Tag Archives: evangelism

Some Standard Wisdom on Invisible Gas

This weeks thought from the Christian Standard was borrowed from the New York Evangelist and, like last week, illustrates just how little things have changed, if not in the way Christianity is actually treated by society than at least how Christian perceive their relationship to the broader culture.

Invisible Christianity seems to be a favorite doctrine with many people. The doctrine, it would appear, is this: that you may be saved and nobody know of it. You may get to heaven nicely without any “ado”—so quietly, in short, that nobody will suspect where you are going. Such is a fair statement of the doctrine so many people like. By all means get to heaven, they say, but don’t alarm anybody about it. Keep it all to yourself—the quieter you go to heaven the better. This is the doctrine of invisible Christianity.

I wonder what the world would think if some man told them he had invented invisible gas? Why, they would say the man’s mad—the very thing gas is for is to give light; it must be visible. And, strange to tell, this is just what God says of the Christians—that is, of the soul that’s saved. “Ye are the light of the world,” He says. What could be plainer? But is the light to be seen? Hear what God says, “A City that is set on a hill can not be hid” (Matt. V. 14). “Can not be hid.” That’s what God says about the man or woman that’s saved. Invisible Christianity is not in the Bible. Quite the opposite. If you are saved, your light will be easily seen by the world as a city built on a hill.

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Some Standard Wisdom for Converting Blacks

Less than a month into this series, I already feel the need to sound the reminder that in quoting some of these articles, my intent is not to endorse or make light of or even to stand in judgment of some of the darker sides of late nineteenth century thought. This warrants particular restatement with the following article by J. W. Crenshaw. It would be easy to read the below and assume either that my intent is racist or callous or anarchonistically judgmental. It is none of these. Instead, the following article sounds, among other things, a pair of themes that I have tried to reiterate here in various ways. The first is the need to complicate the narrative of the Civil War that we all learned in school: the North invaded the South to free the slaves and give blacks their rights. Historians have almost entirely abandoned this carefully constructed fiction, but the public still casts the Civil War in these terms, failing to see the stark racism and paternalism that dominated in the North no less than the South. The other is the sinister overtones that education often takes on in the hands of progressives. It’s a message that has ongoing merit.

Even if neither of these themes were present, however, the following is important to read both for those in the Stone-Campbell Movement because it is part of our collective history the consequences of which we continue to live with in the de facto racial segregation of our churches and for Americans in general who need to be forced to read chapters of our history which serve neither to glorify US nationalism or to provide the starting point in a narrative of national redemption. What follows in “Difficulties in Christianizing the Colored Race” is precisely the shades of grey that we all need to grapple with in the formation of our historical consciousness.

As to what the future of the colored race of America is to be, socially, politically or religiously, we do not believe any one can conjecture with any degree of accuracy. Naturally superstitious and with their race prejudices to contend with, we approach them more from a sense of Christian duty than from any hope of achieving grand results. To succeed in our mission work among them we must agree upon some decided policy. If properly approached, we do not believe that there is a better missionary field in the world.

Experience has proven that we can not reach them through the preaching of white men. The colored leaders now, excepting a few, are ignorant and superstitious. In what direction, then, does hope lie? Certainly not in this shouting generation. The hope and the only hope, speaking from experience, is in the children. And when we educate a few colored men, as we have been doing for this work, we must not measure their success by converts made. The children, who are just learning to read, are the ones most benefited. Those whom we send out must be impressed with the importance of continuing to sound into the ears of the auditors that Christianity is something more than shouting the clothes off in the first part of the night, and serving Satan the balance of the night. We need to select young men of good character to educate them for this work. There are brethren among us who have the means to help build such a school as we need for this purpose. With the plain gospel plea that we have, if loving liberal hearts, could be interested in this work, in the next generation many of the difficulties that now so hinder our progress could be surmounted, and thousands of this unfortunate race could be Christianized.

Brethren, this is a question worthy of the attention of every Christian.

