How to Be a Jerk for Jesus

When I was in college, I attended a two-day seminar on apologetics hosted at a church in Austin. A group of students from our campus ministry organization went up together. I can’t speak for them, but at the time I was mildly excited. I had only recently read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the first time, and was a bit of a neophyte when it came to this field of study and rhetoric. However, I found the practice of making valid arguments for faith, and rebutting arguments against it, exhilarating, and I was stoked to learn more.

And yet, what I encountered at this seminar quickly doused these kindled sparks of excitement, and for many years after soured my appreciation for modern-day Christian apologetics.

It was not that I saw through the arguments presented at this seminar (and, believe me, the amount of rhetorical ropeadopes and dialectical mic drops presented by the main speaker was staggering!). No, most of them were pretty impressive maneuvers of logic and reasoned rebuke. Commendable, even.

The problem, it turned out, did not lie with the apologetics being presented. The problem was the apologist himself.

ugly suit

No, it wasn’t because he dressed like a crazy person.

In one of his wonderful essays for Release Magazine, “Telling the Joke,” the late Rich Mullins recounts a heated exchange he once had with a friend, in which he systematically knocked down every argument against the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ only to be shocked by his friend’s response. As Rich put it:

After I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable corner and hit him with a great inarguable truth, [he] blew me away by simply saying, “I do not want to be a Christian. I don’t want your Jesus Christ.” (Release, February/March 1996)

What left me feeling rotten about the seminar I attended was the unmistakable smugness and arrogant glee in the tone of the speaker (who had been touted as a sought-after expert in the field of Christian apologetics) as he walked us through his finely tuned workbook curriculum. Chapter by chapter, we learned, as each page put it, how to prove Mormons are wrong, how to prove Islam is a lie, how to prove atheists are illogical. (There was also a chapter on the fallacies of Catholicism, which in hindsight I realize should have been more of a giveaway of the kind of person we were dealing with.) It was clear that this man loved the work he did, and that, in and of itself, was fine. Indeed, I assume the Ravi Zachariases and Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world love what they do. This man’s devotion to his field of study was not the issue. Rather, it was how much of the man’s personality, passion, and energy seemed focused on not simply contending for the validity of the Christian faith, but absolutely obliterating every opponent he could think of.

Throughout the seminar, this man related stories of past exchanges with imams, Hindu priests, New Age adherents, even Satanists, and, with each subsequent story, he seemed to relish recounting exactly how he had put each one of these pagans in their place. Rarely did he describe these exchanges in a way that highlighted kindness, or gentleness, or even patience. Only flawless precision. These stories were tales of how he outsmarted his opponents and became the undisputed victor of each argument.

What it boiled down to was this. For this alleged expert in the field of apologetics, it seemed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was valuable not because of some inward transformation, but because he had determined ways to empirically and reasonably verify it. It was powerful because it was intellectually ratified, not because it was spiritually manifest inside him. I don’t mean to insinuate the guy is not a devoted follower of Jesus. But for three hours that night (and several more the next morning) the life of faith he exhibited had little to do with the fruits of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians, and much more to do with proving himself right in the face of all other faiths. In this tried-and-true notebook, he had clearly identified the enemies of Christianity, and his focus was not on loving them.

It was on beating them.

Now, apologetics can be a useful tool for Christians, especially in our increasingly pluralistic world. These days, if you are choosing to resist the anti-social hypnotism of your smartphone and are actually looking up at people and engaging with them, you are likely to encounter people who believe all sorts of things contrary to the gospel message. You will meet people who completely dismiss Jesus as a misunderstood and vastly overrated historical figure. You will meet others who are happy that you’ve found meaning in the Christian faith, but not to assume that everyone needs that particular belief system in order to find their own existential meaning. You may even meet full-fledged nihilists who, while outright rejecting any and all religious ideas presented to them, nonetheless surprise you by how well-rounded and gracious they are.

nihilists

Probably not these guys, though.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” writes St. Peter. St. Paul echoes him in a letter to his protegé, Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

If you are meeting people and truly engaging them in conversation and relationship, there will come moments in which you have the opportunity to talk about what you believe. Maybe not breaking out your Bible and flipping to the Romans road, but at least relating the fundamental narratives about who God is and how he interacts with humanity. And, in doing so, you may also find yourself entertaining questions about, or even arguments against, your beliefs. Apologetics is a way of organizing and articulating these narratives within various forms of dialogue. It is intended as a catalyst for deeper conversation, not as a club to bust the lips of skeptics.

