Book Review - unChristian by Kinnaman & Lyons

This book summarizes and comments on some research the Barna organization recently did on a really interesting question: what does the younger, unchurched generation think about Christians and Christianity?

Now, why even ask that question? After all, serious Christians have generally been getting used to the idea that the broader American culture is becoming increasingly secularized. So perhaps one would fully expect that a survey such as this would turn up some negative impressions. Interestingly though, the researchers didn't find a predictable list of longstanding impressions. What they found is that many younger Americans (29 years of age and under) have developed sharply negative views of Christianity just in the past decade or so, and that this shift is too pronounced to ignore.

I first heard of this research project about 2 years ago while the book was still being written. Lyons, who initiated the project in the first place, shared some of the survey results with the 2006 Centurions class which I was part of. Even then the results caught my attention. In generations past most non-religious Americans would be likely to describe Christians using labels like "decent," "hard working," "honest" or "moral." For instance, in the case of a young applying for a job, coming from a devoutly religious family likely would be seen as a positive statement about his character and work ethic. The associations were generally positive.

No more. Now, the most popular labels were things like "judgmental," "anti-homosexual," "out of touch," and "too political." In fact, at least 7 of the top 10 labels were negative.

As a Christian, do those labels make you feel defensive? They did to me. I'll confess that my first thoughts were a bit reactionary. For example, in response to the judgmental label I thought "Of course we seem judgmental to this culture. After all most Americans are pretty strong relativists and Christians believe in absolute truth. But that's not the same as being judgmental - the culture is wrong about us." And so on for every negative impression. Well, I still think believing in truth isn't the same as being judgmental. But as I kept reading I discovered that that wasn't their issue. Many times people had good reasons for thinking Christians are judgmental... because sometimes we are.

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector...'" (Luke 18:9-11)

How often have I been one of those people to whom Jesus addressed this parable? Have I ever trusted in myself that I am righteous, and treated others with contempt? Sure, if I'm honest. And even when I succeed in not being such a person, the temptation is ever present.

The Bible instructs Jesus-followers to pay close attention to the way in which we interact with those outside the faith: "Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt..." (Colossians 4:5-6). You know salt: not enough and food is bleh... too much and you just killed a good meal. You have to pay close attention when you pour salt. So it is when a Christian pours the grace and truth of Jesus into the world around him.

I think this kind of introspection is a good thing. It's worth pausing at regular intervals in life and doing some self-evaluation with respect to how effective my demonstration of Jesus' grace and truth are. Are people ever offended by my Christian life? If not, I may not be following Jesus enough. But if they are, another question arises: are they offended because I'm like Jesus, or because I've allowed myself to become arrogant? The former is a divine calling. The latter is sin - sin the Bible warns us against.

I encourage Christian readers to pick up a copy of unChristian, and think through the balance between grace and truth in how we live our lives.

Living Signposts

I think I'm finally beginning to understand at least one way in which good can come from pain and suffering.

It's one of the many paradoxes in Christianity - that complex, hard, real faith that is so full of paradoxes. Just like life is. As a follower of Jesus I've accepted many of the Bible's paradoxes (things that seem to contradict one another at first but actually don't on closer inspection). But understanding them is a much slower process than accepting them.

In the past week or so I've been mulling over the books of Job and John. Job... a book that tells us that Who is a more important, more real, more substantive answer than the ethereal, hollow phantom of why. And the Gospel of John, where the words of Jesus repeatedly urge us to stop trying to make the good life happen here and now, but to look to God as the true source of the life we yearn to experience. These books of the Bible are signposts pointing us to home.

But so are people.

Tony Snow made that point recently. Snow, the well known Fox News political commentator and more recently President Bush's Press Secretary, remembers sitting by a friend's bedside while the friend was wasting away from cancer. "If I don't [beat cancer]," the friend told Tony, "I'll see you on the other side." A few months later, his friend died. Snow could never think of his friend without those words coming back to him, and in this way his friend was a signpost for Tony, pointing him to the reality of the real life which is beyond this one. A few years ago Snow himself was diagnosed with colon cancer. In the midst of surgeries and chemo regimens Snow recalled his friend, and with grace and equanimity he relished the fact that the role of signpost was now his, pointing the rest of us to the source of true life.

