- 2017Nov 06
Today I have a piece in The Washington Post reflecting on the tragic shooting that took place yesterday at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Here’s an excerpt:
While millions of other Christians were singing hymns or opening their Bibles or taking communion this past Sunday, at that very moment, a gunman was opening fire on the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. This, the largest church shooting in history, ends with 26 people killed. Several children were among the fallen, including pastor Frank Pomeroy’s fourteen year-old daughter Annabelle. Whatever the shooter’s twisted objective might have been, we do know this: it won’t work.
Someone who would commit mass murder in this way is obviously deranged and unhinged, but the goal he sought, to terrorize worshippers, has been attempted constantly over the centuries and around the world by cold, rational governments and terrorist groups—all thinking that they could, by the trauma of violence, snuff out churches, or at least intimidate those churches into hiding from one another. Such violent tactics always end up with the exact opposite of what the intimidators intend: a resilient church that, if anything, moves forward with even more purpose than before. Why?
Read the entire piece here.
Publication date: November 6, 2013
- 2017Oct 31
October 31, 2017, is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation, started with Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s 95 theses against the practices of the Catholic Church of his era. Most American evangelicals will probably not even notice the historic day, except as one more Halloween. Nonetheless, what drove Luther to protest is everywhere present in the 21st century American church.
Most of the 95 theses aren’t about the big, broad theological anchor issues we now see came to be the core of the Reformation. Most of them are about instead the church’s use of indulgences. The indulgences are, of course, rooted in the broader system of medieval church thought. Before there could be an articulation, though, of a systematic treatment of justification, there had to be a sense first that what was happening all around, though seeming normal at the time, was out of step with the New Testament. The church maintained power over the people through political entanglements with rulers and through a system that tied the church’s finances to the eternal destinies of the people. The Reformation said no.
Now, whatever one thinks of the Reformation, shouldn’t it be clear that the problems in our current context are just as bad or maybe even worse? The Reformers were right about the gospel—that God justifies the ungodly, “apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 4:1-25). And yet, look around. There is, thanks be to God, a gospel resurgence within American evangelicalism. But, along with that is what sociologists identify in American religious life as a growing sense of “spirituality” unhinged from biblical revelation or even from church attendance. And that’s just among those who call themselves “born again, Bible-believing Christians.”
One can see this problem easily by attending a Bible Belt funeral in which, far too often, an allegedly evangelical minister presides over the death of someone he doesn’t even know with the assurances that “Uncle Ronnie isn’t in pain anymore; he’s singing up there with Jesus now.” The same has been said all around the funeral parlor by those gathered. And it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s not just that what they are saying about the departed is hard to believe, but that they don’t believe it themselves. It’s just the sort of thing one says at a funeral, right along with “Doesn’t he look natural?” American religion asks, “What can wash away my sin?” Nothing but embalming fluid is the apparent answer.
This combination of cheap grace with a performance-based sort of works righteousness is, in many ways, even worse than the old indulgence system. Consciences are left bound. People know, intuitively, that there is a day of reckoning, and they tremble. Deep within awakened consciences there is the same question that plagued Luther, “How can I find a gracious God?” That’s true even for those who do not have Luther’s religious vocabulary to give expression to it.
This is not a medieval problem, but a primeval one.
Add to this, the widespread distortion of Christianity, exported from America all around the world, in the prosperity gospel. These heretical preachers promise health and wealth and wellbeing to those who will complete the transaction of praying a prayer (and, usually, giving money to the preachers), despite the fact that this is the exact opposite of what Jesus and his apostles taught, at every point. Despite this, these purveyors of what Paul would have called “a different gospel” are welcomed as fellow evangelicals by those who purport to hold to the gospel. And, as we do so, the prosperity gospel goes all around the world, damning souls and picking pockets at the same time.
This is the natural result of an American Christianity that equates “bigness” with truth, again the very opposite of what Jesus and the apostles taught. In a church reform movement started to say that Scripture alone should be our final norming authority, we see widespread biblical illiteracy, with slogans and memes replacing the authoritative content of the Bible. After all, it is much easier to find out what it is that people already believe and add Bible verses to that than it is to shape and form consciences, over decades, with the Word of God.
The greatest challenge facing American Christianity in the years to come is not secularism but cynicism. An entire generation is watching what goes on under the name of American religion, wondering if there is something real to it, or if it is just another useful tool to herd people and to make money. Is Christianity really about the crucified Christ, they ask, or is it about ethnic superiority claims or wacky televised end-times conspiracy theories? One need not spend much time on a college campus or among previously churched young adults to see why they’ve rejected whatever calls itself “Christianity” around them—and sadly, they often leave not only it aside, but any consideration of the gospel itself. This has eternal consequences.
American Christianity will reform or die, because the sort of market-driven religion we have seen in years past only works among people who think spirituality and religion have social benefits. That is changing. No matter what, the church will thrive, though maybe not in America, and the apostolic gospel will go forward. The Word of God is not chained.
God is gracious. Jesus is alive. The gospel is true. The kingdom is coming.
The reform of American Christianity is not ultimately about the survival of American Christianity. It’s about, instead, what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Galatia about why he stood down the almost-gospels of his day: “so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). Martin Luther sought to recover the clarity of the gospel so that the gospel would clearly be delivered to the generations to come. Will we do the same?
This article originally appeared at www.russellmoore.com. Used with permission.
