The Danger of Podcast Theology

It’s no secret that in the past few years a prominent movement of Calvinist preachers has dominated theological discussions in evangelical circles. Men like Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper boldly proclaim the Scripture. They reach tens of thousands of people each week through their podcasts, and to a lesser degree through their books. They’ve captured the hearts of college students and young adults across the country with their emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty, unconditional election, and the necessity of good works as a proof of election.

In many ways I’m grateful for the work of these men because they highly value the Scripture and they challenge their listeners to boldly share the Gospel and to passionately pursue Jesus.

I am not strongly Calvinist, but that doesn’t lessen my appreciation for those who read the Scripture carefully and come to different conclusions than I do. My church happens to fall between the two poles of Calvinism and Arminianism. We’re solidly within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy, yet it often feels like we’re a minority voice in the broader stream of evangelicalism these days.  (Although I suspect that’s an illusion — I think it’s just that the loudest voices these days are strongly Calvinistic).

Sometimes students engage me in discussions about Calvinism, Arminianism, and the related topics (election, sovereignty, limited atonement, the relationship between faith and works, etc.). I LOVE conversations like that, and am so grateful for students who actually think carefully about the issues.

BUT…in recent years I’ve noticed that when I begin to discuss the Bible with strongly Reformed college students, they often respond by telling me the words of some prominent Reformed leader rather than the words of Scripture. I want to be careful here — I’m not blaming these leaders for the responses of their listeners, but I am a bit baffled. The Protestant Reformation was launched by a guy named Martin Luther, who stood before the Catholic emperor and insisted that he would only listen to reason and the clear testimony of Scripture. That’s our tradition, and theological discussion works best when we return to the Bible as our primary support for whatever position we take.

For some men and women, the issue of Calvinism becomes a dividing line between orthodoxy and heresy. In other words, you’re either Calvinist or you’re suspect — probably a liberal in sheep’s clothing. Strangely, though, sometimes the same young men and women who so strongly support this theological position admit to me that they haven’t read the entire Bible. They’ve taken their cues from podcasts and books. A few have closely studied the issues from Scripture, and I respect those men and women even if I disagree. Those who parrot what they’ve heard without reflection make me sad. I have a deep desire to see college students and young adults look to the Scripture and deeply engage with it. That’s one of the primary reasons I became a college pastor.

SO…whoever you are, I encourage you to hold everything up to the light of the Word of God. Even what I say. Even what your favorite podcaster says. Even your favorite book.

That’s hard work. It takes years of thought, and reflection, and reading. But it’s worth the effort to know what God’s Word really says instead of simply taking your theology from the dim reflections of people like me (or Piper, Chandler, Driscoll, or Chan).

If you are a student or young adult, what barriers do you face as you try to construct your theology from God’s Word? How can you overcome them?

If you are a minister or leader, how do you approach this issue with those in your care?

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Why Christian Music Needs Break-Up Songs

Many years ago, while I was at a Rich Mullins concert, he made a comment that stuck with me for some reason. He had just released his album Songs, which was a greatest hits collection with one or two new tunes thrown in for good measure. One of the new songs was called We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are. Rich explained that he wrote the song about a romantic break-up. It was a beautiful ballad about human frailty and the grace it requires to navigate relationships well. In the process of talking about the song, he made this comment: “I decided that Christian radio needs a few more good break-up songs, so I wrote one for them.” The audience chuckled at what was clearly a tongue-in-cheek comment. In retrospect, though, I think there is a deeper truth behind his comment that merits exploring.

Why does Christian music need break-up songs (and songs about other personal disasters, big and small)?

First, Christians are not immune to the slings and arrows of everyday life. And I think our art — music, literature, movies, etc. — ought to reflect this. Relational awkwardness and pain invaded the lives of men like Paul, David, and Moses. Why should we be immune? In fact, the Scripture even promises persecution and suffering to those who follow Christ (2 Tim 3:12). Christian art has the potential to reflect the realities of life in a sinful and broken world and to provide a biblical and redemptive perspective on those realities.