Yes, it feels really, really good to win an argument. There is an exceedingly pleasant rush of dopamine that comes whenever you prove yourself right about something. In a day and age in which it has become increasingly rare to convince people they might be mistaken about even the smallest of issues, to actually win an argument is an extraordinary experience. But, like Rich Mullins’s friend showed him, there is more to faith than “proving” its legitimacy. The life of faith was never meant to be lived solely within the mind.

i-am-filled-with-christs-love-saved-mandy-moore-gif

The word evangelism refers to presenting the gospel in a way that persuades a person to surrender their lives to the salvation and direction of Jesus Christ. But the term is rooted in the New Testament word euangelion, which literally means “good tidings” and was later transliterated as “gospel.” From the very beginning this euangelion was far more than an intellectual exercise – an argument about the legitimacy of faith. It alluded to something much bigger – to the life-changing, reality-altering hope that God is not vindictive but gracious, and that his love for humanity knows no bounds.

At the heart of Jewish ritual prayer is the line, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength.” The Gospel of Luke  records Jesus quoting this line in response to a question about the greatest commandment, and the language includes “and with all of your mind” (in light of how the Greeks viewed knowledge as separate from the others). The point is simple: the life of faith is marked by a submission of the entire human experience – our appetites and emotions, our personalities and passions, our abilities and resources, and, of course, our intellects and memories. Genuine faith transforms the whole person.

So, if you’re in it for the rush of victory, or if the person with whom you are arguing rejects Christianity out of spite for the way you’re defending it, then you’re misusing the tool of apologetics. You might have fashioned a handful of clever points. You may have developed a shrewd and impressive polemic. You may have carefully honed the ability to make a captivating case for the validity of the Christian faith.

But have you made faith captivating? Have you exhibited a gospel message that transforms heart and soul as well as mind?

baby

You mean I have to be compassionate, too? What a drag!

May we never be so passionate to win an argument that we forget what we’re arguing for. May we encourage twice as much as we correct and rebuke, because, for many of us, that is weakest part of our interactions with others. And may we be people who trade a desire to be seen as right for the desire to be seen as whole.

“I am a Christian,” writes Rich Mullins in that same essay, “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many “unreasonable” ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing – it is a Presence that is compelling.”

When They Just Don’t Get It

This week’s post is a rerun, originally published on June 24, 2013. Next week, look for Part 2 of “A Right to Disconnect.” 

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

While the interim senior pastor at my church has been traveling, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – choosing the text, meticulous researching, jotting down good lines turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise.

I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

cheater

Cheater.

Preaching is an art form. It is as much a specialist’s craft as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, but each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the biggest drawbacks to making this art form part of a ministerial career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive my fair share of negative responses. A few disparagements have been called for. A few have not. And a few of the “have nots” remain, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against another human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.)

It’s true that criticism can be acutely discouraging. I have had my sense of accomplishment and my confidence behind the pulpit sapped more than once by the homiletic equivalent of “haters.” Ultimately, though, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

writing-sermon

Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like “the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained, liberal jackass with all the common sense of a monkey throwing its feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life yesterday was not criticism. Rather, it was some of the conversations I had with parishioners at the close of the service (no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon). I should say that most of the people who greeted me had only kind and encouraging things to say. However, there was a small minority of people who expressed their enjoyment of the sermon, but then lingered to tell me why. The reasons they gave flowed directly from a point-of-view I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

In a nutshell, yesterday’s sermon intimated that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Orbiting the life-altering words of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that the truth of the gospel abolishes all lines of contrast we humans so often draw around ourselves or our communities, be they cultural, political, racial, or socioeconomic. I insisted that if followers of Jesus want to live as authentic Christians rather than by the weak and maligned societal definition of the word “Christian,” then we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There can be no argument. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing this message and painstakingly practicing its delivery, it seems that a few people nevertheless heard the exact opposite message than I intended. When they praised the sermon, they did so based on a particular cultural, political, or social perspective, and seemed brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people whom they considered different from them was the very thing I had spoken against.

