11 Marks of a Culture of Evangelism

71pxt9GWcYLLast week I managed to make it to the Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The focus this year was evangelism and being unashamed to share the gospel with our neighbors, our culture, and our world that desperately need to hear it.  The messages were a blessing and, in some ways, a heavy but encouraging burden to come home with. In order to make sure I didn’t lose what I learned and looking to gain some practical guidance on how to put it into practice, I dove right into J. Mack Stiles’ little 9 Marks book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.

Though small in size, it packs a solid gospel-punch, clearly and succinctly outlining a biblical theology and philosophy of evangelism that takes their proper roots in the whole church, not simply the efforts of a select few with the “gift.” Eschewing programs and gimmicks, Stiles says that evangelism is best done by the local church by cultivating a “culture of evangelism” among its members.

What’s a culture of evangelism you ask? Well, if evangelism is “teaching  people the gospel with an aim to persuade”, then a culture of evangelism is the kind of environment where this activity is the air the congregation breathes. To give us a picture of what that looks like, Stiles gives us 11 marks of a culture of evangelism (pp. 48-61):

1. A Culture Motivated by Love for Jesus and His Gospel - 

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)

This is a culture that doesn’t have to be pushed and prodded to share the gospel, but is drawn to share the news of Jesus because of its joy and delight in the message itself.

2. A Culture That is Confident in the Gospel - 

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16)

This is a culture that isn’t caught up in gimmicks or tricks meant spruce or sex up the gospel, but fully expects God to work and convert through this saving message.

3. A Culture That Understands the Danger of Entertainment - 

 “As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (Ezek. 30-32)

This is a culture that doesn’t confuse a funny speaker who can pack the seats with the true preaching of the Word that can save souls.

4. A Culture That Sees People Clearly - 

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. (2 Cor. 5:16a)

This is a culture that does not judge by outward appearances, but sees people truly through the light of the Gospel, as a broken Image-bearers who need to, and are capable of, hearing the gospel through the work of the Spirit. No one is beyond God’s reach.

5. A Culture That Pulls Together as One - 

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, (Phil 1:3-5)

This is a culture where everybody is on deck, pulling together from the greeter, the usher, to the person simply sitting in the pew, because they all realize they have a part to play in showing non-believers the gospel.

6. A Culture in Which People Teach One Another - 

…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15b)

Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 1:13)

This is a culture where experienced believers train newer believers to teach and share the gospel as a matter of course, passing on the knowledge from disciple to disciple that all might be prepared to participate in the church’s great task.

7. A Culture That Models Evangelism - 

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim. 2:2)

This is a culture where we don’t just teach the practices of evangelism cognitively, but actively model it to new believers, encouraging them along the way.

8. A Culture in Which People Who Are Sharing Their Faith Are Celebrated - 

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. (Phil. 2:19-22)

This is a culture where the evangelistic efforts of our brothers and sisters are encouraged and praised, so that others may be stirred up to similar boldness.

9. A Culture That Knows How to Affirm And Celebrate New Life -

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we hear of your faith in Christ…just as you learned it from Ephaphras our beloved fellow servant. (Col. 1:3-4, 7)

This is a culture that celebrates the work of Christ to bring new believers to life in himself, all the while pushing then to future faithfulness.

10. A Culture Doing Ministry That Feels Risky and Is Dangerous - 

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Phil. 1:12-13)

This is a culture where non-Christians and atheists are coming to Jesus because the church is taking risks–social, physical, and financial–to meet them where they’re at with the gospel of Jesus.

11. A Culture That Understands That the Church Is the Chosen and Best Method of Evangelism -

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor wit all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

This is a culture where the local church of brothers and sisters, imaging the gospel, is seen as Jesus’ best tool for making his name known and drawing others to himself.

Of course, Stiles goes into greater detail than I can here. Still, I hope this encourages and provokes you to examine your own church and see if you’re cultivating a culture of evangelism. If not, I’d commend you to pick up Stiles’ little book and begin to put it into practice immediately. Evangelism is no ancillary call, or extra task to be added to the regular working of the church, but central to its essence and well-being.

