What Harold Camping Taught me About Being a Christian

Harold Camping is still here.  For that matter, so am I.

The world’s population of Christians wasn’t “raptured” last Saturday night as 89-year-old civil engineer-turned Bible numerologist Harold Camping predicted, which leaves at least a few Christians dumbfounded, embarrassed, and several thousand dollars poorer.

Naturally, I didn’t buy-in to Camping’s game, which is seemingly directly contrary to Matthew 24:36, and I even took the time for a chuckle on Friday when a friend pointed out the post-rapture service Eternal Earthbound Pets.

But sadly, several believers were featured in the media this weekend as having spent their life savings on placards and advertisements to warn the world of a “Bible-guaranteed” May 21, 2011 apocalypse that Camping was “utterly, absolutely… absolutely convinced” was going to happen.

As a Christian, I’m embarrassed.  Here at Faith Line Protestants, Cameron and I like to talk about evangelism and our relationships with people of other faiths – opening a can of worms that we don’t necessarily know how to close.  But the sad demonstration by Camping and his followers this week has pointed once again to the thesis that Cameron and I are trying to articulate to other Christians:

It’s missing the point.

For all the media buzz and interviews I saw leading up to May 21, 2011, not once do I remember hearing the message of the kingdom of God – the message that Jesus was preaching.

It’s not a message that denies Jesus’ second coming or the notion of judgment.  It’s not a message that ignores the need to recognize one’s imperfections, the requirement of repentance, or the truth that redemption is found only in Christ.

But it is a message that talks about restoration, about compassion, about forgiveness.  It means restoration for the individual soul and the whole world.  And it’s so much more than a ticket to heaven (whether you’re boarding that train at Jesus’ second coming or via the more… traditional method).

As a Christian, I feel a responsibility to communicate to people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) that the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was a message far greater than what Family Radio billboards were preaching.  In fact, I believe that when this message is communicated clearly and effectively, people of other faiths and traditions (including those of no faith at all) may even be interested in knowing more.  When it’s a message presented through scare-tactics however…

Gabe Lyons and Jonathan Merritt said it well in their reaction piece on the Washington Post’s On Faith:

It seems this charade provides both Christians and the watching world with a teachable moment. Christians need to recognize that fear-based conversion tactics may work on young children, but they rarely resolve rational thinkers’ long-term concerns about faith. Those who went running for the rapture must now sit to wrestle with the serious questions that plagued them before. We must learn that it’s easy to rile people up with future headlines of destruction, but it’s better to inspire people with God’s will for our lives in the present.

When Christians succumb to thinking that sees escape as the answer to the world’s brokenness, we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Jesus didn’t shrink from talking about future realities, but it’s hard to ignore that he spent the majority of his life restoring brokenness, rather than running from it. Christians often become so focused on the afterlife that they stop investing in their current life. Harold Camping will have done us all a favor if this serves as a wake-up call to Christian escapists and fear-peddlers.

Restoring the brokenness, not running from it.  That’s the message I want my life to preach.

To Boldly Go: What the Acts of the Apostles Say About Interfaith

Raphael, _Acts of the Apostles_ tapestry. (Taken from http://toto.lib.unca.edu/)

 

When approaching the early church from a Biblical perspective, one must unavoidably begin with the Acts of the Apostles (or, as many Bibles have it—simply “Acts”). This book, which comes right after the Gospel of John, tells of the apostles’ interactions in the world after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.

In many ways, Acts is a rather odd book. It’s filled with miracles, martyrdoms, conversions, and the curious workings of the so-called “holy spirit,” which serves as a source of spiritual guidance and power.

One may fairly ask what this book has to do—if anything—with interfaith cooperation. After all, nearly every story told in its pages has the apostles going into a group of non-believers, proclaiming the Gospel, and then either winning followers to their cause or getting thrown in prison (sometimes both). And, in a few instances, we are told of an apostle being put to death for proclaiming his faith.

To the outsider, Acts can certainly seem aggressive and rather off-putting (what is all this “speaking in tongues” business, anyway?) and even to the seasoned church-goer can pose some interesting questions. Yet I think there’s something quite important one can gain here that bears significance when discussing how evangelism intersects with interfaith.

