“Doubt: The Tides of Faith” Written for Christian Single Magazine

Doubt. It’s like a spiritual drought, a starless night of the soul, a low tide when faith seems to have retreated forever. Nearly all of us experience these dry, dark, difficult times when God doesn’t seem real and it’s hard to keep going, much less growing. Sometimes these low tides of faith are connected with events … the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, the loss of a job, a prolonged illness, questions raised by a book or professor. But sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere; it’s sunny and bright outside, but inside you feel dark , cloudy, gray, empty.
As a pastor, I have to deal with matters of faith and doubt on a daily basis. But it’s not just other people’s faith struggles I have to face; I experience my own high and low tides of faith even in the midst of an active ministry. Through it all I have learned that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual growth.
Before becoming pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church here in the Baltimore-Washington area, I was a college teacher in a secular university. I was struck there by how superficial many of our Christian answers are in light of the profound questions being asked. Ever since, I have wanted to help Christians have a deeper, more thoughtful faith, and I have wanted to help spiritual seekers get good answers to their probing questions to help them come to a faith that is honest, vibrant, and growing.
The church I serve is composed of about 55% people who are new to a committed Christian faith. One of the great things about these people is that they haven’t learned how to be dishonest yet, spiritually speaking. For example, I remember how one woman, a growing Christian for several years now, came up to me after church one Sunday and said, “Brian, please pray for me. I’m going through one of those stages again when I don’t believe that God exists.” Really, although that kind of honesty is rare, those kinds of doubts aren’t rare at all. I’ll bet some of you are nodding your heads right now, saying, “Yes. I’ve been there” – or “I’m there right now.”
When committed Christians come to me to talk about their doubts, one of the first things I say to them is this: doubt is not always bad. Sometimes doubt is absolutely essential. I think of doubt as analogous to pain. Pain tells us that something nearby or within us is dangerous to our physical body. It is a call for attention and action. Similarly, I think doubt tells us that something in us … a concept, an idea, a framework of thinking … deserves further attention because it may be harmful, or false, or imbalanced.
Maybe you think I’m suggesting that doubt can actually be virtuous. I suppose I am – but not always. There is a dark kind of doubt, an exaggerated and self-destructive kind of doubt, that leads to despair, depression, and spiritual self-sabotage. I think of it like this: an imagination is good, but imagination out of control is called psychosis. Fear is healthy, but fear out of control is called paranoia. Sensitivity is a wonderful gift, and anger is a necessary emotion, but sensitivity or anger out of control can lead to depression. Doubt is the same way. Out of control, it becomes unbelief, a hard heart, an arrogant or defeatist cynicism. But in balance, it is our Geiger counter for error. Without it, we’d be gullible, naïve, stupid … not great spiritual qualities! It’s a lot like guilt. Francis Schaeffer used to say that guilt was like a watchdog – useful to have around to alert you to danger. But if the watchdog turns and attacks the homeowner, it needs to be restrained and retrained.
So, if you ask, “Is doubt good or bad?” I’d have to answer, “Yes.” It can go either way. Frederick Buechner expresses this ambivalence about doubt beautifully: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving” (Wishful Thinking).
I have found this to be true in so many ways in my own life. For example, I am constantly getting emails and letters from people who read my book Finding Faith. Many of them have been hardened agnostics and atheists all their lives, and many others have been Christians who have “lost their faith.” But God has used the book to draw them into a spiritual search. They tell me that I understand and address their questions, or that the responses I give to their questions are so much more helpful than the “easy answers” they’ve heard in the past. In every case, the only reason I’m able to help them is because I’ve had the same questions – doubts, in other words – that they have had, and I have refused to pass on answers that didn’t work for me. As Buechner said, my doubts kept me moving.
I think of it like this: all Christians are committed to lifelong spiritual growth. That means that five years from now, your set of beliefs will hopefully be different from today’s … your beliefs will be more fine-tuned, more tested, more balanced, more examined. What causes you to examine a belief and test it – against the whole background of Scripture (not just a proof-texted verse taken out of context), against the wise thinking of the Christian community at large (both now and through history), and against the realities of your experience? It’s that something inside you isn’t at rest about a belief … something in you doubts that belief. By doubting it, and then examining it, you can either call it a keeper because it passed the test, discard it, or adjust it.
For example, when I was a boy, I was taught a version of the Christian faith that saw science as “the enemy.” To be a good boy in my Sunday school, I had to believe that the earth was very young, that the whole fossil record was a hoax, that biologists and archeologists were in a scientific conspiracy against God, and that sort of thing. I believed that until I was in high school, but then I was overcome by doubts. The scientific evidence against that belief system seemed so strong. This caused me to really begin thinking and reading and questioning. I was given the freedom to do that, and the result has been a vigorous faith that has grown for the last 30 years – firmly rooted in the Bible, but not afraid in any way of the findings of science. I realized that my problem wasn’t with what the Bible says, but with what some Christians said the Bible says. As a result, I feel free to question “dogma” from either the church or science – because I believe that God wants me to seek the truth, and because everybody – preachers and scientists alike – can be wrong. I actually assume that right at this moment I’m wrong in hundreds of my beliefs, and I hope that God will keep leading me to doubt those beliefs so I can embrace better ones.
Some people might disagree. They might ask, “Well, won’t that openness to doubt lead to spiritual instability and insecurity?” I’d respond by asking the opposite question: couldn’t an unwillingness to question lead to a false security that would be even more dangerous? For example, imagine it’s 1860, and you’re a Caucasian Christian in the American south and you are taught in church that dark-skinned people are inferior and therefore should be “our” slaves. The Bible is used to buttress this belief as a moral absolute, and to doubt it is seen as treason against not only the state but also the church. Don’t you think a person would be a better Christian for doubting that belief? Or think of Galileo back in the late Middle Ages. He doubted the church teaching (“proved” absolutely by the Bible) that the sun rotated around the earth. Would he have been a better Christian – not to mention astronomer – if he had refused to doubt?