Publication date: October 31, 2017
Image Courtesy: Thinkstock/PavelRodimov
- 2017Oct 09
For the past 75 years or so, Superman has had a girlfriend. Now he has a wife, and a son, and a new direction. And he’s not alone. Even Batman, easily caricatured as a loner in his cave, has a teenage son and has proposed marriage to a (very) complicated woman in his life (she said yes). This is, of course, of interest to lifelong comic book nerds like me, but it should also perk the attention of Christians who wouldn’t know the difference between Krypton and Krypto because it just might signal something hopeful in at least one corner of our culture. The DC Universe is, ironically, rejuvenating itself with maturity.
Under the leadership of Geoff Johns (in the comic world he’s either revered or reviled; I’m enthusiastically in the first category), DC is undergoing what it calls “Rebirth.” Here’s the thumbnail of this re-direction. In 2011, DC decided that one of the reasons for their declining sales is that there wasn’t an easy “on-ramp” for new readers and returning readers. Storylines and subtexts and relationships between characters were complicated to the point of confusing. They tried to solve this with a fresh start, a reboot called “the New 52” in which, essentially, the characters and the stories started all over again. Fans didn’t like this, for all sorts of reasons, and so, in 2016, a new direction was launched. With “Rebirth,” the comics in many ways returned to some of the best aspects of the pre-52 universe. With some inventive and often thrilling storytelling, the comics are reconnecting the characters with the larger legacy and mythology of the DC universe.
Now, this is too complicated to explain here, with timelines reconnecting and a mysterious figure found to have been robbing them of memories, connections, and even years of their lives. But one key change in Rebirth, along with a more hopeful tone, is re-establishing some relationships. A big part of that is friendship, love, marriage, and parenthood.
Notice Superman for instance (which is, in my opinion, the best of the best in Rebirth so far). The last son of Krypton was often derided in years past as a “Big Blue Boy Scout.” And, in some incarnations, this was fair enough with the image of an alien invulnerable to everything but kryptonite and magic, and often with a tendency to humorlessly cap off adventures with a moral lesson or two. The “New 52” version of Superman, though, was younger, more unsure of himself and his abilities, more sarcastic and harder-edged. But the “Rebirth” Superman is quite different still. Among other things, he is married to Lois Lane and they are together raising their half-human son, Jon (named after Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan Kent) who is grappling to come to terms with his own emerging powers.
Batman, likewise, is attempting to parent a much more volatile son, Damian, who is at the same time the newest version of Robin. Batman also is making some attempt to walk away from his (at least by daylight) playboy ways, asking his sometimes lover, sometimes nemesis Catwoman to marry him.
And it’s not just these two who are finding love and responsibility in their new ecosystems. In the one-shot issue launching the Rebirth initiative, Aquaman proposed, on bended knee with ring in hand, to warrior-princess of the seas, Mera. I could go into many, many other iterations of this in the DC Universe.
Add to all of this settling down, a theme of reconnection with parents, and indeed a broader theme starts to emerge. Both Batman and Superman are, like many superheroes, motivated by their identities as orphans. Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot to death in front of him as a child (leading to his vow to fight criminals) and Kal-El’s birth parents were blown apart, along with his entire planet. In more recent days, though, both Superman and Batman have encountered versions of their fathers.
One media observer of all things comic, sees in these love and family storylines innovation that is even bigger than what might appear at first glance. Journalist Shaun Manning argues that these marriages and children are more consequential than, say, Bane breaking Batman’s back because they are much “harder to reverse in-story.” This also brings much risk. The question asked by many is whether Batman can be both a hero and a husband.
And yet, the dynamics at play here in marriage and parenting and extended family give an insight into these characters in ways we have not seen. “This is inherently more interesting and more exciting than the perpetual teen-angst sexual tension that publishers have previously assumed is what keeps readers invested.”
A cynic might suggest that one reason for all this settling-down is that many comic book readers are not pre-teens but, like me, those who never stopped reading or came back well into adulthood and can thus relate to mortgages and figuring out curfews. But in talking to DC fans, young and old, I think there’s something else at play.
Stories that are too sanitized and uplifting eventually seem artificial and grating. That’s why comics, and other media of popular culture, swing away from such toward darker, edgier vibes (compare, for instance, the Batman of the Tim Burton films with the Dark Knight version). We can’t relate to a world that seems utopian and unfallen. But edginess can easily tip over into cynicism and even nihilism, and that’s, after awhile, exhausting.
Batman writer Tom King is, onto something when he says that the introduction of engagement and (maybe) marriage to the Dark Knight’s life will not “settle him down” but make him even more complicated. “Most superheroes, you make them happy and you end conflict—you give Spider-Man a wife and where do you go from there? But Batman’s the opposite; You give him happiness and you create conflict, because he’s fundamentally a sad character.”
Our lives are actually riddled with both glory and agony, both grace and pain, both love and war. DC is attempting to strike this balance in multiple ways—for instance with the interaction between Superman (and others) and the super-dark figures of the 1980s-era Watchmen.
Relationships and family, though, are one of those places where we see both light and darkness. There was a time when that darkness might have been most visible to aging adults in the throes of family responsibilities. But, in a world filled with the trauma of divorce and addiction and abuse, children are well aware of this too. Married/parenting adults need to be reminded of youthful joy and playfulness and exuberance. And children and adolescents and young adults need sometimes to see the stability and happiness that come with standing by one’s vows.
Unfortunately, in our culture and way too often even in our congregations, the worlds of younger and older, married and single, restless and settled, can seem further apart than alternative earths in a multiverse. We need each other. Comic books can see this. The church should too. In that, maybe Rebirth has some needed reminders for the reborn.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Choreograph