Tony Snow died last Saturday. He is now reunited with his friend and his God. I will never be able to think of Tony Snow without thinking about heaven - he's a signpost for me.

"Do not work for food that spoils [the best this life has to offer, which doesn't last] but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you..." John 6:27

And there are other signposts, closer to me personally. My mother (pictured left with my nephew & my kids) is one . She has battled her own cancer for many years now and yet has made her journey a doxology (a praise of God) in darkness. I know the real difficulties and discouragements she faces consistently. But as she faces her own mortality and reaches for her own perspective on the true source of life, she's not the only one who benefits. We all do. A few years ago she was talking to me about how bad she felt that her death would cause the rest of us to grieve. I told her that if she dies, one of the good things God would bring out of that is that those of us left behind would want to be in heaven then more than we do now. And that's what God wants from us:

"they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on the earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own... they were longing for a better country -- a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." Hebrews 11:13-14, 16

My most consistent signpost is my bride. As Amy walks through life with her chronic condition and all the limitations that brings with it, she's made it a point to seek God's perspective. In the process she's not only finding it, but she's helping me and our kids find it too. Without necessarily trying she has become a walking message, pointing to the fact that real life comes only from God through Jesus Christ. Because of how her condition affects our lives, and how she strives to respond, I can't look at her without thinking about where life really comes from. She's a living signpost, pointing my fickle attention elsewhere, toward eternity. Where it belongs.

When difficulty and pain come calling, the human heart it seems has two fundamentally different orientations to choose between. One is why focused, the other is Who focused. The former sees the circumstances of mortal life, which constantly shift and change. The latter allows pain to do its waking work: to open our eyes to see the truth that life comes not from temporal good, but from the Eternal Source. The former perspective struggles through suffering. The latter perspective struggles through suffering too, and catches glimpses of something more solid, more reliable behind and beyond it. Amy is a "latter" kind of person.

Of course the choice isn't nearly so clean or simple as that. It's part of the curse of decaying human mortality that our hearts default to the former orientation. In fact we're never really completely free from it. At least not until we join Tony Snow and his friend. And the millions of other faithful Jesus-followers who have finally crossed the finish line before us and passed into the real world, realizing in a thunderous moment of utter clarity that what they just crossed was actually the starting line.

And that's exactly why signposts are so important in the meantime. These markers, both the Biblical ones and the human ones, point us toward reality - toward life - and urge us not to become preoccupied with this phantom world which promises so much and yields so little - what C.S. Lewis called "the shadowlands."

Today I find myself thankful to God for the book of Job and the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John - not to mention hundreds of similar statements throughout the 66 books of the Bible. And I am doubly thankful to him for providing human signposts along the way too - people who's lives and sufferings make it more difficult for me to miss the point of his divine words. And when I realize that they're pointing to him, words like "thankful," "praise," and "worship" seem too thin and soft to express my gratitude.

Who are your signposts?

I love the smell of gear oil in the morning...

OK, this post is a window into my brain (WARNING: it can be scary in here... peek at your own risk!). Last week I had a new blog post about half-cooked and well on it's way to being served up, but then Friday came barreling down the road before I could finish it and whisked me away for three days of fun. So, just like a good Zachary's pizza, I put the half-baked post in the fridge and will finish it off in a few days.

In the meantime, it wasn't pizza that drew me away from real life for three days. It was my inexplicable love for my 1974 IH Scout. Now, I've always been something of a nonconformist. And I can't tell you how much fun it is to drive around Uppityville (a.k.a. Beaverton) and pull up at a red light next to some $65,000 Lexus SUV-ish sort of thing in my 34-year-old smog-exempt iron beast!