Soli Deo Gloria

See also this article by Stiles on “How to Create a Culture of Evangelism.”

‘Catching Sleep’ & Catching the Spirit (Or, a Note on the Phenomenology of The Spiritual Disciplines)

I’ve found a number of dangers when it comes to introducing my students to the spiritual disciplines, or the regular rhythms of the Christian life like prayer, Scripture-reading, and commitment to regular corporate worship. Aside from giving them the false impression that I’m good at them, the chief difficulty I find is explaining their importance while avoiding a sort of magical ex opere operato idea that encourages discouragement when nothing happens as you first attempt to adopt them in your own life.

sleepTo do this I’ve sort described them as ways of putting yourself in a position to communicate (commune) with God. In the same way that it’s silly to expect hear from your friend if you’ve got your phone turned off, it’s silly to expect to hear from God if you never actually open your Bible, try to pray, or go to church with regularity. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll “hear”, in the sense of having some subjective experience, from him each time.  Yet still, if its going to happen, it’s more likely to happen in one of these ways.

James K.A. Smith uses an analogy from philosopher Maurice Mearleu-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (PP), that I found quite illuminating on this point:

In the context of discussing this mode of intentionality between intellect and instinct, and a kind of action that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, Merleau-Ponty points to an intriguing analogy: sleep. I cannot “choose” to fall asleep.  The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythms that welcomes sleep. “I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there” (PP 189). I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed–but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. “I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep ‘comes’,’ settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be.” (PP 189-90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception–a kind of active welcome.

Then Smith asks the money question:

What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit” precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?

-Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, pg. 65

Much in the same way that we can’t force ourselves to fall asleep but can only adopt postures that welcome it, so in the same way, we cannot force God to attend to us, speak to us, make his presence known, and so forth. And yet, and yet, we can adopt practices and postures in prayer, Scripture, and corporate worship (alongside of the other classic disciplines such as silence, solitude, etc.) that indicate a welcome, an openness to the Spirit of God to work in our lives.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Quick Thought On Talking to Young (Or New) Calvinists

letters to a young calvinistFor a number of reasons, lately I’ve been thinking about how to talk to young Reformed types. Well, maybe more how to talk to young Reformed types online. For one thing, I wrote a little piece a few weeks ago on a related subject that attracted interesting attention from some older Reformed types, as well as the questions of eager younger Reformed types looking to learn. I also just read James K.A. Smith’s little book Letters to a Young Calvinist this weekend. And finally, over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a number of articles, both positive and negative, talking about the impact, the focus, and the pedigree of the movement. Being under 30, having come to the Reformed tradition only lately, and contributing to the Gospel Coalition fairly regularly, I suppose this puts me, if not in middle of, then at least in a neighborhood adjacent to, the mix.

In the middle of it all, one thing that kind of emerged for me is that some of us need to work on how we talk to each other within the fold. So, for instance, looking at conversations around the New Calvinism, some of the more caustic commentary around it seems to be coming not from Arminians, or Post-Evangelicals, or Wesleyans, but, well, the “Old Calvinism” that you might think would be a little more pleased about things.

Now, though I’m new to the whole thing, I’ll admit I kind of get it. As someone who came in more by way of Vanhoozer, Plantinga, Horton, Billings, and Calvin himself than some of the “New Calvinist” lights, I have to say was a bit nonplussed when I saw the notion of covenant, or a renewed appreciation for Calvin’s sacramental theology, weren’t included in a recent prominent list of theological features of the New Calvinism. Covenant made sense to me long before election did, and is certainly as central to classic Reformed theology as election is. Actually, you might say covenant is a more distinctly Reformed category than election is. What’s more, Calvin’s views of the sacraments were part of what led to me favoring the Reformed tradition over others in my earlier studies, and have certainly played a major role in shaping Reformed piety through the centuries.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that much of the criticism coming from, well, Old (or maybe just older) Calvinists has an air of “Get it right the first time, or just shut-up, son.” Now, maybe I’m just a biased young-un’, but I can’t imagine this is a very helpful approach to take. It’s not that a lot of the younger Reformed, or just Calvinist-leaning types, I know don’t want to learn from other, older, more seasoned voices in the neighborhood. I think they do–I know I certainly do. It’s just that I’ve found critical condescension, nor aggressive boundary-keeping, isn’t as effective of a motivator towards theological reconsideration as some might think.