What bothered me most, though, was the presumptuousness. Each of these point-missers simply assumed I shared their point-of-view, when, in reality, all I could think was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Did you even listen to the part where I said ________?”

plugging-ears

Aah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m no fool. I understand it is unrealistic to expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation I give to it. And I also realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well. Changing minds takes time. As a matter of fact, that happened to be one of the main points of the sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly pulled backwards into our old ways of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

And yet, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

Furthermore, how exactly do I respond to such misinterpreted praise? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest preacher. Communicating the truth of God’s Word comes as one-shot opportunities right now. I’m not sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

Spiritual Life Week

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in the bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize that maybe there is no significant difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misinterpreted praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again), and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing, in the midst of post-sermon conversations, to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

Why Evangelicalism Isn’t to Blame

In the wake of the presidential election, a lot of insinuations regarding who is responsible for electing Donald Trump have been tossed around by news sources, pundits, dissatisfied voters, and many a social media post. As far as I have noticed, the culprits receiving perhaps the most blame in news articles, blogs, and social media have been a group of Americans categorized as “white evangelicals.”

If this political demographic had not drawn its fair share of ire leading up to the election, it is receiving a cascade of vitriol now. On Twitter, in particular, I have read the incensed statements of friends and strangers alike denigrating this group as, at best, duped patsies, and, at worst, homophobic-racist-bigots by association. Most troubling to me has been how these allegations are coming as much from Christians as they are non-Christians and atheists.

For instance:

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-15-00-am

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-16-31-am

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-15-56-am

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-16-45-am

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-17-31-am

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-10-19-31-amimg_5565

It did not take long for my anxiety over the election of Donald Trump to be overshadowed by full-on despair at the unmitigated acrimony leveled against evangelicalism. More than I am worried about a Trump White House – and, believe me, I am still pretty worried about a Trump White House – I have been much more hurt by this reactionary fallout toward evangelicalism.

Why?

Because, last Tuesday, I cast a vote in the presidential election. And it was not for Donald Trump. For over a year, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of him becoming Commander-in-Chief, not simply because of his past and present moral debasement, but also because, having researched many of the policies he touted throughout his campaign, I could see in them no ultimate viability. In other words, my vote was not cast for Trump not only because of the lack of personal temperance and honor I saw in him, but also because I chose to be an informed voter who, despite the perceived character of a candidate, nonetheless weighs the practicality of his or her platforms.

And yet, I am an evangelical, and a white evangelical at that. Thus, according to a large group of Americans, many of whom are infuriated at the result of this election, I am responsible for a President Donald J. Trump.

From the tweets of those Christians above, it now seems the only good and right course of action for me is to renounce evangelicalism as a corrupt and profane group. Otherwise, I must accept the indignation of my more enlightened brothers and sisters in the faith, and live under the guilt of my association. Even if, technically, I belong to the mere 19% of white evangelicals whose votes were not cast for Trump, I will certainly find myself haunted by my inability to persuade my demographic’s majority not to vote for a monster. That, or I must wallow in shame because I was not bold or courageous enough to speak against him and those who planned to vote for him.

According to the first Tweet featured above, from spiritual director and author Richard Rohr, whom I deeply respect, the evangelical movement has irrevocably defiled itself. Real Christians should extricate themselves from it as soon as possible, as if it doing so were truly the quick and simple adjustment some think it is. As if all it takes is for a Baptist to start attending a Catholic parish instead, or an Assemblies of God Republican to re-register as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and transfer his membership to an Episcopal church.

The truth is, every single Christian whose tweets are shown above have not slipped the bounds of evangelicalism as wholly as they may think. Many of them may disparage both the word and the social demographic it categorizes, but were you to press them for an honest answer on whether they have truly rejected the core principles of evangelicalism, you would find almost all of them remain squarely in the center of evangelicalism whether they like it to not.

Back in seminary, I had a friend who was outspoken about his rejection of the term “Christian.” To him, the word had been so drastically watered-down and misapplied that he had completely lost use of it (or, rather, he feared he would be associated with people with whom he did not share particular political or spiritual beliefs). He preferred, instead, the title “marked by X,” (X representing the Greek letter, chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”). “I am not a Christian,” he would say to us. “I am marked by X.”

Meaning he was a Christian; he just didn’t like the word.

My friend despised the many false connotations the word “Christian” had picked up over the years, like dirt and cockleburs that stick to a hiker’s clothing as he journeys along a wooded trail. In the minds of many people today, the word “evangelical” is in very nearly the same situation. The question, then, is whether or not Christians should “divorce” themselves from the word or persist in using it?

What would we gain if we rejected evangelicalism as a term? Clarity, maybe. Or at least a slightly clearer conscience.

What would we lose? Only a word describing the very heart of Christianity itself. Not to mention associating ourselves with a more than 500-year-old movement of individual and communal liberation.