The science/faith issue is a major stimulus to doubt, but I think you’ll agree, it’s not the biggest doubt-instigator. That distinction would have to go to the problem of suffering and evil. You come into work and check in with CNN online, and you read about another shooting in Columbine, Wedgewood, Atlanta, or Dallas, or you see still photos of the latest earthquake in Turkey or Taiwan, and you can’t help but ask, “How can a good and all-powerful God let these terrible things happen?”
Another major doubt-inspirer is bad behavior among Christians and churches: the shoddy behavior of the religious frequently raises doubts about the legitimacy of the Christian faith. That’s huge, for churched people as well as unchurched. Another is the question of what happens to people who don’t believe. It feels so unjust and uncompassionate when some Christians seem almost glib in their willingness to consign most of the human race to hell. The very fact that caring Christians grow to really love their neighbors makes them doubt this calloused, glib attitude toward their neighbors by preachers like myself. Sensitive Christians feel there must be a better answer.
If you came to me with any one of these tough issues, the very last thing I’d want to do is offer you a short, easy answer. To do justice to your doubts would involve us developing an authentic relationship, engaging in real conversation, and going through a rather lengthy process. In each case, I think I’d begin by affirming the good thing that you are after – truth, authenticity, honesty, compassion, justice. Then, rather than giving answers, I’d help you devise a number of possible answers; I’d help you create options. Then, together, we’d evaluate the options in light of Scripture, experience, things we’ve read or heard from wise people. Instead of coming in as the big teacher with all the answers, I’d try to come alongside you as a companion in the search for those good things – truth, honesty, justice, and all the rest. And this is very important: I’d try to help you keep praying through the process, because ultimately, faith isn’t just about answers or concepts – it’s about admitting that many of life’s greatest truths are going to be mysteries to us, due to the limitations of our tiny intelligence. It’s about reaching out to God to guide us, and asking for God’s help so we can be honest, good-hearted seekers. That’s what child-like faith is, in my opinion. It’s not gullibility or intellectual laziness, but asking questions and having an insatiable curiosity for truth, and reaching out to someone who knows more than we do.
That’s why I am so convinced that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual growth. Unfortunately, like most avenues of growth, it is often painful. Intellectual pain is an underrated cost of following Christ. If I didn’t care about following Christ, I wouldn’t care so much about being honest, seeking truth, facing reality … I would be more tempted to simply go with the flow, take the easy way, maybe anesthetize my intellectual pain instead of persevering through it toward the truth.
If you’re going through that kind of intellectual pain right now, again, I want to encourage you to pray about it … to lay it all before God. You see, the kind of dependence on God that you are exercising now, in the midst of intellectual uncertainty and confusion, may be the purest kind of faith found on planet earth. It involves an act of will and courage which I think must be far more valuable, maybe even heroic, than we normally realize. In addition, I would encourage you to find a circle of friends with whom you can be transparently honest. I remember once during my college years pouring out my doubts to a good friend. I was doubting the Bible, Jesus, the value of the church, my salvation, the whole thing. He listened, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Brian, right now, none of this looks real to you. But sitting across the room from you is a friend whose faith is strong right now, and I can see that God is bigger than your doubts. So if you need to, you can rely on my faith for a while, and I know we’ll get through this together.” His presence and friendship helped me outlast my low tide of faith.
One other thing I want to do for you, if you are going through a low tide of faith. I want to encourage you to step up to a new level of Christian thinking by investigating some new authors and speakers. Obviously, if the thinking you’re already being exposed to were sufficient to address the questions you’re asking, you wouldn’t have a problem. The fact that your faith is struggling means that you need some new teachers. That means at low tide you have to accept the challenge to think more, not less, to think deeper, not shallower. So, it might mean you’re ready to read C. S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft, Phillip Yancey and Romano Guardini, Lesslie Newbigin and Nancey Murphey, St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. You’ve probably heard the quote that goes something like this: a mind that stretches to take in a new thought never shrinks to its previous dimensions. In times of doubt, there’s no way around it: you’re going to have to do some stretching.
But again, isn’t that the way it ought to be? Shouldn’t a growing Christian have a growing understanding? Isn’t a vibrant, honest, tested faith worth some intellectual pain? In Finding Faith I talk about this in some detail. I describe how faith seems to grow in a kind of iterative, ascending spiral that has four stages. I call the first stage simplicity, where everything is simple and easy, black and white, known or knowable. Then there’s complexity, where you focus on techniques of finding the truth – since the scenario has gotten more complex. Then there’s perplexity, where you become a kind of disillusioned learner, where you doubt all authority figures and absolutes, where everything seems relative and hazy. I used to call the fourth stage maturity, but a friend pointed out it would be better called humility, because in stage four you come to terms with your limitations, and you learn to live with mystery, not as a cop-out, but as an honest realization that only God understands everything. You carry out of stage four a shorter list of tested and cherished beliefs that you base your life on, and a lot of your previous dogmatisms are now held more lightly. In a sense a person keeps finding faith and then becoming frustrated with it and in a sense losing it, and then finding a better version of it, and so on, maybe like a software upgrade….
That’s what has happened for me. At this stage in my life, I have sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs I’ve had to release, while others have proven themselves as “keepers.” This is where Jesus is so wonderful and helpful to a person whose faith is in low tide, because Jesus looked at the whole religious system of the Pharisees, which was enormously complex and full of inconsistencies, and in essence, he doubted it. He sifted out a lot of clutter, and boiled all the rest down to some beautiful essentials … like loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. I would rather have someone be sure of those few essentials, and live by them, than have them be sure of a million fine points of systematic theology, and not live by Christ’s call to love.