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Here’s an Idea, Don’t Vote: Politics and Christian PR

There’s an election tomorrow. Have you heard? This will come as a shock to no one who has ever visited this site, but I will not be voting this year. I also didn’t vote four years ago. Or four years before that. Or…you get the drift. As a committed old, tried and true Christian anarchist, I have watched the campaign season very closely, the way I might watch a really interesting football game, or a Spike “world’s most unbelievable car crashes” marathon. Politics–infinitely more than contact sports and traffic accidents–has proves itself again and again to be irredeemably violent. Beyond that basically standard pacifist complaint, however, I would like to offer three reasons why I, as a Christian, am not voting and, wait for it, why I encourage other Christians not to vote either. If you’re not a Christian, you should vote; it’d be a shame if you didn’t. (Not nearly as big a shame as it is that you’re not a Christian, of course.) In any case…

The following argument will strike many as trivial, which is precisely why I have sandwiched it between what I believe are two more essential points. Nevertheless, having disposed of the notion that Christians are obligated to construct a moral society through legislation, it is important to look at the consequences of continuing to attempt to achieve such political ends. Admittedly there is a real sense in which Scripture acknowledges that that to be a Christian means to open yourself up to ridicule. Paul even accept that the world will always look down on the wisdom of God, ironically labeling it folly. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between opening ourselves up to be mocked and causing God to be mocked.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Jesus and Paul agree here on what ought to be a self-evident truth: people are watching Christians and what they see determines what they believe. Christians individually probably are not to keen on the notion that their lives are under a microscope, and why should they be? God is more than fully aware that we all still sin. Christ is the image of the perfect human, not me. Nevertheless, the corporate behavior of Christianity speaks volumes to the world, particularly given how loudly we shout about certain issues. Unfortunately, what we’re shouting about isn’t meekness, poverty, righteousness, purity, peace, and mercy as in the Beatitudes–which precede the first quote–nor are is the public face of Christianity brotherly love, quiet living, and industriousness as in the passage from 1 Thessalonians. What are the loudest messages about God instead?

And if that seems like an extreme example to you, there are certainly others. Look at the now infamous statements of Richard Mourdock: “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Frankly, I don’t find that sentiment all that appalling, not because I agree with it but because I know it represents a large and historic branch of Christian theology. The popular media and the vocal critics of Christianity are less philosophical about it. It is sentiments like these given voice only because they are attached to political power: constitutionally challenged and protected protests or theology spilling into public policy. Meanwhile, I could walk into work tomorrow morning and proudly declare that I believe therapeutic abortion (i.e. abortion to save the life of the mother) is wrong–and I do believe that–and no one would bat an eye. They know that I have no interest in launching Christian ethics into the public sphere and so derision is replaced with apathy.

Meanwhile, regardless of what I believe about abortion–which is made largely irrelevant by my theoretical lack of a uterus–I would hope that when people describe me it is in terms more personal and therefore more sympathetic than the way most people choose to describe Mourdock or the Westboro Baptists. Those groups exist only as their public faces, only insofar as their behavior has consequences on a political scale. Yet when people interacted with Jesus, he specifically rejected any reduction of himself into a political persona. He was a healer of the sick, a feeder of the hungry, and a forgiver of sinners–not to mention a man of indisputably impeccable character himself. Richard Mourdock may very well donate to food drives. He may volunteer at hospitals. He may forgive any and everyone, even rape victims who get abortions. It’s irrelevant. He will always be that Christian who thinks God is a rapist and wants to write laws on the basis of that belief.

It is time for Christians to take a long, hard look at just how extensively our involvement in democratic politics has opened us and, much more importantly, God to ceaseless ridicule. By allowing the public presence of the Christian faith to be reduced to its political manifestation–either is moralistic bigotry or socialistic coerced charity–we have transformed God the Father, Son, and Spirit from persons to partisans. There is no rehabilitating Christianity’s political image. It is not possible to offer to the world a kinder, gentler, truer Christianity that will make the faith politically palatable. God makes radical ethical demands of His followers, and libertines are never going to be okay with that. God makes radical social justice demands of his followers, and aristocrats are never going to be okay with that. As long as the faith is married to political agendas, it will never be anything more than a caricature of the truth which Jesus came to impart, a revolutionary practical, ethical truth. In the meantime, more people are likely to disassociate with Christianity in favor of some vague notion of “spirituality” because to be in church means to be Richard Mourdock, et. al.

