Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 4a: Christians Behaving Badly

Christians often ask me, “What’s the most common question or objection to Christianity you hear on college campuses?”

Fifteen years ago, I’d have mentioned the problem of suffering and evil, or the challenge of other religions.

These days, it’s probably “Christians behaving badly,” with creation/evolution a close second.

Christians behaving badly might include items such as

  • The crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts
  • Colonialism and slavery
  • Oppression of gays, women and minorities
  • Judgmentalism on the part of church-goers

So, can a religious tradition be “trustworthy” when saddled with so much baggage?

I have a standard four-step reply to this question, which can be summarized thusly:
  1. Acknowledge harm
  2. Don’t blame the hammer
  3. Reject impostors
  4. Remember the good
“Acknowledge harm” means that I take some level of responsibility for true Christians who’ve brought harm to others. We believers should be good at confessing the sins of the church, including sins committed hundreds of years ago.
“Don’t blame the hammer” is an image that reminds us of where to find true fault. If I pound dents in your car with a hammer, you rightly blame me — not the hammer — for damage done. In the same way, we rightly find fault with sinful human beings who misuse religion for their own ends, not religion itself.*
I’ll cover the final two items next week.
*The whole topic of hypocrisy in the church, including the hammer image, is covered more extensively in Faith is Like Skydiving. See sidebar to the right.
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Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 3: Scripture

By modern standards of precision, the New Testament (NT) is messy in places.

For example, the geneologies of Jesus’ ancestry as recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are difficult to reconcile.

The names of the apostles listed in the four Gospels don’t line up exactly.

The accounts of the empty tomb differ in the details.

I could go on.

According to modern expectations, these deviations nullify the claims of “inerrancy” in the Scriptures, and therefore the credibility of Christianity.

But in fact the early church knew its own texts backward and forward . . . and still chose these four Gospel accounts, and the rest of the NT, to represent its faith.

Trustworthy?

It seems to me that the NT is trustworthy if taken on its own terms.

But if we try to jam it into a set of expectations foreign to its historical and literary context, it may be found wanting.

* * *

In my travels to college campuses around the country, I often ask students this question:

The early church knew about the supposed problem passages in the NT, and ultimately had no problem with them. Why do we?

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 2: God Through a Two-Inch Slot

Let’s say Smith wants to make sure he receives all his packages from UPS.

So he cuts a two-inch slot in the front door of his house and instructs the UPS driver to slip all deliveries through the opening.

What do we think of Smith’s method?

Obviously it’s too narrow.

Smith may receive a few of his goods through the tiny aperture, but he’s likely to miss out on most of what’s sent to him.

In the same way, the person who says, “I’m not going to believe in God till he proves himself to me scientifically” has narrowed the range of acceptable revelation to an overly slender slot in the front door of his thinking.

After all, it could easily be the case that God wishes to reveal himself to humanity in a variety of ways outside of science.

God could use beauty, art, history, philosophy, theology, miracles, ethics and personal experience to disclose himself to his creatures.

This list doesn’t negate the validity of science, but it does suggest that science will catch only a few of God’s deliveries to us, while missing out on many more.

* * *

It seems to me that Christianity is “trustworthy” if taken on its own terms, if taken as a wide-spread revelation from God that is sprinkled into all the disciplines, including science.

But it may not be convincing to a skeptical person who restricts God’s
deliveries to the narrow realm of microscopes, test tubes and beakers.

Is Christianity Trustworthy? Part 1: God in a Box

The question of whether Christianity is trustworthy was the topic of a series of Bethel University Chapel services in the fall of 2014, St. Paul, MN (where I live).

I was privileged to be one of the presenters.*

In the weeks leading up to the service, I thought this to myself:

Non-mandatory chapel, busy students . . . Mmm, out of 3300 undergrads maybe a hundred or so will show up. 

Not even close.

800 students turned out to hear my talk, not because I’m famous (definitely not), but because the question of trust is a potential deal-breaker for the faith of this generation.

With radical equality as a starting point, any particular religion or way of life — including one’s own — is not privileged over any other.

Thus today’s young people do not easily trust the tradition handed down to them from previous generations.