I sometimes think that our churches are like California, built on a San Andreas fault of suppressed doubt. Under a beautiful surface, the pressure of unexpressed, unresolved doubt is building for more and more people, and sooner or later, the whole landscape will crack and crumble. The situation is intensified by this precarious point in history in which we find ourselves, this transition between a waning modern world, and an emerging postmodern world. As I see it, all of us have been discipled in a thoroughly modern version of Christianity, and here we are in the middle of a transition to a postmodern world. As a result, our modern apologetics and systematic theologies seem increasingly outdated for those of us who are more postmodern people. That’s why I believe we are approaching a time of real upheaval, with people raising new postmodern questions that modern Christians haven’t begun to answer yet.
But here’s where faith comes in – a faith that leans on God himself, and not on our own understanding, including our own theological understanding. We have the challenge of believing that good answers are out there, if we only have the courage to press through the intellectual pain of questioning, seeking, learning, and stretching. I believe Jesus when he said he’ll never leave us or forsake us – and that includes even when we question. Or as Paul said, even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. It’s ironic: the more free I am to doubt my specific beliefs, the more free I become to hold on to that personal faith in God. At the point where the tide of faith seems the lowest, if we hang on and don’t give up, we’ll see it come in again.

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Christian Reflections in a Time of War

"We need to support our brave troops at a time like this, so we shouldn’t criticize our government or our president. Besides, our president is doing what Scripture says he is supposed to do: he is “bearing the sword” to punish evil (Romans 13:1-4). If terrorism and insurgency aren’t evil, what is? If the degrading of the bodies of our troops and the recent beheading of an American citizen don’t deserve strong response, what does? It takes courage and strength to stand up to evil.
The fact is, we were attacked, brutally and viciously, on September 11. We needed to respond strongly and decisively, and that is what we have done. The enemies of freedom want to destroy our way of life and bring the world into chaos and tyranny; even if the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate our actions, what we are doing is courageous and good for everyone – even those who criticize us. By fighting terrorists and extremists, we are making the world safer for everybody.
Yes, some mistakes have been made, but our mistakes are few and minor compared to the atrocities committed by our enemies. Emphasizing our mistakes, including the isolated misdeeds of a few prison guards at Abu Ghraib, simply plays into the hand of our enemies; besides, we’re dealing honestly and openly with any problems that have occurred. America is a beacon of light and justice in our world.
It’s useless to complain that we are losing respect in the world. In the long run, people will respect our strength. Right now, other countries are jealous of us because they are poor by comparison, but it is not our fault they haven’t been blessed as we are, nor have they learned to benefit from free enterprise and Democracy as we have. We have to go it alone, because we are the leaders of the free world.
Our president is an evangelical Christian and he applies Biblical principles to his presidency. We should pray for him and defend him from critics – not criticize him. Remember President Clinton? Aren’t we grateful to have a godly man like President Bush in office at a time like this?"

These days I hear many of my good Christian friends say things very much like this, and many of our most respected leaders too. They’re good people, and I respect them, and I wish very much I could fully agree with them. They’re sincere and they’re trying to do what’s right, and if I even partially disagree, no one could blame them for thinking I’m crazy or deluded. I have little hope of persuading them to see things differently; some are quite set in their ways, and since nearly all of their friends hold similar opinions, the peer pressure against rethinking these matters is very strong.
Meanwhile, I awaken in the middle of the night (or more often, wake up early with anxious thoughts), thinking and praying about what’s happening to our world and our country and our Christian community during this time of war, wondering how I should respond.
I have lived nearly my whole life just outside of Washington, DC. International news is our local news here. In this political environment, I am well aware that the issues we face are complex, frighteningly complex: the easy answers and sound-bite-politics that we hear so often (both from the left and from the right) seldom do justice to the complexities of our world. Anything I say may be seen as equally simplistic by others. There’s always a “yes, but…” that can be added.
It would be easiest under these circumstances to remain silent and pretend to agree. It would also be relatively easy to express my deep feelings and concerns about current events in such a way that people who already agree with my conclusions would cheer and applaud. “Preaching to the choir” is a cake walk compared to communicating effectively with people whose deeply-held views may need to be challenged.
It is my goal to communicate with people whose opinions resonate with the first four paragraphs of this article. It is for them that I would like to offer my perspectives as a sincere and deeply concerned Christian in America.
First, I should say that I agree with some things expressed in those four italicized paragraphs. For example, we should not harshly criticize our country and our president. Part of this is simply a matter of “doing unto others.” As a pastor, I am routinely criticized by people who are certain they know more than I do. Meanwhile, I am often privy to dozens of facts and confidences of which they are unaware, and if they knew and saw what I do, they wouldn’t be so critical. I simply must endure their criticism (some of which is harsh and mean-spirited). Their criticism doesn’t make my job any easier, nor does it increase the likelihood that I’ll do better in the future – rather, the reverse. So harsh criticism is not good for anyone. That’s why I believe that harsh criticism of our leaders can be ultimately counterproductive, even if our leaders are deeply and dangerously wrong. So, I am against criticizing our president with harshness, insult, or arrogance. However, that cannot mean we aren’t allowed to raise questions, express concerns, or even voice strong disagreement – as long as we do so respectfully and with appropriate humility, understanding, and charity.
In addition, I agree that we must support our troops. Nearly all of them are fine human beings, truly the pride of our nation. They are our daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers and neighbors and friends. Supporting them means caring for them, praying for them, and doing our best to make sure that they are not put in harm’s way without good cause. Sometimes, as many of us remember from Viet Nam, the best way to support our troops is to ask hard questions of our government and oppose decisions of our government if those decisions send our troops into harm’s way without good cause, or for less than a noble cause, or without proper planning. I understand: we are worried that if we bring uncomfortable questions and concerns to light, we may make it seem that some of our troops have suffered and died in vain, thus dishonoring their sacrifice. But if we don’t bring these questions and concerns to light, we risk the possibility that more will die in vain. So, our failure to ask needed questions and bring needed discussion into the light could lead to the deaths of more of our sons and daughters, friends and neighbors … and it could also result in the killing of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere.