[Reason 1; Reason 3]
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Africa and Our Philosophy of Missions

Several weeks ago, I attended a Bible study, the speaker at which had just returned from a mission trip. The study took the form of a mission report, and the woman who led the study had a number of inspiring anecdotes to share as well as some gut-wrenching ones about the rural conditions there (which to my frustration, she seemed more curious about than moved by). Throughout the entire presentation, however, I couldn’t help but wonder why she went at all. Her explanation, predictably, focused on issues like her calling and the personal faith journey it represented for her, as well as obligatory references to winning souls for the Lord.

Here’s the problem. Zambia is a Christian nation. Not in the way America is a Christian nation but actually, constitutionally Christian. More than 85% of Zambians self-identify as Christians, a number significantly higher than the number of Americans who so self-identify. And while Zambia is notable, it is by no means exceptional among African nations. There are more Christians in Africa than there are Americans. Note, that was “Americans” not “American Christians.” More critically, the African church is now being evangelized more successfully and more rapidly by Africans and increasingly Africans are being brought in under denominational headings that are non-existent and often unknown in the West.

In other words, the missionaries claim that while the people of Zambia had been “evangelized” they still hadn’t been “discipled,” came across more like American (or perhaps Baptist) chauvinism than evangelistic concern. African Christianity is thriving and growing in ways that Western Christianity have long sensed even dared to dream of. Long gone are the days of sixteenth century Ethiopian scholar Tasfa Seyvon, quoted by David Northrup as writing:

I am an Ethiopian pilgrim…from the land of the infidels to the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Rome I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

I grew up, as so many of us did, with the missionary work to Africa taking center stage, and perhaps then there was a time for it. I don’t know that I ever attended a church in my childhood that wasn’t sponsoring a missionary to Africa. In truth, though, what the African church needs from Western Christianity is not another round of affluent white people to tell them the Gospel. They have the Gospel and they are taking the commission to preach it to all nations very seriously. Instead of evangelistic missions, they desperately need benevolence missions. Missions bringing doctors, food, the means to access clean water, plans for developing local infrastructure, and modern agricultural techniques.

In other words, don’t tell me about going to a country where more than two thirds of the people live in poverty and expect me to be excited that you taught the local preachers to preach more mature sermons. Don’t show me pictures of a village of people who lack the hygienic facilities and the understanding of disease to wash themselves regularly and expect me to be in awe that you saw a man healed miraculously of his sores. I don’t want to hear the song that the children taught you in their native tongue, not those illiterate, naked children who were as hungry when you left as when you arrived. Callous as it may sound, and perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, the next missionary to Africa looking for support or accolade from me better have iodine tablets in one hand, Flintstones vitamins in the other, and these words on his lips: I am an American pilgrim from the land of the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Africa, I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

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A Change of Perspective

Africa's Discovery of EuropeIt has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been excited about reading a history text outside my field of academic specialty, but a brief description of David Northrup‘s Africa’s Discovery of Europe (2nd ed) was more than enough to arouse my interest. In this concise but engaging study, Northrup attempts to dissect the Afro-European encounter of the pre-colonial era from the perspective of the Africans. The approach doesn’t seem all that novel on its face, until you really begin to consider just how euro-centric our perceptions of the “discovery” of Africa are. It doesn’t take long before Northrup begins to turn standard wisdom on its head, forcing the reader to reconsider what idiosyncratic ideologies, politics, and historiographies have motivated the retelling of this history up to this point. The final result is a more fully rounded, realistic picture of Afro-European relations, one that is not dominated by the historiography of racial guilt but which privileges the historical recordings of actual Africans to European assumptions about what Africans must have been doing, feeling, and thinking.

