Posts Tagged pursuit

Get Personal: Restoring Individualism to Gospel-Worthy Conduct

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinIn his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”

The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.

These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.

According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):

  1. Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
  2. In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
  3. Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.

These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).

The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.

We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking Read the rest of this entry »

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Claiming the Christian Label: Intellectual Ownership and the Spiritual Journey

Pew Research Center: U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

Source: Pew Research Center

The internet has been buzzing about a recent Pew Research Poll in which participants were asked questions about their overall religious knowledge. The study’s most publicized conclusion was that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religious peoples (particularly Christians).

Here’s a description from the study’s Executive Summary:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

The immediate reaction would be to poke fun of self-proclaimed Christians — and plenty of that is in order — but there’s also an assortment of valid critiques of the study. One of the best comes from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who properly emphasizes the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. I disagree with Hirschfield on a few points, but as I reviewed the Pew study for myself, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is God really going to be that upset if Christians don’t know whether Shiva is part of Buddhism or Hinduism?”

There’s a valid point to be made on that level, namely that relationship with the one true God is overarching and all-important; all other knowledge is secondary. However, I am not persuaded that Christians shouldn’t also pursue knowledge about the one true God, or knowledge about any other gods, for that matter. Indeed, in some sense, the two pieces are necessarily interconnected. For example, how do we know if the God we are serving is legitimate? How do we know whether the Bible is really true? Or, even if we know the Bible is true, how do we know if the God(/god) we are serving actually lines up with the one in the Bible?

On some level, we need to go the next step in our spiritual decisionmaking, and that will usually include taking significant intellectual ownership. But what does the Pew study really say about the Church on this matter? Are we as Christians really not taking enough intellectual ownership in our Read the rest of this entry »

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Jesus and the Rich Man: A Call to Radical Individualism

Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Discussions of earthly systems almost always come down to disagreements over the use of capital — how it is distributed, created, or managed. Therefore, if we are concerned with the heavenly implications of our earthly systems, we must come to terms with how God views our earthly wealth.

Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke include a story where Jesus addresses this topic directly. In the story, Jesus asks a wealthy man to give all that he has to the poor. Since plenty of people use the story as an excuse to demonize wealth and the creation of it, I wanted to clarify my thoughts on the matter.

The wealthy man begins the conversation by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus answers with this:

You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’

When the rich man explains that he has done these things since childhood, Jesus responds with this challenge:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will havetreasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Upon hearing this, the rich man becomes very sad and turns away, effectively rejecting the call of Christ. After the man leaves, Jesus explains the situation to His disciples with this now-popular refrain:

How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

It is here where most people end the story. The moral, they tell us, is that wealth is bad and sacrifice is good — for if it is so difficult for the rich to get into heaven, certainly Jesus would advocate Read the rest of this entry »

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