What results and risks are worth the sacrifice of our sons and daughters? If we sacrifice more and more of them without carefully weighing our options, and if we push ahead even though it means that many innocent civilians will also die, what would that say about us as a people? What kind of nation, what kind of people, would we be becoming? Wouldn’t supporting our troops require us to face these frightening possibilities honestly and soon, so we can proceed prudently?
Third, I agree that we must pray for our president and other leaders. Scriptural teaching and common sense require us to do no less. We have a special obligation to pray for our president because he identifies himself as a brother in Christ, as an Evangelical Christian. Unfortunately, I have found through the years that being a Christian, even an Evangelical one, doesn’t guarantee against being wrong. It hasn’t done so for me, as my critics know, nor has it done so for anyone else. Being saved, baptized, sincere, or even Spirit-filled is not a short cut to being smart or right or wise. Rather, Scripture tells us, the wisdom that comes from God often comes through suffering and repentance (which means rethinking past actions). Furthermore, God’s wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (James 1:2-8; 3:13-18). What’s more, it listens to counsel from others. So, praying for our president is a requirement, but challenging his policies, offering godly counsel, and even confronting him when necessary may also be required of us, if we are to be faithful to our Christian brother.
Great leaders through Biblical history, like King David for example, have made great mistakes and needed to be counseled or confronted (as the prophet Nathan did for David). Being chosen by God didn’t give Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, or Solomon (or even the Apostle Peter for that matter) a carte blanche to be above needing counsel and confrontation at times. Those who think they stand above the need for counsel are warned in Scripture that they too can fall, and if they are proudly overconfident about their standing, it is certain they will fall. So, yes, we must pray for our president, and we must speak the truth to and about him and his policies.
Even in his own political party, many are raising questions and concerns. But the Christian community seems oddly silent. Why is this? What does it say about us that we are so hesitant to question our current president? Before I can say anything about our president and his policies, I feel I must say something about us.
If I were to go to the heart of my concern and try to express it in one sentence, here’s what I would say: Many Christians in America seem to have confused Caesar and Christ. We seem to have confused a “kingdom of this world” – our nation - with the kingdom of God. The will and interests of our nation have become associated with the will and values of God.
American Christians have a long tradition of doing so. Since colonial days, we’ve seen ourselves as a beacon of light, the leader of the free world, the New Israel, and other similar notions. “Manifest Destiny” was a self-affirming doctrine promulgated by many Christians in our early years, and our president seems to echo this belief. He said recently, for example, “The advance of freedom … is the calling of our country.” He has defined America’s mission to “rid the world of evil.” “This call of history,” meaning the call to rid the world of terrorism through military action, he said in the 2003 State of the Union address, “has come to the right country.” In September of 2002, he said, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” For of all of us who know our Bibles, our President is associating America pretty closely with Jesus. This seems to be what he believes. And perhaps many of us do too?
This belief is comforting. It makes us feel proud and blessed. It gives us great confidence. But it also makes us dangerous. Our ancestors who believed they had a divine mandate (Manifest Destiny) didn’t think twice about stealing lands from the Native Peoples or First Nations here. Even when we made treaties, we broke them. Too few Americans know that some of our leaders practiced intentional ethnic cleansing and even biological warfare aimed at genocide. (If you don’t know about these ugly parts of our history, you should learn.) Meanwhile, Manifest Destiny made it easier for white Christians to buy slaves and treat Blacks as inferior – right up into my lifetime. In South Africa, there was until the last decade extensive theological justification for Apartheid based on a doctrine very much like Manifest Destiny. Believing that God is on your side, and you on God’s, gives you confidence – but it may make you less open to reflection and second-thoughts; it can make you more bold and less wise.
When our president and secretary of defense speak of other nations as evil and depict our enemies as terrorists who seek to destroy “our way of life,” they are following a long tradition of leaders – good and bad - who dehumanize and demonize enemies. Their persuasive speech has been used to muster support for centuries. Unfortunately, all of these leaders who have asserted their nation’s moral superiority have been proven wrong by history. Their nations may have been great and good at one point, maybe even better than their enemies as they asserted, but often their downfall came quickly. Eventually, their superiority tempted them to pride, which goes before a fall. Eventually, what they called liberation of others proved to be domination and oppression, and their so-called evil enemies proved to be not much different from their own people. Perhaps our president will be the first one to be right when he demonizes others and praises America, but I for one do not believe it.
When our leaders speak of liberating others through conquest and occupation, they sound a lot like many powerful leaders of the past who dominated people but called themselves benefactors and liberators. Jesus spoke of these kinds of leaders; educated by Jesus, we should be sensitive to the ways of “the rulers of the Gentiles.” If Moses could be defended by God against critics again and again, but eventually even Moses could overstep his proper authority so that God would have to rebuke him, shouldn’t we be on alert that our president – even if he is an Evangelical Christian – could also overstep his authority? After all, he may be a good man, but he’s no Moses. We’re on high alert about terrorism, but we do not seem to be on any alert about our president or our whole nation overstepping proper bounds, overreacting, etc. We are aware of the dangers abroad, but less aware of the dangers at home.
Our previous president had a love affair with a young Jewish intern. This was despicable to many of us, disgusting, dishonoring. Our current president also has a kind of special affection - with Evangelical Christianity. Many of us have an infatuation with him that may eventually hurt us as much as that young intern was hurt after her infatuation. Our current president certainly knows how to use our Evangelical language to woo us. In his State of the Union address in 2003, for example, he said, “The need is great. But there’s power, wonder-working power … in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” He was borrowing from a popular hymn well known to nearly all Evangelical Christians, but he substituted “the goodness … of the American people” for “the blood of the Lamb.” Does that turn of phrase bother you? I do not believe the president meant to idolize the American people and imply that we are the world’s redeemers – that would be a blasphemous assertion for a Christian to make! I do not believe he had evil intent. I believe he very sincerely feels that America is in some way God’s chosen nation, so our hearts are a redemptive force in the world, like “the blood of the Lamb.” I believe he is sincere and well-meaning in these kinds of statements, but I also believe he is dangerously wrong. And if we do not see and name the danger, I fear we will become unwitting conspirators with it.
