planet; governments and institutions, judicial systems and media. 

I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the tenth anniversary of the end of Apartheid. That day was born on the prayer for God’s kingdom to come.

Years before I was in Moscow, worshiping in a church filled to capacity. Seeing the front rows filled with women wearing scarves, singing with a passion and intensity that was captivating, I leaned over to the pastor and asked through my interpreter who the women were. He answered, “Those are the women who prayed communism out of Russia.”

The kingdom is meant to come.

As a result, the real Christian, writes Evelyn Underhill, “is always a revolutionary.” Or as John Stott reminded us, “What Jesus bids us pray is that life on earth may come to approximate more nearly to life in heaven.” As this is prayed by us as individuals, the inescapable fact is that God’s kingdom on earth is to begin with us as individuals. We pray for God’s will to be done on earth, and then rise from our knees to meet the challenge. Indeed, the time of prayer is what binds us to action in the first place. 

In 14th-century England there were holy women who placed themselves in little rooms at the base of churches and gave themselves to this kind of prayer. They prayed for the church and its members, and the extension of the kingdom of God. These women were called by the quaint but telling name of anchoress, for they were spiritual anchors that held the church amid the storms of that century. This is why prayer must never fall into a passivity of spirit. Instead it is a frontal assault on the god of this world and the farcical “kingdom” the evil one is attempting to establish in rebellion against the true kingdom of God. 

Returning to Underhill,

To say day by day “Thy Kingdom Come” – if these tremendous words really stand for a conviction and desire – does not mean “I quite hope that some day the Kingdom of God will be established, and peace and goodwill prevail. But at present I don’t see how it is to be managed or what I can do about it.” On the contrary, it means, or should mean, “Here am I!  Send me!” – active, costly collaboration with the Spirit in who we believe.

So to pray for the kingdom to come is among the most radical of acts those who follow Jesus take up. As Tennyson once wrote, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.” Perhaps more to the point, more things are meant to be wrought by prayer than any of us allow ourselves to dream.

James Emery White

 

Sources     

Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life.

Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life; Abba.

John R.W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount.

Douglas Steere, Dimensions of Prayer: Cultivating a Relationship with God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Morte D’Arthur.”

James Emery White, The Prayer God Longs For.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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