It just so happened that when I first heard the song I had recently experienced a difficult break-up of my own. I felt relieved and even vindicated to know that my favorite musician understood my pain and could offer me some encouragement. I’m not saying that Christian artists should be Debbie Downers who sing angry and bitter songs all day. But neither should they pretend that the Christian life is a constant barrel of laughs. The Christian life is joyful because we have Jesus, not because we never experience pain. That’s a critical distinction to make.

Second, we need artists who consider suffering from a counter-cultural perspective. We live in a culture that values pleasure over character. Instead of growing through our pain, we run away from it. Entire theological systems are built around the idea that Christians should be healthy, happy, and rich. Thoughtful Christian artists can speak the truth in a way that impacts the mind and the heart. Specifically, they can remind us that both our culture and prosperity theology are wrong in their understanding of suffering.

Finally, suffering is transformative if we view it biblically. See, for example, Hebrews 12:4-13 and James 1:2-4. We certainly learn God’s character through praise songs, happy songs, and love songs. But we learn a great deal about Jesus when we suffer. And artists who write biblical songs about suffering do the church a great service. In fact, music and art can be tools God uses in the process of making us more like Jesus.

When I listened to Mullins’s song, I was reminded how necessary it was for me to rely upon God’s grace and kindness in a difficult time in my own life. I was challenged to practice humility and forgiveness as well. Those disciplines have continued to serve me well in suffering as an adult, and I think a well-written song at the right time helped begin the process of growth for me.

So if you’re an artist, consider writing songs that express the full range of human emotion and experience, not simply the happy ones.

If you’re a civilian like me, consider listening to music that challenges you rather than music that simply entertains you. (On a related note, the song “Blessings” by Laura Story is one of the better treatments of suffering that I’ve heard on Christian radio).

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The Problems With “Frating”

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on the subject of dating paralysis among college students. The topic spurred my thinking about an issue that my wife and I have addressed several times when we’ve talked to Christian college students about dating.

Over the years I’ve noticed a trend among students to avoid well-defined dating relationships and instead pursue what I call “frating” relationships,  which are somewhere in the gray area between friendship and dating.

In dating, both partners understand what’s going on — they’re spending time with each other because they have at least a spark of romantic interest in one another. The terms and the stakes of the relationship are clear.

In frating, however, the couple often acts like they’re dating, but neither person has clearly communicated their feelings to the other. For example, the couple goes out alone on what appear to be dates (to dinner, the movies, even a picnic in the park), but when questioned about it they both say, “We’re just friends.” They take long walks together in the moonlight, or do their laundry together, or even routinely visit one another’s families. But everybody involved is confused. Is this a dating relationship or not?

What is wrong with this pattern, and how can college students avoid it?

The major problem with frating is that both people are being dishonest. It’s a near certainty that one of them has feelings for the other but is unwilling to say so. In this area, I place the greater burden on the guy — a controversial statement, I know, but I happen to believe that he bears the responsibility the be the primary initiator. If he is interested in her, he should say so. If not, he should pull back and stop leading her on. Many guys are either afraid of rejection or they simply enjoy attention but don’t want to fully engage.

That being said, in many cases the girl manipulates the situation to her advantage, drawing the guy in because she craves his attention but doesn’t really want a deeper commitment. Or she is insecure and unwilling to let go of the relationship, fearing loneliness.

As a result, frating becomes a sort of dance, in which both parties blindly try to determine the relationship’s boundaries and obligations. Both people end up withholding information, lying, or practicing skilled manipulation. This behavior is inconsistent with the Word of God and the character of Jesus Christ (Proverbs 3:3; Colossians 3:9-10; Romans 3:4).

So how can students escape the frating trap? First, evaluate the friendship. Is the level of intimacy you are practicing appropriate to what has been communicated about the relationship? Or are you getting ahead of yourself? If the relationship is undefined but you are holding hands, spending a great deal of time alone together, or acting like a couple, then you’re frating.