I am writing in the days after the release of photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. The horrible abuse of prisoners by our soldiers in Iraq tells us something – something that we may not want to hear. It tells us that Americans are simply human beings. Along with heroism and sacrifice, we are capable of terrible mistakes and unjustified violence, even torture. We are not above committing deplorable acts and violating our own high standards. In our zeal to do good (by obtaining needed intelligence from enemies, to save the lives of our soldiers), we may do terrible evil. We are capable of seeking a short-term advantage (brutally treating prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions) that creates horrific long-term consequences (when our enemies decide to do unto ours as we have done to theirs). In our desire to achieve good ends (to avoid another terrorist attack on our homeland), we may be corrupted by evil means.
I know this is hard for people to imagine, but I beg you to try: what if our decision to invade and bomb Iraq in the first place was an excessive and premature use of violence, no less justifiable before God than the actions of our soldiers in Abu Ghraib? What if our desire to do good (protect ourselves from further terrorist attacks) put us in temptation’s way to overreact and do evil? What if our violation of the will of the United Nations was no less egregious, with no less significant long-term consequences, than our soldiers’ violation of the Geneva Conventions? What if these recent prison abuse incidents are not anomalies – but are rather a warning, a mirror in which we can see what we are in danger of becoming, what we have to some degree already become?
Already, in the midst of tepid or qualified apologies, I hear ourselves defending ourselves. We try to push all the blame on a few individuals acting alone, denying that our system was in any way to blame. Obviously, the behavior of the offending prison guards was indefensible, but I do not believe all these people who abused prisoners were monsters. Rather, I believe they were normal people caught up in a frenzy of group-think that clouded their judgment. I also believe nearly all of America has been caught up in a similar kind of judgment-clouding frenzy in reaction to the September 11 attacks – less dramatic or obvious, but no less real – and far more consequential. Just as the prison guards did not fully realize at the time what horrible things they were doing (otherwise, why take photographs?), neither have we yet been able to see ourselves and our actions as seen by others – and perhaps by God.
I hope you will consider this: Scripture tells us how dangerous revenge is, but I fear that many of us have been intoxicated by it. Scripture tells us how fear should not dominate our lives, but I am sad to say that I see our nation as being driven – not by faith, not by love, not by hope – but by fear. The fear of being attacked again has become, I think, almost like a demon possessing us as a nation. Under its influence, we are liable to do some shameful things. It is becoming clear that we already have done them, and worse things may be on the way.
The Psalmist said: Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7, echoed in Isaiah 31:1). People who do not know the Lord may be excused for trusting in horses and chariots. But I sense in the rhetoric of many a radio/TV preacher and even in some of my personal friends – people who know and love the Lord – a very high degree of reliance on the technology and weapons of war. They imply that I’m naïve (or not living in the right Dispensation) for believing that trust in God should make me less dependent on tanks and bombers (our modern-day horses and chariots), or less eager to use them. Perhaps they’re right. But perhaps not.
My parents taught me that when I do wrong, I should admit it. I should feel sorry for it, and confess it, without excuses and self defense, and I should seek to make restitution. I listened to our president when the news of the prisoner abuse came out, and I didn’t hear a clean apology. I heard minimization, assigning of blame to a few, and defense of our overall strategy. A few days later, it got a little better. But something inside me asks this question: what if we are far more wrong than we realize? What if we have indeed made a series of serious misjudgments, mistakes, overreactions, hasty actions, and God-dishonoring actions? Will we defend ourselves? Or will we face our wrongs and humbly repent? Will we cover our sins and still hope to prosper? Or will we rather seek to walk in the light and learn from our mistakes?
A friend at my church once told me, “Brian, I think you’re right about 85% of the time. That’s what makes you dangerous. People will trust you for the 85% so they won’t question you for the 15%. Your leadership depends on you having the humility and second thoughts to be on guard for the 15%.” Could our nation and its leaders be in a similar situation?
Yes, we must support our troops. Yes, we must avoid becoming critical and harsh and judgmental of our leaders. But is it possible that the richest and most powerful nation in the world could at some point become proud and abuse its power? Isn’t it more than possible? Isn’t it highly likely? And if possible or even likely, shouldn’t we do some sincere and prayerful soul-searching – and if necessary, repenting?
Yes, terrorism is indeed evil. But isn’t history full of examples where people who were wronged by a real evil responded in such a way as to become evil themselves? Isn’t this a possibility for us? Wouldn’t it be foolish to hastily dismiss such a danger in our situation?
What kind of nation do we want to become? Are we happy about what we are becoming now? Are we proud and at peace about the kinds of torture that have been used to extract intelligence? What are the long-term consequences of our new policy of pre-emptive war? We hated it when our innocent civilians were killed in the Twin Towers, but how many innocents have we killed in Iraq? How many children, mothers, grandmothers? Are we keeping count? Is there any point at which we might go too far? If we callously say, “These things happen in war,” if we dehumanize these beloved family members as “collateral damage,” aren’t we sounding like the very people we characterize as evil terrorists? Wasn’t our “shock and awe” campaign a kind of terror campaign that put thousands of innocent people in harm’s way, so we could force our will in the world?
Will it be easier to do some needed soul-searching when we have gone farther down our current path, or will it become harder the farther and faster we proceed? When should we begin asking some hard questions of ourselves and our leaders? Would before the next election be the best time, or should we wait, and why?
When I was in elementary school, there was an overweight boy. Let’s call him Evan. He was a nice kid. I liked him. But other kids mercilessly teased him. “Fatty!” they called him. “Tubb-o-lard!” they called him. “Doughboy!” they said. They thought they were funny, but what they did was wrong, so wrong, and Evan was deeply hurt. Over the years, Evan gradually changed. He went from being the overweight boy others teased to the big bully who teased others. His size, which had been the source of his shame, became his weapon, and he learned very literally to throw his weight around. His reaction was understandable, but I always wished he could have found another way to respond. Becoming more like the people who were so mean to him seemed like a very sad strategy, leading to a sadder victory. And I fear that we are Evan.