All throughout the book, the writer of Acts describes the apostles as having proclaimed their faith boldly. This boldness is important. As I’ve already mentioned, spreading the Gospel of Jesus was risky business, and the apostles—and by extension, any member of the early church—were willing to die for it. They possessed a deep conviction for their message, presumably because, as the Bible says, they knew it to be true. Peter and the others had walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, and dined with Jesus… after he had died.

One of the criticisms Greg and I hear most often regarding interfaith work is that it entails a diluting of one’s faith and a stunting of one’s evangelical power. The thought runs something like this: “Interfaith cooperation requires respect for others’ beliefs, thus inhibiting my ability to tell them about Christ and their need for salvation. Therefore it is useless to become involved in interfaith because it does not necessarily result in large numbers of converts at the end.” Indeed, did not the early church strive to convert all those who they encountered?

I would say that this approach comes from two places: 1.) a possible fear of/lack of faith in one’s Christian beliefs, or 2.) a misunderstanding of how interfaith cooperation typically works.

Typically in interfaith scenarios, one’s faith is put on the table—people know you are a Christian. It then becomes your actions that define what living a Christian life means to you. In interfaith work, everyone acknowledges a fundamental theological disagreement; Christians know that theologically they differ tremendously from Jews and Muslims and Sikhs, for example, and that each believes they hold the exclusive religious truth. Thus, the Christian willing to use interfaith as a platform for evangelism does not need to state outright the exclusive claims made by their faith unless asked to do so. What should happen instead is that Christians enact the teachings of their faith to show what it means to them and what it means to others who choose to live by its precepts, and, when given the opportunity, share their story of how the Christian faith has transformed their life and motivated them to serve the community and the world.

When we shrink from engaging in interfaith cooperation, I believe we fail to proclaim our faith with boldness. Now, I know that, to some, this notion may seem and sound rather counter-intuitive. I know that one may say that this boldness/conviction should actually give license to the believer to rebuke those of other faiths. Indeed, even the apostles did this when addressing the Pharisees and the like.

Yet I think we need to be cautious here, as we do not operate in the same period under the same contexts as the apostles did, and we must adapt our notions of evangelism accordingly. Simply stating that Christians believe to hold exclusively the truth necessary for salvation would be, as I stated above, just stating the obvious in interfaith dialogue. Everyone doing interfaith work knows that each faith claims something exclusive, and so we must look for a better way of expressing our faith with boldness than rebuking others, which can so easily fall prey to over generalization and the preaching of a fire-and-brimstone message of eternal damnation. (As many have pointed out in these past months, this message is not a popular one in today’s culture, but I won’t get into that here.)

I believe that there is a way to find balance. I believe that there is a way to show boldness through your actions that do not define themselves against others. What do you think? Is it possible to be bold for your faith in interfaith cooperation efforts without coming across as preachy? Or do you think interfaith does in fact stunt our ability to proclaim our faith?

What do the Acts of the Apostles say about interfaith?

Looking Both Ways: What Lies Ahead for FLP

Whew! What a busy (and rather eventful) past few weeks!

I sincerely apologize for the silence over here—it isn’t good for the life of a blog if the two contributors rarely post. Greg’s been inundated with university work, and I’ve… well, okay, I’ve just been traveling to foreign countries and getting swept up in Holy Week and Royal Wedding celebrations.  But regardless of my actions, I’ve not kept up with diligence my responsibilities over here at FLP (with the exception of a quick response to the breaking news regarding Osama Bin Laden). That’s about to change.

As you all know, Greg has been working on a series that examines what the concept of the “Kingdom of God” has to do with interfaith cooperation. In this same spirit, I will begin a series of my own that should—if all goes well—run alongside Greg’s “Kingdom” posts as a sort of complement.

Instead of the Kingdom, I’ll be delving straight into scripture, looking at the early church to see how the apostles interacted with the cultures of their day, and how these interactions can inform our interfaith endeavor. First I’ll go to Acts, and then move from there into Paul’s letters and so on.

Furthermore, look for FLP’s first guest post in the coming weeks, written by the Rev. Tim Baranoski of Grace Cumberland Presbyterian Church (just outside my hometown of Nashville, TN). He recently wrote a great post for our friend Chris Stedman’s blog, Non-Prophet Status, and he has agreed to write a post for us as well! Certainly stay tuned for that. You can check out Rev. Tim’s blog here.

Greg and I have been discussing ways of expanding Faith Line Protestants, gaining more regular contributors, and bringing in more guests to post. We both realize that the strains of student life make it difficult to maintain quality content, and we don’t want to deliver lackluster material.