Instead, I would commend Smith’s general approach as a model to Reformed types across the spectrum. Admittedly, Smith himself is known for being…curmudgeonly at times, and even has some shots at the New Calvinism in the book as well. Still, his overall tack is one of gracious invitation. (As a side-note, it’s actually just a great intro Reformed theology, especially of the Dutch variety, for some of us young Reformed types to read.) One of the strengths of the work is demonstrating that decrying deficiencies is less enticing than warmly commending the glories of what you have found to be a richer vein within the broader Christian tradition. Instead of quickly jumping down the throat of the novice (someone with a lot of enthusiasm and plenty to learn) for every early mistake, Smith takes a more fatherly, or even brotherly approach to it.

Kevin DeYoung’s early engagement with Jefferson Bethke’s “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video comes to mind as wonderful example of this. In it, you see DeYoung affirming the good he saw in the younger man’s efforts, correcting what he deemed to be errors, and in general inviting Bethke and his fans to a seeing things in a more biblical light. And to Bethke’s credit, and I think, the credit of DeYoung’s approach, he responded to the invitation with humility and grace.

So, all that to say, for older Reformed types talking to younger ones, or Old Calvinists talking to New Calvinists, or “Calvinists” you don’t really think count, honey tends to work better than vinegar.

Soli Deo Gloria

How Can A Blogger Love?

The Triune God simply is love, and it is out of the love that he is that he condescends to save sinners through the obedience of the Son. Unsurprisingly, then, he commands his children who have been adopted and are being transformed into the image of the Son, to love one another (John 15:12).  But what does that love look like?

Paul offers us a punchy little summary at the center of  his extended meditation on love in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.love one another

I got to thinking about this last weekend at our staff retreat during our hour of meditation, and my mind took a strange turn. As I began to reflect on what this would look like concretely in my own life, I started wondering what it would look like specifically in the area of blogging.

What would it look like to blog with love? To approach writing and the entire range of social media practices that accompany it, as an aspect of my Christian discipleship submitted to the loving lordship of Jesus? To undertake blogging in dependence on the Spirit, so that when people look at me, they see glimpses of the love of Jesus?

As an exercise, I wrote some brief, meandering reflections on each phrase in those verses. Since I think I’m not the only one out there who ought to be struggling with that question, I offer them up here:

Patient and Kind- I imagine blogging with patience might include the practice of waiting to write and post. There are times when quick responses are possible, but slowing down to make sure the words we write are true, both in content and form, takes the patience of love–both of people and the cause of truth itself. Given its pairing in the text with kindness, I suspect it likely includes patience with others on the internet. Patience when their writing is mediocre. Patience when their theology needs some tuning up, but they’re clearly on a trajectory. Patience to remember that you were once such as these (and to someone you still are.)

Arrogant or Rude – I don’t have the space to go into the radical change eliminating arrogance and rudeness in our blogging habits would have. It is a common-place that internet culture, even certain wings of Christian blogging culture, is infected with coarseness and a total lack of respect for dialogue partners. The Christian looking to imitate Jesus, to love the way Jesus would, must put aside all false judgments of superiority that lead to the condescension and contempt polluting our posts, tweets, and comments.