(To be continued

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A Letter to Friends of Emergent …

In my travels, I hear amazing things. Some of these amazing things are wonderful and profound. Others are ridiculous.
One of the ridiculous things is a lot of talk about the "postmodern church." "We started a postmodern service," people say, breathless with excitement. "It's very cool." They mean they play softer music and have candles. I feel queasy. I have nothing against softer music, if the lyrics are any good (which they too seldom are, but that's another story) and I rather like candles.
But let's get real: there are no postmodern churches, people. About this I would like to say two things, at least one of which I hope will not be ridiculous.
1. Having postmodern churches isn't exactly the point.
However, before I try to say something nonridiculous about this obvious assertion, I must address one of the ridiculous critiques I hear of the whole emergent thing: "Those emergent people say modernity was bad," the critics say, "but then they're climbing into bed with postmodernity, making the same mistake." Ah, a clever critique, if it were that simple. But the critique cleverly misses two complications:
Complication One: If one wants to do meaningful ministry among Spaniards or Arabs, one must speak Spanish or Arabic. If one wants to do meaningful ministry among modern people, one must to some degree enter into modernity. Us "emergent people" aren't saying that's purely bad. No, we're saying that's necessary. But here's the problem: if the Spaniards and Arabs move out, and French and Chinese move in, then it's a big mistake to still speak Spanish and Arabic. (The problem with the critics here is that they think they have a superior timeless gospel that floats above any culture whether modern or postmodern. They don't realize that a timeless cultureless gospel that floats is a perfectly modern one!)
Complication Two: Even when translating the message into Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, or French, one must remember that no translation is perfect. The words are never enough. "Friend" and "amigo" might not mean exactly the same thing. "Jaweh" and "theos" and "God" might not mean the same thing to everyone who uses those terms. So ... it's possible to translate the message and (like that game where you pass on a message around a circle) by the time it's been translated a few times, it's completely garbled. So ... modern translations of the gospel can become garbled, as can medieval, and postmodern, and patristic, etc., etc. Which reminds us that none of us has a complete grasp of the gospel. We can only hope and pray (words chosen intentionally) that the gospel has a strong enough hold on us that we can admit it when we've garbled things. (Which I believe we - meaning all of us - have.) It's very dangerous to assume you've perfectly contained the gospel in your little formula.
So, the point is not having a gospel that postmodern people like, nor is it starting postmodern churches if that means churches that think the gospel has been finally and fully contained by them in its latest, most trendy fashion. Ugh. Rather, the point is having churches that bring the gospel of the kingdom of God to postmodern people with a style of incarnation that resonates with (and in fact continues) the original Incarnation. That's not easy, and it isn't accomplished by pasting candles or music or new seating arrangements on the old modern gospel articulations.
2. There won't be postmodern churches (or better put, churches that deeply engage with postmodern cultures) until there are Christian theologies that are not written/spoken in modern-ese. Post-modern-ese theologies may have been conceived; they may be in the second week of prenatal development; but as far as I can tell, none have yet been born. These things take time, and premature births are risky. It's better to let the womb of the Spirit take proper time to give birth what must come in the fulness of time.
Predictably, those trying to be midwives to these new theologies (note the plural) are being criticized as heretics, unorthodox, disturbers of the peace, etc. This is inevitable, and this is an opportunity for humility and gentleness and meekness (reviled, not reviling back) on their part, these virtues being ideal contexts in which things of the Spirit can gestate. We should pray for all who are involved in this labor. And we should pray for all those attacking the midwives. And we should be patient too, with everyone.
Along similar lines, my friend Ed Chin recently wrote the following in an email he sends out to some friends:
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"... in my own devotional time this morning, I read John 3:31-32:
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard… (“The Message” translates this passage as: “The earthbound is earthbound and speaks earth language; the heavenborn is in a league of his own. He sets out the evidence of what he saw and heard in heaven...”)
"The primary reason I ever attend a church service (or, frankly, even have serious or long conversations with Christians) is the hope that I will hear something proclaimed out of heaven, something that carries the majesty, the revelation, the heart and breath of God. I want my heart to burn with a word from Heaven. I want to hear something which rumbles through the corridors of His chamber and then creates a sonic boom when it enters my “earth space.” I am not interested in a 3-point guide for living or recycled Oprah or political perspectives or even a Bible study or exploring “styles of worship.” And, I’m not looking for more apologetics and theology.
"I want the sound of Heaven to invade my heart, scare the hell out of me, and split me wide open. I want my “Edness” to spill out on the ground and for Him to take up residence in the suddenly empty vessel.
"We all know that the more traditional churches live in a ghetto of unreality; they speak only to themselves, write books for themselves, and make music for themselves. No one else has any clue what they’re saying. That’s why serious people have been ignoring them for a couple of decades.
"While I appreciate the freshness and youthfulness of “the emergent church” (or “postmodern church movement” as some call it), sometimes I think they have simply become better conversationalists. They’ve learned the language and the concepts of the natives and are very good about engaging them in real conversations. I greatly admire and enjoy that. But, very honestly, I’ve not heard very much in that world that really testifies of anything seen in Heaven. Like most other church worlds, they speak from a distinct “earthview” and in a distinct earth-language."
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Ed is telling us something humbling, something we need to hear. The emergent movement (a dangerous term - see next paragraph) has wonderful promise, but it could just become another marketing gimmick to sell books, build egos, and bolster sagging spirits with a new invisible wardrobe for a pudgy, pasty old emporer. No doubt, in some quarters it will squander its potential, but if you care about the possibilites being actualized ... please ... let's aim deep and high.
Wendell Berry, one of the people whose writings most fill my soul, has something important to say about movements. I hope you'll take a couple of minutes and read his article at:
http://resurgence.gn.apc.org/issues/berry198.htm
(Thanks, Jeremiah Smith, for the link). Everything Berry says there is relevant to us.