The only real drawback in his exciting new approach is that Northrup has a frustrating habit of hedging his bets, an unfortunate necessity in an academic climate where the fear of political intrusion with its standard accusation of racism has taken on far too much weight. It is so obvious that it ought not need restating that the experience of Africans in the Americas was dominated for centuries by overwhelming racial prejudices. This fact notwithstanding, we ought to have the intellectual fortitude to let the evidence decide what the experience of Africans in Europe was or, for that matter, that of Africans in Africa encountering Europeans. The regular reminders by Northrup that his facts may be tainted, biased, skewed, or corrupted eventually begin to come across as defensive and indecisive, even if he follows these caveats with assurances that he is confident in his rendering. It is not for the historian to remind us that historical records are not scientific data which can be analyzed like so many particles under a microscope.

Nevertheless, Northrup’s text is deeply challenging and, because of this, immensely satisfying. He takes direct aim at the popular notion of the African encounter as one between the exploitative light-skinned pillagers and the poor, dark, benighted villagers. He points out that war, plundering, and the slave trade all antedated the Africans first encounters with the European. Taking specific aim at the politicized notion of a European-induced cycle of selling slaves to get guns to capture more slaves, Northrup even cites explicit statements from African rulers that capturing slaves is a centuries old part of African culture (as it was in European culture) and that he never goes to war simply to take slaves. The guns, Northrup points out, that so fascinated the Africans, actually did very little to give any one combatant a decisive advantage in war, making such a cycle unlikely if not impossible. Northrup also debunks the notion that European trade somehow destroyed native craftsmanship. He combats blanket assumptions of racism, showing cases where Africans were encouraged to marry white Christian woman rather than black pagan ones and numerous cases in which Africans in Europe translated a lionizing of their skin color into educational, political, and social opportunities.

What remains then is a less stylized and more human picture of the Afro-European encounter. Contrary to prevailing notions, Africans and Europeans entered into mutually beneficial economic, social, and political relationships which made many on both sides extremely wealthy at the expense of the lower classes (an economic circumstance which has always dominated history). Africans and Europeans mingled and even intermarried at almost every level of society with restrictions of class and religion being infinitely more important than those of race. Of the many successful and long-lasting conversions to Christianity, those which were in any sense forced were the exception rather than the rule, and most accounts by actual Africans represent the choice of Christianity as a conviction of faith that they embraced rather than a decision of expediency. (Interestingly, Northrup points out as a historian what many theologians and ministers have been realizing for some time now, that the metaphysical world of tribal Africa is on many of its most important levels, compatible with Christianity.) Local artisans continued to create local crafts, local peoples continued to embrace local customs, and even “westernized” Africans remained acutely aware of their cultural heritage and those features of it which were non-negotiable just to suit their fascination with the technological and cultural advances of the West.

This is, of course, not to say that everything was rainbows and roses. Africans made war on Africans; Africans made war on Europeans; Europeans made war on Africans. Slaves were taken by Africans to be kept, to be sold to other Africans, or to be sold to Europeans (who would in turn typically resell them). Slaves ships, while probably not most accurately represented in the polemical accounts of the abolitionists, did have a one in eight mortality rate, with the cause of death ranging from disease, dehydration, capital punishment, and, all too often, suicide. However muted the inter-cultural animosity among Europeans and Africans was, it is an inescapable fact that many Africans ended up in the Americas where conditions were brutal and racism rampant, and, before long, European colonialism would irrevocably change the dynamic between the cultures.

Nevertheless, what Northrup offers is an account that steps away from using history in the ongoing blame-game and instead engages the accounts on their own terms. He admits that his credulity in reading some of the accounts will strike some historians as naive, but–and I cannot stress my agreement with him here too strongly–the alternative method of assuming a certain narrative and then discounting accounts which deviate from it is infinitely more suspect. What Northrup does instead is challenge the reader to take Africans at their word rather than assuming to speak for them, which seems to me to be a more pernicious form of racism anyway. The final product then is not only a great work of history covering a specific subject in a specific time period but also a convicting challenge to be wary of our inevitable and natural inclination to assume that history exists only in our default perspective of it.