Second, set some boundaries around the relationship. This is tough, but both parties need to take responsibility. Ladies, tell him that you won’t go out alone with him anymore. If he’s really interested in you, let him step up and tell you so. Men, be direct and honest with yourself and with her. If you aren’t willing to do so, then don’t monopolize her time and attentions. Decide if you’re interested or not, and then speak and act according to the truth. The key for both people is simply to be truthful and kind in the way you pursue the relationship.

Do you have other thoughts or questions about frating? Any other suggestions on how to avoid the trap?

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My Top Blog Posts for 2011 (So Far)

Wow! This week has turned out to be incredibly busy, but in a good way. The new college interns began work on Monday, so I’ve been meeting and planning with them. Tomorrow (Thursday) I’m headed to speak at Impact, the wonderful Christian camp for freshmen beginning at Texas A&M and Blinn.

Because this time of year is so packed, I haven’t had time to write a brand new post this week, but I thought I would share a list of my most popular posts from this year so far, in case you missed any of them. Enjoy! (These are in order from the most popular on down — so #1 was the most-visited post on the blog).

1.  Has Texting Replaced Conversation?

2. Justice, Mercy, and Osama bin Laden

3. Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

4. Dating Paralysis and the Christian Student

5. Is It Better to Stay Single?

6. How Theology Discussions Go Bad: The Excluded Middle

7. How Did I Know She Was “The ONE”?

8. Rob Bell, Hell, and a Few Definitions

9. Answering Your Dating Questions (Part 3)

10. Once Saved, Always Saved?

I hope you enjoy these — feel free to comment on any of them if you like. I do pay attention to comments, even for older posts!

Answering Your Questions: Inclusivism and Theological Debate

My previous series about C.S. Lewis and inclusivism raised a number of questions from my readers. I’m going to tackle as many as I can in this post, and if I need another follow-up post I’ll come back to these topics again.

Was everybody born before Jesus eternally condemned because they couldn’t believe in Him yet?

Clearly not, since at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. So how were people saved in the Old Testament? Apparently by believing in the revelation God had given about Himself and eternal life up to that point in time. Paul discusses how Abraham believed God’s promises and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4). Although Abraham didn’t know Jesus’ name, he was granted eternal life by trusting in what God had promised, which was to provide a land (or kingdom) and eternal blessings to those who believed (cf. Genesis 15).

In Acts 17:30-31, though, Paul clearly tells his listeners that times have changed. Although God previously overlooked ignorance about Jesus, he doesn’t do so anymore. He’s calling everybody to turn from false beliefs and to believe instead in Jesus alone. The appearance of Jesus dramatically changes the situation, requiring belief in Him for salvation.

What about those who have never heard the Gospel, like Mayans and Incans and tribal African people groups?

First, I would dispute the claim that no Mayans or Incans ever had a chance to hear the Gospel and respond. Although their empires were destroyed before missionaries arrived in the New World, the Mayan and Incan people groups still existed. Consequently, some people of Mayan and Incan descent heard the Gospel and some of them even believed. In fact there are groups of Mayan Christians in southern Mexico to this day.

But what about the person who never hears the Gospel? Again, I would argue from Romans 1 that general revelation calls everybody to respond in faith to an eternal God who made the universe. We have good biblical evidence that those who respond to the light they are given are given further revelation (see the second post in my series for examples).

Does Romans 2:12-16 support the concept of inclusivism?

Romans 2:12-16 argues that all sin incurs God’s judgment, whether that sin is a direct violation of the Mosaic Law or not. In other words, even Gentiles who had never heard the Law of Moses were still held accountable for sin. Why? Because they still had a conscience that helped them to know right from wrong. The passage argues that general revelation (i.e. creation and conscience) are sufficient to condemn, but it does not argue that they are sufficient to save. This is consistent with the entirety of Romans 1-3, the main point of which is that everybody has sinned and is therefore guilty before God. The solution isn’t provided until 3:21-31. What solution does Paul provide? Faith in Christ alone apart from the works of the Law. In other words, Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 is exactly the opposite of the inclusivist position.