Lack of Envy or Boasting – Blogging with love would exclude both envy and boasting.  Initially, that means some of us might write a lot less, given how much is written or posted as a response to the success of others.  Also, we’d be more likely to rejoice when a friend’s article goes viral instead of mourning our own that lies ignored in its respective corner of digital space; when we truly love the way Christ does, the good of our sister is our own good. There’d probably be a lot less humble-bragging as well, and a lot more encouragement of our brothers and sisters who labor alongside of us. What’s more, we’d trumpet our own successes a bit less, and be little more circumspect about re-tweeting all of our positive mentions, in an attempt to build our reputation and platform.

Doesn’t Insist on its Own Way – This one wasn’t as obvious at first. On a surface-level reading it would probably mean listening to my editors with greater humility. While that’s something I probably should do, it seems this has more to do with cutting out the self-serving way we approach our blogging. Our blogging will be less about our self, our name, our platform, our glory, and our self-interest. We don’t have to entirely neglect our own interests, of course, but our object will be to lift up Christ’s name and to forwards the interests, good, and welfare of others in our community. We will write for the common good of others and the church, not merely our own.

Not Irritable and Doesn’t Keep a Record of Wrongs- When we cease to place ourselves at the center of our hearts in our blogging, irritability and resentment will hopefully fade away as well. When I am at the center of my affections, every post I disagree with seems to have been written specifically to annoy me and cross my will. Because of my pride, I find myself writing or commenting out of irritation with a post, or an author, instead of a heart of love. Beyond that, much of the pointless internet drama happens because So & so is still grieved over the critical review Such & such gave his book, would settle down. Or that one time there was the week-long shenanigans over the tweet you swear everyone misinterpreted? Yeah, we’d finally let go of animosities we built up in that battle too.

Does not Rejoice in Wrongdoing, but Rejoices at the Truth - This one’s big. So often our rejoicing comes from the wrong reasons. We rejoice when we see an opponent put in their place, or a favored position trumpeted loudly. And, honestly, that’s not always bad–sometimes these positions ought to be trumpeted and these persons do need to be set in their places. But all too often, our concern isn’t about the truth being championed, but about our own vindication over against those with whom we disagree. Because of that, we don’t really mind that an argument was straw-manned, or someone was mildly slandered–but we should. Blogging that rejoices at the truth is one that takes delight in the truth being known, even when that means being proved wrong.

Bears all Things, Hopes all Things, Endures all Things – Finally, blogging with love means bearing, hoping, and enduring all things. It means bearing insults and misunderstandings, at times–not passively submitting, but steadfastly refusing to return evil for evil in the Spirit of our Savior. It means hoping the best of people, reading charitably, and receiving honest criticisms in the best possible light. Or, when the best possible light is still darkness, trusting that this same Spirit is at work in their heart and mind. It means enduring through the empty days, the lonely days, the quiet times when no one seems to read or care, except for your heavenly Father above, whose eye is ever watchful on the works of his children.

Of course there’s more to life than blogging, and more to love than the paltry reflections I’ve offered up here. Still, for those of us who desire our words to be more than a noisy cymbals or clanging gongs, they’re probably a decent place to start.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Somersaulting for Jesus

somersaultThe metaphor of “walking” features prominently in the Bible as a way of describing our life with God. It’s also a key theme in Tim Keller’s new book.  Keller gives a great little description of what it means to “walk with God” towards the middle of the book:

Walking is something nondramatic, rhythmic–it consists of steady, repeated actions you can keep up in a sustained way for a long time. God did not tell Abraham in Genesis 17:1 to “somersault before me” or even “run before me” because no one can keep such behavior up day in and day out. There are many people who think of spiritual growth as something like high diving. They say, “I am going to give my life to the Lord! I am going to change all these terrible habits and I am really going to transform! Give me another six months, and I am going to be a new man or new woman!” That is not what a walk is. A walk is day in and day out praying; day in and day out Bible and Psalms reading; day in and day out obeying, talking to Christian friends, and going to corporate worship, committing yourself to and fully participating in the life of a church. It is rhythmic, on and on and on. To walk with God is a metaphor that symbolizes slow and steady progress.

-Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, pg. 236

So what is walking with God? The slow rhythms of a live built around him. It’s not the flashy, quick-result, 7-day diet fads we’re all about, but the regular, steady patterns of wisdom that develop health. It’s not just the romantic weekend getaway, but the daily chats, kisses, date nights, and time spent in the ordinary that keeps marriages strong. “Walking”, in this sense, consists of the lovely, but ordinary disciplines of grace.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Myth of ‘Magic Neutral Time’ (TGC)

BackSoon“The Myth of Magic Neutral Time” is the sort of goofy phrase you come up with in college ministry to make basic concepts of spiritual life stick for your students. Sometimes you can’t just come out and say stuff–it’s like you have to trick the truth into them.

In any case, this particular neologism struck me in a conversation with my friend Katie. We were discussing the frustrating phenomena of future college freshmen who plan on ‘taking a break’ from their faith to just go off and ‘have a little fun for a while.’ Now, this is idiotic for several reasons. But to see why, let’s first explain the myth of Neutral Time.

The Myth of Neutral Time - I always tell my students that they need to be aware of the myths, the stories, that they tell themselves about reality because the story you think you’re in determines the character you become. Neutral time is a particularly popular story. It goes something like this:

“I’ve been a good kid in high school. I’ve done my homework, been to Bible study, and didn’t screw around too much or anything. Now though, now I really want to go out and enjoy myself a bit. The ‘college experience’ is calling and I can’t be expected to go to college and not let loose a little bit. I mean, I really love Jesus and my faith will always be a big part of my life, but you know, I’ll just go off for a bit, maybe a semester or two, have my fun, and then be back around. You’ll see.”

There are number of assumptions underlying this story, but the main one seems to be that faith is this unchanging, timeless, perennial thing. Your walk with Jesus is something you can just leave alone for a while, and then, once you’ve done your own thing for a bit, you can just pick up again. No big deal. Calling ‘neutral time’ is like calling time-out so you can go the restroom or take a break in the middle of the game—when you come back the score, time, and possession is just like where you left of last.

You can read about the foolishness of this approach by clicking on The Gospel Coalition.

The Spiritual Value of Mortgage Banking

houseIn some churches, guys are often fed the lie that unless they’re a pastor, or doing some ‘secular’ work that can be quickly linked to some moral or spiritual value, it’s 2nd-class work. Or if you’re in a church where the whole ‘man of adventure’ thing is being pushed, unless you’re out chopping down wood, or fighting some battle, it’s ‘just a job’ that you have to suck it up and work it for a paycheck. Mike Erre addresses this myth in his book Why Guys Need God: The Spiritual Side of Money, Sex, and Relationships, by talking about his buddy who’s an average, un-sexy job in the mortgage industry:

How should my friend see his job? As simply a means of paying the bills? Or as something much more?

The first thing we might say to this friend is that he must see his job within the big, epic, story we talked about…[creation, fall, redemption]. It is part of being human and being a man. And he must find a way to name the animals in his current occupation in order for him to see its place within the larger story. This is absolutely critical if he is to discover God’s purposes for him in his job. How does he do this?

We might begin by saying that human beings need shelter. That is not optional. Owning a house, then, is a good thing. Helping people to live in a way that brings comfort and security is an important thing. Not only that, but because of the legal and financial gymnastics involved in buying a home, my friend is offering a valuable service to his clients by guiding them through the bewildering maze of numbers, points, and payments.

This man also does his work with honesty and integrity. He genuinely seems to put his clients first and tries to bring Jesus glory by speaking kindly and considerately to all around him. He truly does his work “as unto the Lord.” Is this not worship? Is this any less spiritual than pastoral work or missionary work? Of course not. Many have come to faith because of this man’s life and work. He demonstrates what Jesus is like through his kindness and honesty. And he is generous with his money. He works to remedy injustice around him, and he supports several ministries as well as his local church. (pg. 68)

This is an ordinary man following God’s call. Through the way he carries out his daily work as a mortgage broker he is living as an Image-bearer and a disciple of Jesus, on mission in the world.