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"Trinket Evangelism"

I thought this was a particularly trenchant critique of the way Christians do evangelism in America. The author obviously slants his criticism toward the Orthodox Church (of which he is a part), but I think his criticisms hold just as true (if not moreso) for evangelical Christianity which thrives on “marketing” the Gospel as if fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on your salvation:

Conversely, if we are not to self-ghettoize, then we also ought not to be overly aggressive in adopting any and all “missionary” methods. Really, billboards? Really? “This blood’s for you” with a picture of a chalice? Come on. We’re not going to win that one people. Budweiser will always be more popular. Is the Gospel a less consumed competitor of Bud? Or of Coca-cola? The same holds with “trinket evangelism,” in which we print icons on anything with a surface size of at least two square inches. It’s all just about “the Great Commission”? Yes, but only if you realize that Great Commission has a liturgical context. As soon as you do that, I think you’ll pause before marketing Orthodoxy as mere commodity. It is one thing to admit many in America use consumerist language to speak of their adherence to Orthodoxy (whether “cradle” or “convert”). It is quite another to promote that model as the model and to embrace it with all the vigor of a small evangelical parish being outgunned by the local Mega-church that stays strong despite its revolving door of membership.

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Annihilationism is one of the few doctrines that, were it true, I would immediately become an atheist (at least functionally) by default. That may seem like something of an extreme evaluation of a teaching, particularly one that deals with so speculative an issue as the eternal fate of the unrighteous following judgment. The ethical implications of annihilationism, however, are so drastic that I cannot imagine any other response.

According to annihilationists, the unrighteous are destroyed following judgment. They simply cease to exist. They are not eternally tormented in hell nor do they undergo purgative or pedagogical ordeals until they freely accept salvation. They simply cease to be. The position strikes a compromise between those who cannot violate God’s justice by embracing universalism and those who cannot violate God’s love by affirming an eternal, punitive hell. That is certainly a noble goal and, as an eschatological vision, it has tremendous appeal (even to me). Yet, as with all eschatological teaching, it has value only in so far as it gives meaning and evokes response in the present.

What then is the meaning conveyed on the present by annihilationism? What response should it evoke from contemporary believers? Annihiliationism declares unequivocally that the beliefs of the prevailing secular humanism are in fact quite correct with regard to the post-mortem fate of humanity and that we should therefore embrace the concomitant ethical nihilism it espouses. As striking as that conclusion may seem, it is quite easily defensible. One need only ask your standard atheist, “What happens to you after you die?” The answer, “Nothing.” As far as the typical secular atheist is concerned, death represents the end of personal existence. Now, admittedly, the annihilationist adds an intermediate step towards this cessation of existence. They include a resurrection and judgment prior to unconscious oblivion, but the ultimate result is the same.

Proceed a step further and realize that the absence of life after death is the metaphysical grounds for the general affirmation of ethical relativism and, the more logically consistent, ethical nihilism. Because there is no life after death, there is no reason to live as if there is. Annihiliationism strips eschatology of its ethical power and makes it motivationally impotent. Who would fear for his eternal soul if you taught him that after he died, if he was among the unrighteous, that he would simply cease to be? If you live a reckless hedonistic lifestyle as an atheist you already believe that death marks the end of personal existence. Even if you were converted to the annihilationist position, that outlook does not change.

Ironically, even the standard Christian conception of universalism has more ethical potency than annihilationism. At least the product of righteousness here is the right to bypass the pedagogical hell. In stripping Christianity of hell, annihilationism strips the majority of the lost in the Western world of any reason to embrace the Christian ethos.

Annihilationism: more dangerous than universalism and atheism. Go figure.

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