This weekend was the 4th annual International Harvester vehicle show, put on by the Oregon Scout club I'm in! Yes, there's actually enough IH enthusiasts to do an annual show. In fact ours is the best & biggest IH show in the western US, with almost 100 total vehicles on display. I was there all weekend helping run the show with my trusty 10-year-old helper (who was a BIG help), while Amy and Tommy came down for the day Saturday.

Some Scout Show highlights:

Elizabeth was my big helper all weekend, even painting some faces at the Kid Zone!

Lots of very cool Scouts, Travelalls, IH pickups and speciality vehicles:

Two little hicks in the making!

Driving our Scout in the mini-parade. The kids loved waving - and riding in the front seat!

Gooooooood food!!! Slow smoked BBQ pulled pork & chicken with all the trimmings. Thank God for Acts chapter 10!!

Staying in the Stratford Taj Mahal. Thanks to John & Rhonda loaning us their trailer we were able to duck out of the 95 degree heat and into our 73 degree air conditioned accommodations more than once! Very comfy:

Riding the train with the kids - a major highlight for Tommy!

Free flowing thoughts on a bittersweet celebration

Today is America's 232nd birthday, and I'm one of the many who still think "The 4th" is about more than grilled beef and bottle rockets. Not that parties are bad; birthdays are certainly a time to celebrate, but celebrations don't mean much unless we know what we're celebrating. And America's birthday is no different. So, what follows are a few random musings on a couple of the feelings that seem to arise in me every year about this time.
This nation meant something when it was founded - it stood for something. I majored in colonial and Revolutionary American history in college, and while that doesn't make me an expert it did afford me the opportunity to immerse myself in the thoughts which forged this republic. I think the Founders understood various forms of tyranny better than we do today, and they were outraged by it because tyranny violates basic human dignity and value.
But this creates an immediate question: what is human dignity and value, and where does it come from? One thing was certain: the Founders believed it came from someone "up there." Now, let's be clear: many of these guys were not modern-day evangelical Christians. Perhaps I'll post later on the question of whether America is or ever was "a Christian nation" - that's a question I'm not addressing here. But the fact remains that even a miracle-denying son of the Enlightenment like Thomas Jefferson willingly penned America's formative words, the nation's first cry in the delivery room:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
There is something true and beautiful in those words, and even now I can't read them without becoming emotional. The appeal, which is quite broad and has been embraced by Americans of nearly all religious persuasions for generations, is the grounding of our way of life (and thus our government - a secondary consideration) in a higher source, from which human dignity and rights flow. In the American vision, government is dependent on the consent of the governed, but rights are not. If the latter were the case the majority would always dominate the minority - another form of tyranny.
In the American vision, absolute truths are held to be above the power of even the government to violate. Perhaps that's why our 2nd president John Adams famously said "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In America, citizens are to adhere to higher truth (which protects everyone's rights) based on their own internal morality, not because the state forces them to. Adams was saying that virtue in America will survive only to the extent we choose to be a virtuous people. America is a grand call to live for a higher purpose by our own choice, and to enjoy the liberty to do so.
Yet my celebratory feelings are mixed with twinges of sadness and concern because the age of postmodern relativism presents a real problem to this grand political vision in my view. We're fast becoming a nation enamored with blurring distinctions of every kind. But if, for example, humans are really no different than apes, whales, and cockroaches (as in the Naturalist worldview) then where do our rights come from? If meaning and truth are merely social constructs (as postmodern philosophers teach) then our cherished "rights" are really just figments of our imagination, which can be altered or eliminated as those with power see fit. The further we push into postmodern relativism, the further we drive a sawblade through the very branch our Republic sits on.
Still, it's a thick branch and I'm optimistic that history isn't yet through with America and it's unique vision of representative republican government. And I can think of no better day on which to remind ourselves who we are and where we came from. So on this 4th of July I salute not only America, but the grand vision of truth, meaning, and purpose upon which this nation's social fabric and governmental structures were built.

The original Declaration of Independence, the first cry of our nation at it's birth.
(now badly faded due to poor document preservation techniques in the 19th century)

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