Honestly, whatever you’re doing (excluding the obviously immoral), you can do as part of your call as an Image-bearer and a disciple of Jesus. Do not be fooled into thinking that the only ‘spiritual’ things you do are those that happen in the local body. I love the local body, and I think people need to serve in it, but don’t for a minute think that the other 40-50 hours a week you spend at your job isn’t also an opportunity to love your neighbor and glorify God in what you do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thistles and Thorns in Ministry (Leadership Journal)

thorns

Thistles and thorns—that’s what the earth gives up to Adam this side of Eden. Adam’s work is no longer a pure good undertaken in delighted obedience to his Creator, but a toilsome chore. The sweat of his brow mingles with the dirt as he engages in the mighty contest, hand to the plow, wrestling life from sandy soil. Life after the Fall is hard and nothing comes easy. Reflecting on life under the sun, without the hope of redemption, Qohelet’s question in Ecclesiastes rings true today, “Who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

Basically, if you’re breathing, you’re frustrated.

Thorny questions

For some reason, I forget this when it comes to my ministry.

Groggy with exhaustion and the mildest tinge of depression, I roll out of bed after a night of ministry with my students. I wander over to the coffee machine for the fix that will get me through my devotions. After a passage from John and a little commentary by Calvin, I stumble into my prayers. I thank God for the good things he’s given me; my adoption, my wife, and my call to ministry. Still, eventually the questions come:

God, what am I doing wrong? What needs to change? Why is it so hard? Where are the people? I did the thing the guy in the book said. I did the stuff the guy on the blog said. Why are the ones I have not growing up? I thought you wanted this to work?

You can go read the rest my reflections over at Leadership Journal.

Modern/Postmodern Ideological Moralism

protest“My life has meaning because of the Cause. You oppose the Cause. You must submit or be destroyed. –modern/postmodern ideological moralism”

I posted that status after reading a little section towards the end of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (yes, after two months I finally finished it) on Nietzsche’s analysis about the modern demand of benevolence. Nietzsche has one of the most insightful examinations of the way that the modern idea that humanity must maintain a goodwill towards all, (“a secularized agape“) especially apart from the context of grace, can provoke feelings either of unworthiness or self-satisfaction in the human soul. Basically, the options are despair, or smug self-satisfaction depending on how well you think you measure up to the standard.

Taylor goes on to analyze one further implication that Nietzsche left unexplored:

The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure is now identified with other people or group. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoevsky explored to unparalleled depths.

In our day as in his, many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable, even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bear the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 516-517

Taylor penned these words, maybe twenty, twenty-five years ago, but as I read this I couldn’t help but think of my own generation and the one coming up right behind us. It’s pretty common to either demonize or idolize our moral sense; we’re either relativists, or morally superior activists depending on who’s telling the story. I’d say there’s quite a bit of both.  One ‘ist’ I’d definitely add to the list is ‘moralists.’

Pick a hot subject (gay marriage, the environment, misogyny, healthcare, etc.) and I’ll scroll through my facebook feed to find someone updating vociferously on the subject, trumpeting their position and damning the opposition in bold, apocalyptic terms. It’s not just that people are wrong, confused, and possibly in need of correction, they’re downright wicked. Of course, this phenomena spans generations, but as younger generations increasingly identify as ‘nones’ (no religious affiliation), it’s not that they have no moral or spiritual bearings, but that they find them elsewhere.

Taking that sense from the reigning Causes linked to the demands of benevolence (“love”, “justice”, “equality”) of the day, is the increasingly popular option, more  than any explicit religious system. This is why our political arguments aren’t just about the issues, they’re about a much-deeper justification of the Self. If I am defined by my position on health-care and corresponding self-image as a moral, caring (or pragmatic and free) person, then when I argue with you about it, I’m defending my raison-d’etre. You don’t simply have a different opinion on a subject, you threaten my very being.