If you're coming to one of the emergent conventions this spring, I hope you'll help us set a tone of depth, sincerity, good cheer, good humor, optimism, faith, humility, cordiality, friendship, and fun. Try to leave your toxicity at home. Deconstruction is important, and there's a time and place for it ... but there is a time for constructive conversations too, and this is such a time. Come trusting God to do something impossible ... namely, to help us rise high above (or dig deep beneath) the superficiality which characterizes most of our culture, secular and religious ... so that, as Ed said above, we can hear of things seen in heaven booming (or whispering) on earth.
Praying that this will be so - Brian

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Interview with Brian McLaren about previous “A letter to friends of Emergent”

Hi, everyone - the last emergent/c (February 2004) elicited more email response and blogosphere chatter than any so far. There were some really affirming replies, and some very concerned ones too. That means, I think, that either I did a good job of getting everybody to think, or I managed to offend or confuse or hurt or alienate some of my friends, or both. I think it was both. As you all well know, it's hard to say anything significant without eliciting some controversy, but I have no desire to spread confusion and alienation - hardly gospel work! - so, I've just completed an interview with someone who disliked the piece. The interview is included below. Thanks to the interviewer, who asked to remain anonymous.
Q: I found your piece uncharacteristic. You are normally careful not to use inflammatory language, but you called talk about the “postmodern church” ridiculous. Wasn’t that kind of harsh?
A. I regret using that word. I’m sorry for offending or hurting people.
Q: You put people like me in a really tough situation. On our website, we refer to ourselves as a postmodern church, so now we have been judged by you as ridiculous.
A: Again, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sure you have good reasons for using that terminology on your website, and I don’t criticize you at all.
Q: I thought you were all about the postmodern church. Why would you say there aren’t any?
A: I guess I was having a bad day. I think everyone can relate to having a bad day.
Q: Is that your only excuse? What was giving you a bad day?
A: I care deeply about the possibilities of this thing that is being called “the emerging church movement,” even though I agree with Wendell Berry’s cautions about movements. I think this thing, whatever you call it, has enormous potential. But it is also always in some degree of peril.
Q: You mean because it is being criticized?
A: No. Criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything. Widespread criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything new. And intense widespread criticism is unavoidable for all those who do anything risky and radical. I’m less worried about those who are against this thing than I am about those who are for it, including myself. Perhaps I exemplified in that piece one of the very dangers I am concerned about. Perhaps my mistake will help others see how careful we have to be about what we say and how we say it. Maybe when some of the friends of emergent felt a sting there, they will realize how others feel when we say things that poke in the eye practices, values, groups, words, and institutions that they hold dear.
Q: Are you saying you did this on purpose to elicit the kind of reaction you received from me? Like you were trying to teach people a lesson?
A: Are you kidding? I’m so overwhelmed with emails already that I didn’t need to elicit any more email traffic! That’s why I agreed to this interview: at least I can try to respond to a lot of concerns all at once.
Q: What specifically did you mean when you said, “But let's get real: there are no postmodern churches, people.”
A: Well, I tried to give a clue there that I was being somewhat provocative and playful, because I think I turned the “ridiculous” word back on myself, but I guess that didn’t soften the blow, eh?
Q: No, it didn’t. I try to take you seriously.
A: Well, sometimes playfulness is serious too. But anyway, here’s what I meant by that provocative, confusing, and perhaps irresponsible statement. The postmodern transition is well underway, but it’s still in process. The early deconstructive phase of the postmodern transition is evolving into a more constructive and creative phase, exemplified (for me) by thinkers and writers like Wendell Berry and Ken Wilber in the culture at large, plus a number of us writing specifically for the Christian community. (Of course, some folks are still fighting against the earliest phases, not realizing that the “battle lines” keep moving. But I shouldn’t use battle imagery, because I don’t see it that way.) For all the work we’ve done and all the progress we’ve made, we still have so far to go.
I’m worried that many of us think we’ve arrived: we’ve crossed the Jordan River and now we’re in the Promised Land. If we’ve made a crossing, it’s the Red Sea (or whatever), which does put Egypt behind us. But we’ve got a wide wilderness ahead of us, wilderness where our character will be tested and many of us will be tempted to go back to Egypt. We’re still quite a way from the Jordan River. We’ve made a beginning, but we’ve got a long way to go. And of course, once we get to the Jordan River, that’s an ending, but it’s also another beginning, you know? I just want to make sure we learn what we need to learn crossing the wilderness.
Q: I don't really like the "promised land" imagery. It implies that we'll eventually reach a place where we can settle down.
A: Good point. That didn't work for our Jewish brothers and sisters, did it? A lot of us have been using Exile imagery ... but that also implies a return of sorts, where the hope is that we can settle down. Any set of imagery has upsides and downsides, you know? The only we we'll ever settle down, I think, is the way people settle down when they're canoing or kayaking on a river. There's still movement, and slackwater can give way to rapids without much advanced notice.
Q: One blogger who refers to you as the godfather – not sure how you feel about that – offered another metaphor. You’re telling people there’s this great new restaurant across town, and they go there with you, only to hear on arrival that the menu won’t be printed for another twenty years.
A: I can see how that’s frustrating. I think the metaphor makes the point very well. But I wonder if I could put a spin on it. Maybe that story should continue by the people saying, “Hey, let’s go in the kitchen and see if we can help create some new recipes.” If we get more people involved in the creative process, maybe it will only be ten years, not twenty. I think people need to feel empowered, like they’re contributors, not consumers buying the latest “postmodern ministry in a box” program. We’re all in this thing together.
Q: That’s exactly what was discouraging. Here I am, trying, doing my best, and you call what I’m doing ridiculous.
A: I’m so sorry. That’s not what I intended.
Q: You should be more careful.
A: Yes, I should. But I think you’ll agree, as I said in the article or whatever it was: having postmodern churches isn’t the point.