The term “evangelicalism” comes from the Koine Greek word euangelion, a combination of eû (“good”) and ángelos (“messenger”). The word is found all over the New Testament, commonly translated “good news” or “gospel.” In the Church, it refers exclusively to “the way, the truth, and the life” provided us by Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to stake your entire existence on the belief that atonement for sin, salvation of the soul, and redemption of the body is found in Jesus alone. It means pursuing transformation by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines modeled for us by the Savior, including befriending rich and poor alike, showing endless compassion to the oppressed, responding to all conflict and confrontation with grace and non-violence, and accepting the expectation that your obedience to the Law must surpass that of even the religious (and political) elite. Throughout history, the evangelical movement has continually challenged the Church to find its identity in this Gospel, and to, in turn, proclaim and practice its principles unto all humankind.

Historically, the evangelical movement has boldly stood up to corrupt, idolatrous men of power who selfishly and opportunistically entangled the Church with the State, and who used its influence to oppress millions and withhold dignity and basic rights from the masses. It preached that forgiveness of sin comes from God alone, and that no mere human being may wield power over another’s soul. It insisted that all people have a divine right to read the Scriptures in their own common languages. It contended time and again that salvation is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Are we sure we want to separate ourselves from so extraordinary a movement, and the incredibly fitting word that describes it, simply because a handful of one country’s population (categorized “evangelicals” by secular news agencies and pollsters ) have made what many would say is a bad political choice out of the very real temptation for personal prosperity and security?

The simple fact is, even if a person is a committed Christian, they are not exempted from national concerns. The inclination to chase after individual liberties, sustainable employment, general safety at home and lasting security abroad is as common to us as it is to every other American. No matter what some Christians may claim, these desires do not always present themselves as black-and-white choices, even when we consider them in light of the Gospel. Certainly many of these “white evangelicals” are considered Christians simply because they live in heavily “Christianized” areas, not because the principles of the Gospel populate the top of their personal priority lists. In other words, the only way the term “evangelical” describes them is in its false, sociopolitical context.

And yet, I am also well aware that there are plenty of people within the 81% of white evangelical Trump voters who have indeed been cleansed of their sins – past, present, and future – and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I could not reconcile a Gospel-centered life with a vote for Trump. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree. And many others either were not considering the principles of the Gospel, or considered a vote for any official candidate to be a compromise of those values in one way or another. And so many “evangelicals” voted for a guy who promised (however dubious such promises may be) that he would fight to protect their morals and way of life. They are afraid the country is turning its back on many important things, including at least some of the principles of the Gospel they believe in, and so they cast their vote for the person who convinced them he would do the most to stem the tide, and perhaps even reverse it.

In other words, the true meaning of evangelicalism, nor the tradition of the movement, is not responsible for the result of the election. National sentiment is, and whether or not it is easy to describe this sentiment as “evangelical,” it is ahistorical and pseudo-theological to do so.

I realize that my argument is primarily semantic. It mostly revolves around the definition of a word. But no matter how many times I read the indignant statements of Christians who have turned their noses up at “evangelicals” and have joined with the masses in equating the movement with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and regressive conservatism, I cannot bring myself to disassociate with a concept that stands at the heart of our faith.

The evening after the election, I was teaching a class on the inspiration and translation of Scripture. I reminded the class that one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement was fully evident in the room: every person had their own copy of the Bible, not only in their own language, but even in a style of that language they most preferred to read! (I am willing to bet a large sum of money that every single person whose tweets are shown above take advantage of that same privilege.)

One man asked, “What’s the difference between a Christian and an ‘evangelical Christian’?”

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, there are many people who would have you believe the answer to this man’s question is, “A lot!”

But if Christians – be they Trump protestors or Trump supporters – will resist the temptation to treat politics as that which brings justification, security, and ultimate happiness, then maybe we can restore the original meaning of evangelicalism. Maybe we can even be united by it, even as we continue to differ on specific ethical or denominational issues. Maybe we can humbly admit that no one is so enlightened in the faith that they cannot be led astray by Gospel-less perspectives and opinions.

Maybe we can come to see the nonsensical redundancy of the term “evangelical Christian,” because we know a true Christian is evangelical, and a true evangelical is a Christian. Maybe we can look that man in the eye when he asks his question, and reply, “Actually, there is no difference at all.”

This article has been updated since its original publication in order to correct language, primarily in the 19th paragraph, that unintentionally insinuated those who voted for Donald Trump do not truly believe in, or understand, the Gospel. This, of course, is the opposite of the point I was endeavoring to make. My sincerest apologies to any who may have been offended in their initial reading.