What’s more, if supporting this Cause is what makes me righteous and pure, your opposition demonstrates your impurity and wickedness, possibly even your inhumanity. You must be opposed, hopefully only through argument, but if you persist in your perversity, other, stronger means of enforcement may need to be used. This is modern/postmodern ideological moralism.

None of this is new, of course. Postmodern thinkers have been describing the way we construct oppositional identities like this for years, but what’s been interesting to see is this sort of logic at work in the lives of my peers and contemporaries in today’s debates. Of course, posting aggressive memes on Facebook isn’t exactly coercion, or fanatic violence yet, but the language used, and, at times, the political measures advocated by partisans verges on it.

Christians reading this might be tempted to take this as a simple condemnation of secularists, saying, “See, look what happens when you don’t have God.” I mean, in a sense, that’s what’s going on. But that doesn’t let religious believers off the hook too quickly. As a friend of mine pointed it, this simply the logic of Holy War, sublimated and secularized. All it does is point out one more way that the whole dichotomy of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ breaks down at the functional level. Get rid of God, and something else fills in the existential vacuum. In other words, at this point, they’re only doing what religious people have done with their gods for years, including Christians.

Actually, this ought to put believers, especially Christians, on notice to examine where we’re getting our sense of self, our purity, our wholeness. Is it from the righteousness of our own moral positions, or from the righteousness we have in Christ by grace, apart from our own moral achievements? If the former, we’re in the same boat. If the latter, that sets us in a position to be able to disagree, even forcefully with others, without feeling our entire sense of self threatened. Even if others oppose us, not only on moral issues, but set themselves in vocal opposition to Christianity itself, how can we look on them as totally other than ourselves? For is this not what we ourselves were apart from God’s condescending grace? Enemies of God in need of redemption (Rom. 5:6-11)? And are we not secure, no matter what accusation or charge brought against us (Rom. 8:30-39)?

In other words, there’s a visible, practical difference we observe in the lives of those who trust in the Christian Gospel as opposed to merely subscribing to its morals. In fact, unless you believe the former, you won’t be able to practice the core of the latter, at the center of which stands the command to love our enemies the Christ has loved us. Moralism, secular or ‘religious’ can only inspire demonization of the enemy. Only the Gospel of grace can lead us to true goodwill towards all.

Soli Deo Gloria

False Freedom and the Slavery of Autonomy (The Gospel Coalition)

@JeffersonBethke You are the generation most afraid of real community because it inevitably limits freedom and choice. Get over your fear.

— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) July 29, 2013

teenager-texting-kamshotflickr-300x199I hate going to restaurants with large menus. As dish after dish stares up at me, with tempting descriptions following one upon the other, the thought of choosing only one paralyzes me. I usually narrow it down to one of two options, and then, when the server finally arrives, I glance down and impulsively order something entirely different that just caught my eye. Or, if it’s a restaurant I’m familiar with, I just end up playing it safe with my regular meal. I dread committing myself to a food choice, making the wrong one, and losing out on all the other good meals that I might have had that night.

My restaurant anxieties are, I think, a small, admittedly ridiculous, microcosm of the problem with choice-making in our generation (millennials) in general. It’s not that we make bad choices (although, we do), it’s that we are bad at choosing. Period. Why? We have a screwy view of the relationship between freedom of choice and happiness. Americans value freedom and choice in general, but being the iPod generation who grew up with thousands of choices at our fingertips the problem’s metastasized a bit (which, incidentally, is why it takes me 4 minutes to choose an album to listen to on a 5 minute drive).

Now, taking too long to choose a song is annoying, but not really that big a deal. The problem comes with the larger issues in life, especially relationships. Being a millennial myself and working with them every week, I see this all the time. An inability to choose inevitably leads to an inability to have the real community we were created for.

You can read the of my analysis of  our cultural fear of community and what true freedom looks like over at The Gospel Coalition