Please join us as we re-invigorate life over here at FLP and break into new topics and discussions!

Reflecting on the Death of Osama bin Laden

Screen capture from digital edition of The Daily Illini. May 2, 2011.

 

Sunday night found me fixed to my computer.  A friend’s email tipped me off to breaking news, so, naturally, I turned to the authority in up-to-the-minute news: Facebook.

A few hints of Osama bin Laden’s death had already leaked, and a Google search confirmed the rumor by sheer magnitude even before I landed on something reputable.  When I finally came to the live stream at whitehouse.gov and waited for the President to speak on the matter, I pondered what this means to our country – a symbol of terror and extremism finally put to rest.

Later, as I watched celebrations unfold in major cities across the country and on Facebook profiles around the globe, I quickly began to search for a place of deeper understanding in light of mixed emotions.

My faith teaches me to love my enemies.

Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48.
So while my thoughts jump between September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve missed the point. 

The death of Osama Bin Laden is certainly a significant development in the global war on terror.  It is an incident that was long ago deemed necessary by those responsible for making such decisions, a task for which I thank God I am not responsible.  But we must not allow ourselves to believe that another murder is going to solve the problem.  There was no victory on May 1, 2011.

Destruction of our enemy, although perhaps necessary to quell the threat of terrorism in the present day, will only motivate a violent response and serve as fuel for the voices of evil that teach young children to kill others out of national pride or religion.  It will not prevent terrorism in the future.

If we want to destroy terrorism, our fight does not involve a gun or a missile.  It involves relationships. I have often mentioned Terry Jones, a Florida “pastor” who put the Koran on trial.  And often I ask — what if he had a Muslim friend?  How would his actions be different?

The same must be granted Osama bin Laden.  What if he had lived in a world where no one is portrayed as the “other,” where all are granted respect by default, where bigotry and prejudice did not exist?  What if he had a friend who could put a face, a name, a personality, or a life to the populations he has dedicated his life to destroying?  For a man who had become so evil, it would have had to begin early – before the ideology of extremism claimed him.

If you cut off the head, another will take its place.  But if you teach a generation the language of cooperation, the technique of service, and the power of love, then you train an army that will change our world to a more peaceful place.

As a Christian, I believe that the love Christ demonstrated is the key to bringing peace to the world.  And in Jesus that love manifested as compassionate service, was communicated through a story, and ultimately, profoundly demonstrated in personal sacrifice.  So let’s start in the same way – with acts of service, with compassion, with stories.  Let’s reach across faith lines and show the disciples of extremism that the differences which led them to destroy can inspire us to work together.

“No Man is an Island”: One Christian’s Response to Bin Laden’s Death

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. (www.chicagotribune.com)

So, Osama Bin Laden is dead. But what now? What is our response?

Students all over the US are flocking to the streets, throwing gargantuan parties, singing songs, celebrating. On the one hand, this event does mark some kind of progress that seems to warrant at least a bit of frivolity. However, it’s important not to let the zealous rush override the moral fiber of our wonderful nation—and, as Christians, the integrity of our faith. It’s one thing to rejoice over the triumph of peace, but another to take unhealthy pleasure in the loss of human life.

And there is a difference.

As Christians, we must remember the words of Scripture.

In Romans chapter 12, Paul says:

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says:

7 Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

-and-

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The words in the verses above do not always sync with reality. For instance, sometimes sin seems the only way to defeat sin. (It is here one could easily turn to the tangent of “just war theory,” but we won’t open that can of worms here.) I believe this is just a function of our fallen world, and while we as Christians must try to transcend this cycle of violence-for-violence by remembering the words of Scripture, we also can’t place an unrealistic moral expectation upon it all—we cannot, no matter how hard we try, be “perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect,” for instance.

I know that posts like this one can so easily come across as pompous pontification, especially in light of such atrocities as 9/11 and a decade-long war. We want to feel a sense of victory that justifies the prior tragedy and dysfunction.

So, of course, the news of Bin Laden’s death brings with it a rush of relief, and I have to admit that even I gave an enthusiastic fist pump when I logged onto Facebook this morning and saw the news. Wrapped within his figure we find a terrific jumble of symbolism—the evil he represented, the brainwashing of young men, the anxiety and fear his actions have brought to the world—but we must keep separate the symbols and the man himself. I believe as Christians we walk a fine line on these matters.