The main point of my talk was this: If we take Christianity on its own terms, it’s trustworthy.

But if we say to God something like this:

“Unless you fit into my box, unless you prove yourself to me on my terms, I’m not going to believe in you . . . “

. . . we’re likely to be disappointed.

More on that next time.

* Audio of the talk is here: (Trustworthy #10. Date: 9-26-14     30 minutes in length):
https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/college-arts-science-chapel/id920604392?mt=10  

Starting Points, Part 3

A critical question that penetrates to the heart of the starting-point issue (see my last two posts) is this:

What’s the main authority in a person’s life?

If it’s Scripture, she’ll be standing on firm ground. This is my position.

But if it’s culture or personal experience, the ground is constantly shifting: cultural norms are in continuous flux, personal experience is highly subjective.

Neither are reliable guides in the long run.

Now a critic might object that Scripture is not the reliable guide it was once thought to be. Scriptural “justice” is actually unjust, Scriptural morality immoral.

I hear this objection often on campus.

Two responses:

1. The critic’s objection still begs the question of how the shifting standards of culture and experience rightly judge Scripture.

Which culture? Whose experience?

Says who?

2. Many critics of Scripture don’t know the Bible very well (though some do — but even they can forget).

They fail to take into account historical context, authorial intent, the history of interpretation in the church, and the broad sweep of biblical ethics from beginning to end — that is, from Genesis to Revelation.

Instead, they “proof text” their way to unwarranted conclusions using isolated passages. You can make the Bible say almost anything, using this method.

* * *

Stepping back, when I think of the two choices before me in which to place my trust: the enduring stability of the Bible or the constant changes of secular culture, I’ll take my chances on terra firma scriptura.

Starting Points, Part 2

In my last post I distinguished between two initial starting points for Christian faith:

1) God and his revelation.

OR:

2) Personal religious experience.
It seems to me that #2 is, in the long run, susceptible to atheism.
Why? 
It’s the difference between covenant marriage and a more transient cohabitation arrangement (living together). 
One is permanent, the other provisional.
When times are tough the person inside covenant marriage is likely to knock herself out in the pursuit of conciliation. She’ll do whatever it takes to keep the marriage together.
In contrast, the person living with another has, by definition, less incentive to patch things up when the relationship is strained. An “out” is always on reserve.
The young people among whom I minister often begin with themselves rather than God — that is, #2 rather than #1.
When they grow tired of the church or its tradition, or struggle with certain teachings in the Bible or feel put off by fellow Christians or wither under the critique of the skeptics, they say to themselves something like this:
“God no longer fits into my experience or beliefs. Time to move on and move out.”
At first they have a feeling of exhilaration as the restraining cords of religion are cut away and they reassert control of their own lives. 
Self-empowerment is alluring, indeed, and an entitlement of western culture.
But perhaps at some point they will feel untethered, unmoored, unsettled, and will return a bit apprehensively to the church.
Then the prodigal (extravagant) Father will hasten to them with loving, open arms, welcoming them home to a place where they truly belong.

Starting Points: Part 1

The many Christian students I interact with in my travels can be divided, roughly speaking, into two camps:
1. Those whose starting point is God and his revelation in nature, Scripture, and Christ.
2. Those whose starting point is their own experience of religion and faith.
#1 is more “objective,” #2 more “subjective.” 
The 1’s tend to ask, How do I fit into God’s story?
The 2’s seem to ask a rather different question: How does my belief in God fit into my story?
* * *
Recently I talked at length with a student who is in the process of deciding which of the two positions above he will embrace.
In a certain way, he appreciates #1 because it requires a strong commitment to Scripture and truth. 
But honestly, he says, #1 feels cold and brittle, lacking in compassion for gays and minorities. 
In his view #1  disrespects other religions, strips him of his own self-determination, and aligns him with a conservative Christian camp that he has come to disdain.
So he finds himself drawn increasingly to #2: his starting point will be his own experience, his own story, his own judgments. 
God, however, is still very important to him.
In the course of our conversation I said something to this thoughtful young man that probably sounded quite extreme: lurking in the background of #2 is atheism. 
I’ll say more about that next week.