Monday, March 16, 2009

Not so elementary, my dear Jesus

A study conducted in Britain in 2008 produced shocking results. Turns out Her Majesty’s mostly loyal subjects are struggling to differentiate fact from fiction.

The survey found that 47 percent of 3,000 people believed King Richard the Lionheart was a myth. We could attribute that result to the expanse of time separating the Royal Ricky from a contemporary English world he might equally have imagined as fantasy. However, the survey also found 23 percent believed Winston Churchill, the country’s famous World War II prime minister, was made up too—and he only died in 1965 and you can Google the proof of his existence!

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination, was in fact a real person! Evidently, my dear Watson, there is something elementary amiss.

One wonders how Jesus would rate these days in the land of Cranmer, Wesley and Wilberforce? And how would Jesus poll in your neighbourhood?

Let us consider a crucial question for mission that too many churches have failed to take seriously in a land where we once sang “God Save the Queen”: How do we communicate the fact of Jesus to the world as we now know it?

This is very much the question missionaries must always ask.

Once upon a time we could assume our culture accepted that the man of Galilee did inhabit the planet, even if given no allegiance as the Son of God. Jesus and King Richard were both real, it went mostly without saying. These days, the odds are stacked against that conclusion.

There are even vocal pockets within the Christian religion itself lining up against a real Jesus. Quests for the historical Jesus—often aimed at exposing a “Jesus myth”—produce endless books, receive plenty of airtime (which we’ll probably see again as Easter nears), and neutralize faith. While the roots of this debate go back two centuries, it has only recently become the primary (dare I say only?) expression of the Christ preached by the popular media. The church seems bent on decapitating herself yet again. How can we communicate Jesus to our befuddled world when Christians themselves seem muddled?

The tables have turned on fact and fiction. The past is play dough in postmodern hands and we’re mixing the colours like proverbial toddlers until nothing vibrant remains. When most people get their history from Hollywood, and welcome it as manipulated, romanticized entertainment, doesn’t that produce a culture where fact is viewed only real once it titillates and sells? Doesn’t such history produce a memory for fiction and amnesia of the facts? And doesn’t it just produce indifference, intellectual laziness and shrug-ability once the credits roll?

Let’s be honest, it is a radical move to base your living in the present and eternity upon he who was sent by love 2,000 years ago. What evidence that awakens faith is there that he really lived, died and, even more astounding, rose from the dead? And how do we communicate his reality to our age? The answer to those crucial questions must once again enliven the minds and hearts of believers, so we can give an answer for the hope the living Jesus has unquestionably planted within us, no matter what the surveys say.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Secular Journalism's Call
(to Christian Mission)

At the 160th convocation of Knox College at the University of Toronto in 2004 Brian Stewart, journalist and news anchor for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, made a shocking admission. Despite these days of viral anti-Christian rhetoric in the popular spheres he declared, “there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers … when mobilized for a common good.” Stewart also reflected on a recurring happenstance throughout his career when going to “break a story” only to find Christians already at work before the “news” got out. He said, “I have never been able to reach these Front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care, and being a faithful witness to truth, the primary light in the darkness and so often, the only light” (read Stewart’s speech here).

Maybe Stewart’s comments are just isolated journalistic ear candy. Perhaps he’s just being nice and giving a tolerant nod and wink to his hearers at a church college needing to be affirmed and back-scratched. Then again…

My mind was brought back to Stewart’s words when forwarded a recent article found in one of Britain’s news engines, “The Times.” The piece was by Matthew Parrish and bore this eye-catching title, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”. Parrish makes some shocking confessions of rejecting any notion of God but, having lived with and watching the life of Christian missionaries and churches in Africa he is a believer in, at the very least, God’s people. He writes, “Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do.

Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Some in the postmodern North American church (i.e. predominately white middle class late Boomer and Gen Xers – I see a resemblance of this in my mirror) have gotten into the nasty habit of self-mutilation. The voices booming from this occasionally self-absorbed organ of the body of Christ are often heard slamming the church as a failure. These in-house critiques mirror the oft secular or atheistic condemnations that have been prevalent for some time. They can even be heard apologizing for being Christian, blushing with embarrassment at the Gospel, the deity of Christ, and the truth of Scripture that tells of sinners, saints, salvation, and a different world.

I am beginning to wonder if this is not shaped more than we’d like to admit by our desire to be liked by the very culture we claim to have let down.

This is not to say that a good number of the critiques have not been warranted and necessary – the prophet is always a gift to the church for her maturity – but I wonder if, in our careless (almost gleeful?) disemboweling of Jesus’ body, we haven’t actually despised and judged previous generations who were seeking to be faithful Christian witnesses too. Have we missed the holy and uncommon quality that is the Church through the ages? Are we giving too much volume to the wrong voices? To hear Stewart and Parrish one could conclude we may just have our antennas tuned badly. Perhaps these journalists are seeing something we’re not?

May I propose a few responses to this journalistic call to embrace our mission as the followers of Jesus Christ?
• First, an unashamed culture of calling out young women and men to lay down their lives as servants of Christ and the world. Do Christian parents still pray that their sons or daughters might give themselves to full-time Christian vocation or are we most excited about them landing a “real job?” Do we pastors beckon the young to respond to the needs of this world for Jesus’ sake and not simply their own? The church has always plowed forward because of young souls radically caught up by Jesus’ vision for their community and the far off corners of the world. Where are they now? Are they just backpacking through Europe, working at ski resorts, and preparing to be consumed by the rat race? Who will pray and call them out into the adventure of abundant life?
• Second, an unashamed culture of making the most money possible using the gifts God gives us in order to send more and more people and do more and more good. Does this contradict my first point? I think not. The whole people of God are part of the great task of making disciples and leading the advance of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. That means the Christian lawyer, Christian business person, Christian doctor, Christian auto worker, Christian teacher, Christian janitor, or Christian farmer are partners with their Christian brother or sister who is applying their trade, gift, or skill in a way that pays little, demands much investment, and may even appear to bring little recognizable return. Doing bad costs money and I’m convinced doing good requires even more. The North American church has an unparalleled opportunity to share wealth, send people, train leaders, and meet human need in all its forms but what seems missing is a culture that shrewdly, wisely, and generously uses money for good. Can this change?
• Third, an unashamed culture of celebrating the difference Jesus makes. This begins with our own stories of transformation, but includes the radical wholeness Jesus brings to lives and communities where, as the atheist Parrish noted, “the rebirth is real.” When organizations like Mennonite Central Committee do things “in Jesus’ name” it is not a pithy marketing slogan, but a declaration of unique difference and witness. Jesus does change things! He radically alters reality for those who believe. We believe he is Lord of all, Lord of history, he does make this world better and we’ll never apologize for it. So, Church of the Living Lord, stop the self-absorbed navel-gazing and get on with living up to the high standards secular journalism has come to expect.