In the verses I quoted above from Romans, Paul ends by exhorting us to “overcome evil with good.” So I challenge you: what kind of good can we make of this evil?

I leave you with this, the words of the poet John Donne:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (-Meditation 17.)

 

(All Bible verses taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

God is on the Move

Part III in a continued series on the kingdom of God and the interfaith movement.


I can’t stop thinking about the kingdom.

Like I’ve discussed in my recent posts, it’s been on my mind ever since my interfaith work intersected with the church of my youth as I was reflecting on my relationships and experiences in light of North Park University theologian Scot McKnight’s ideas put forth in his book One.Life.

And I’ve been pulling out some books – old and new.  On my desk in my office, you’ll find papers from Lab on a Chip intercalated with articles from Christianity Today and printouts of from the White House’s recently announced Interfaith and Community Service Challenge.  You’ll find books on following Jesus stacked with an anatomy atlas and a box of cereal (because, yes, I do practically live at my desk on campus).

And as a good graduate student should, I am chipping away bit-by-bit at everything – skimming a bit here and there, thinking, reading, highlighting (and occasionally remembering to eat breakfast).  And amidst the bustle, I am finding a pervading sense that it all fits together, though I am only slowly gaining the ability to articulate it.

But I’d even venture to say that the common thread in all these things has something to do with the kingdom of God.  Today, I want to take another look at the kingdom message.  As Allen Wakabayashi in his book Kingdom Come begins to explain the meaning of the kingdom of God, he draws on C.S. Lewis’ great allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Four children stumble into a magical land called Narnia.  The true king of the land is Aslan, a magnificent lion, the Christ figure.  Yet at the time of the story, Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, who has cursed the land so that it is perpetually in a bitter cold winter with no Christmas.  But at one point in the story, Christmas does come as Father Christmas comes, dispensing gifts.  Then springtime begins to melt, the trees release their snow covers, flowers bloom and birds chirp.  What is going on?  Father Christmas explains, ‘Aslan is on the move!  The Witch’s magic is weakening!’  We come to understand that wherever Aslan draws near, springtime breaks out in the midst of the bitter winter of the White Witch.”

Just as the effects of Aslan’s movement are seen in the restoration of Narnia from winter back to spring, Wakabayashi suggests that the kingdom of God is about the “reinstatement of God’s intentions for his entire creation.”  It is a continual process of renewal.

As a Christian, I have hope for the melting snow, blooming flowers, and chirping birds that signify the kingdom of God.  They are things I have experienced in my own spiritual life: forgiveness, fulfillment, purpose. Yet they are also things I see God bringing piece-by-piece to the world around me, often administered through one person serving another.  Perhaps it’s even reflected in the mess on my desk: technologies for promoting health, training that enables the service others, a personal search to further understand God.

This is also the message that I want to communicate through my interfaith work – especially through the structured service and storytelling I mention repeatedly:  God is on the move.

Restoration has come and is coming.  This, I think, is the message of the kingdom of God.  It’s also the story I’m telling to others, with both words and actions, as a Christian in the interfaith movement.

Investigating the Kingdom

Part II in a series on the kingdom of God and the interfaith movement

It's got something to do with a mustard seed...

Roughly two weeks ago, I suggested that a clearer understanding of Jesus’ ministry would help us to understand better this idea of evangelicals doing interfaith work.  Today, I continue that discussion with a closer look at the idea of the kingdom of God.  It’s been a busy time, so I apologize for the delay in writing, but look for this discussion to pick up in the coming weeks.

I’d like to focus this current exploration of Jesus’ ministry with two questions:

1.       What was Jesus preaching?  (i.e. what was his message?)

2.       How did Jesus preach? (i.e. how did his words and actions communicate that message?)

I began to answer question 1 with enigmatic statements about the “kingdom of God,” referencing Scot McKnight’s One.Life where he suggests that a message that communicates only a directive to accept Jesus (in order to escape hell) and live a pious life is a truncated version of what Jesus was preaching.

But the whole gospel – the gospel of the kingdom of God – is a holistic message of God’s desires for our world.  It’s a message of restoration for the individual soul and the whole society.  It’s a message that I believe was not only reflected in Jesus’ sermons and stories, but his relationships, his healing of others, and his death and resurrection.