Q: I think you’re wrong about that. It is the point. You made the analogy to languages. If Spaniards move into the area, having Spanish churches is the point. It’s exactly the point.
A: I see what you mean. I’m afraid my analogy again creates confusion along with adding some clarity. Here’s the problem. We can translate our modern version of the gospel into postmodern idioms … candles, coffee, community, digital imagery, etc. But it’s still a modern version of the gospel.
Q: Hold on. That bothered me too. You wrote, “Which reminds us that none of us has a complete grasp of the gospel…. It's very dangerous to assume you've perfectly contained the gospel in your little formula.” I think with all the other change going on, one thing we’ve got to hold firm on is the gospel.
A: What do you mean when you say “the gospel?"
Q: You know, justification by grace through faith in the finished atoning work of Christ on the cross.
A: Are you sure that’s the gospel?
Q: Of course. Aren’t you?
A: I’m sure that’s a facet of the gospel, and it’s the facet that modern evangelical protestants have assumed is the whole gospel, the heart of the gospel. But what’s the point of that gospel?
Q: What do you mean? I guess it’s so that people can spend eternity with God in heaven in an intimate personal relationship as opposed to … the alternative. You don’t seem to agree.
A: Well, for Jesus, the gospel seemed to have something to do with the kingdom of God.
Q: Which is the kingdom of heaven, which is going to heaven after you die.
A: Are you sure about that?
Q: Aren’t you?
A: This is exactly the point I was trying to make in the article. Many of us are sure we’re “postmodern” now with our candles and hipness and so on, but we haven’t asked some important and hard questions – not about postmodernity, but about modernity and the degree to which our theology and understanding of the gospel have been distorted or narrowed or made “gospel lite” by modernity.
Q: If you were intending to make me feel better, you’re not succeeding.
A: Well, I hope you’ll at least think about this. And search the Scriptures, you know, to see if there’s any validity to the question I’m raising.
Q: You say, “We all know that the more traditional churches live in a ghetto of unreality; they speak only to themselves, write books for themselves, and make music for themselves. No one else has any clue what they're saying. That's why serious people have been ignoring them for a couple of decades.” Isn’t that kind of harsh, like calling people ridiculous?
A: Actually, I didn’t say that. A friend of mind named Ed did. I thought I made it clear I was quoting him. Plus, I already apologized for the ridiculous choice of words on my part. Can you give me some grace on that?
Q: By quoting him, aren’t you agreeing with him?
A: Well, I’m at least agreeing that he’s saying some things that we ought to hear. As you can imagine, I get a good bit of criticism, and I try to listen to it and learn from it however I can. But listen – I do want to go on record saying that I see many wonderful things happening in traditional churches, and I'm sure Ed would agree. In fact, some of the best things I see in my travels are happening in the most traditional churches. Yet, at the same time, there is too often a “ghetto of unreality” in the Christian subculture in both is liberal and conservative forms, as Ed said. That’s the problem with blanket statements – you know, like that old self-contradiction, “All generalizations are false.”
Q: Speaking of self-contradiction, your friend then says, “I'm not looking for more apologetics and theology.” In one breath you’re saying we need to rethink our theology, and then you’re quoting someone who isn’t interested in theology. That’s either sloppy thinking or confusing writing.
A: (silence) By the word “theology,” I think my friend meant … something different from what I meant when used the same word. I can see why this is confusing.
Q: I actually wonder whether your friend is real. Maybe he's just a fictional character you created to make a point, which we know you've done before. Anyway, then "your friend" says, “While I appreciate the freshness and youthfulness of ‘the emergent church’ (or ‘postmodern church movement’ as some call it) … Like most other church worlds, they speak from a distinct ‘earthview’ and in a distinct earth-language." Just a few sentences earlier, you talked about how people need to “speak postmodern” – which means speaking an earth language, but now you’re – or your friend is – criticizing us for doing so. Can you see why several of us were frustrated with your piece?
A: Yes. I’m sorry - that really was confusing. I was asking too much of my readers to leave all that for them to sort out. My point I think, was in the next paragraph: “The emergent movement (a dangerous term ...) has wonderful promise, but it could just become another marketing gimmick to/sell books, build egos, and bolster sagging spirits with a new invisible wardrobe for a pudgy, pasty old emperor. No doubt, in some quarters it will squander its potential, but if you care about the possibilities being actualized ...please... let's aim deep and high.”
Q: The thing that bugged me most about your piece came near the end, when you said, “Try to leave your toxicity at home.” Because your attitude seemed toxic in my opinion. People who know you don’t expect that kind of attitude from you.
A: Point taken. Can you imagine why I might have used strong language like that?
Q: You said you were having a bad day.
A: Yes, but there’s more to it than that.
Q: I just have to think that something really got under your skin for you to write something with that degree of confrontation.
A: I’m just very worried that too many of us are swimming for too long in the shallow end of the pool. But you’re right – it’s not helpful for me to say “leave your toxicity at home” and to say so in what sounded like a toxic way. I just got a wonderful email from a young guy named Cody from North Carolina. Can I read it to you? I think he says what I was trying to say, but way, way better.
Q: Sure. Let’s let Cody have the last word. By the way, weren’t you just whining about your email load, yet here you are grateful for an email you received?
A: Yeah. OK. Anyway, here’s his email. By the way, I assure you, Cody is a real person just like Ed, not a fictional character, and he's 17 years old. As you’ll soon see, people can be very wise and mature at 17, with a whole lot to teach middle-aged guys like me.
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0 Comments25 Minutes

Church in Emerging Culture; Five Perspectives

Church in Emerging Culture; Five Perspectives cover I had the idea for this book - on the relationship of church to culture, and especially emerging postmodern culture - and proposed it to Emergent/YS. I think it will be an important book - helping turn potentially divisive issues into shared concerns.

Click here to purchase Church in the Emerging Culture; Five Perspectives.

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0 Comments3 Minutes