What about Roman Catholics who believe that salvation is achieved through a combination of faith and works? Will they be saved?

This is a tricky question, and I can’t presume to answer for God about any individual. I believe that salvation is given for those who trust in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life (Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16). If a person has believed, he is saved, even if his theology is deficient in other areas.

The bigger question is whether a theology of works-based salvation is heretical. Remember that heresy is typically defined in terms of universally agreed upon creeds, most of which were written well before the Protestant Reformation. So in a strict sense, it’s hard to use the word heresy to describe a conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism.

However, I am comfortable saying, on the basis of the Bible and the Protestant tradition, that works-based salvation theology is wrong and even dangerous. It’s wrong because the Bible clearly states that faith in Jesus apart from works is the only way to eternal life. It’s dangerous because those who trust in their works instead of in Christ’s work are liable to miss the message of the Gospel and find themselves eternally condemned.

Does that mean that there were no Christians before the Reformation? Of course not! God’s Spirit has been at work in every era of the Church. Even in the darkest times, men and women believed in Jesus and were truly saved.

I received two other questions, one about unity in the Church and one about how to determine what to read and what to avoid. Because I’m running out of space, I’ll cover those in a future post.

Let me know if you have other comments or questions!

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 3)

This will be my final post in this little series. In his original question, Jordan asked how we are to respond to an author like C.S. Lewis, a brilliant man who happens to hold a view with which many evangelicals disagree.

I’m going to take the opportunity to briefly discuss how we ought to read in general, and how we ought to respond to points of disagreement.

First, read everything with discernment. Never assume that because an author is a Christian that you can therefore agree blindly with every point he or she makes. It’s extremely rare for me to find a book that I agree with in its entirety. The Bible is God’s Word; everything else is basically opinion, commentary, interpretation, or speculation on it. Whether the author is C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Francis Chan, or even Matt Morton (gasp!), read critically and compare everything to the Scripture.

Second, don’t be too afraid to read sources with conflicting theological views. One of the ways we grow is by reading and understanding the opinions of those who disagree with us as well as of those who agree. C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man and a wonderful writer. His books exalt the Person and character of Jesus and provide some excellent illustrations of the Gospel. I’ve learned a great deal from reading his works, even though I don’t agree with every point he makes. If you feel that reading a particular book will cause you to doubt God’s character or will lead you into sin, then of course don’t read it right now. But as you continue to grow in your faith, it helps to read from a wide variety of sources.

Third, recognize what is central to the faith and what is up for discussion. For example, the writings of Joseph Smith clearly deny the full deity of Christ — that’s heresy. A heretic is a person who holds beliefs that are outside the historical boundaries of Christianity. Usually that’s determined by looking at the universally accepted creeds, like the Nicene Creed, the Creed of Chalcedon, and the Apostle’s Creed. The deity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the Trinity are good examples of non-negotiable articles of the Faith. On the other hand, the specific mechanism by which faith operates to bring a person to salvation has not traditionally been a point of separation between believers and unbelievers. So while I strongly disagree with the perspective of inclusivism, I don’t call Lewis a heretic for holding it. I can say I think he’s wrong, but not that he’s heretical in the way that word is usually defined.

Finally, don’t be afraid to draw firm conclusions from the Scripture. Always express your opinions with grace and tact, but don’t shy away from speaking the truth as you read it in the Bible. Inclusivism and exclusivism cannot both be correct — somebody is right and somebody is wrong. That shouldn’t trouble us too much, since no human being has a full understanding of God’s Word or His character. The existence of differing viewpoints does not call into question God’s character, but instead highlights the limited capacities we have as human beings. So do not be afraid to carefully research, land on a position, and teach it graciously and firmly. (Just remember the third point in this post as you do so).

Question: How do you deal with the issue of Christians who disagree with your theology? Do you have any other suggestions?

[Image via goodreads.com]

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