But we’ll get into how the kingdom message was communicated in coming posts.  For now, I want to borrow from Kingdom Come, by Allen Wakabayashi, where some key examples from Jesus’ parables discussing the Kingdom of God are outlined.

“In fact, when we consider Jesus’ public teaching we find that the kingdom of God was central to his ministry.  Jesus used parables as his primary means of public teaching, and most of them are about the kingdom of God.  For instance, he compares the kingdom of God to the following:

These parables are one way Jesus communicated the message of the kingdom of God.  Each one needs unpacking and, although I won’t promise a dedicated post on each one, I guarantee that my future writing will take a closer look.  For now, I invite you to follow the links for each passage to an online Bible resource to investigate these parables on your own.

Before signing off for the day, here’s a reminder of where we’re headed:

The interfaith movement is an invitation to serve others and share stories with people from other faith traditions.  Jesus too was a storyteller and a servant.  And while the interfaith movement wasn’t founded for spreading the Christian gospel, Evangelical Christians are invited to the table to tell stories and serve others, thus it becomes a space for communicating the gospel in a unique way.

But we must look to Christ as a model for how to do this.  How did Jesus communicate the good news?  How did he present the message?

The interfaith movement doesn’t seem to be compatible with evangelism that manifests as a crusade to accuse the world of its sinfulness.  Sin – a failure to live up to God’s standard – is a part of the message, but if our mission as Christians is only to tell the world what it has done wrong in our eyes, I don’t know that our voices will be heard.  Jesus, however, was heard by many (although not everyone… another discussion for later perhaps?).

Let’s continue to look to Jesus’ example and seek an understanding for how evangelicals are called to interfaith work.

Vatican II: The Catholic Promise to Build Interfaith Relationships

Vatican II, the Nave of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Photo courtesy of saintpetersbasilica.org.)

What’s in a name?

This famous question from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet bears special significance whenever one finds themselves given the task of actually naming something—whether devising the moniker of an organization, or even naming one’s own child. Names are important. They’re symbolic, descriptive, representative.

If you click on the “Faith Line Protestant” tab at the top of our page, you can find a description of ours. In it, we make it explicit that, though we may use the term “Protestant” to describe ourselves, we do not intend this to alienate or distance ourselves from the Catholic community. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has much to offer interfaith cooperation embedded in its very theological framework as a result of Vatican II.

So, what is Vatican II, you ask? Well, for those like myself who need a little brushing up on the goings-on of the Catholic Church, here is the Wikipedia article.  Essentially, Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council, was an ecumenical council held in the early 1960s in Rome to discuss the Church’s response to a rapidly changing world and the relation of these changes to their theology. It lasted about three years.

Many things came out of Vatican II, perhaps the most noticeable of which was the alteration of the liturgy. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic mass had to be given in Latin, the official language of the church. Yet after Vatican II, churches encouraged greater participation of the laity in the liturgy of mass. This meant that mass was said in the vernacular instead of Latin (although one can still attend Latin mass in Catholic churches—I have).

But liturgical changes weren’t the only things to come from Vatican II.

In reading through Daniel L. Migliore’s highly accessible introduction to Christian Theology, Faith Seeking Understanding, I came across an interesting chapter entitled “The Finality of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism.” In this chapter, Migliore spends a section discussing Vatican II’s unprecedented proclamations regarding interfaith relationships. I have to admit, what I learned certainly surprised me.

While still maintaining that the Christian faith contains the ultimate truth, Vatican II upholds the particular identities of other faith traditions, and, as Migliore says, “acknowledges in them ‘a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’” Furthermore, Vatican II calls on Christians to take part in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions,” and engage in service projects as a means for establishing common ground (pg. 309).

Thus, the Catholic community has, for the past half a century, already codified interfaith cooperation as a part of their very ethos. I’ve always known Catholics to be willing to participate in interfaith efforts, but now I better understand why. I hadn’t known how explicitly they’re doctrinal declarations extolled interfaith cooperation.

With a history of our own sectarian tensions, perhaps the many branches of the Christian church—both Catholics and Protestants—can come together in agreement on interfaith cooperation and service, encouraging peaceful intra-faith (as much as interfaith) relationships. So, when thinking about planning service projects, don’t forget to include other Christian communities that may differ from your own. Building bridges doesn’t stop with those of other traditions.

(Daniel L. Migliore is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. For his CV and a list of his works, see his page on PTS’s website here.)