On Exorcism and Exorcists: An Evangelical View

We should respect the power of the Devil and his demons, but never fear them. We do not need a rite of exorcism, only the name of Jesus. We are not given a priesthood of exorcists — for every believer is armed with the full promise of the Gospel, united with Christ by faith, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

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The Morning After — What Does it All Mean?

Evangelicals tend to swing between extremes when it comes to politics and elections. We are too easily elated and too readily depressed. Make no mistake. The election results of 2010 will lead to big changes in Washington and far beyond. That in itself is good news. But all this must be put in a truly Christian context.

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Hauerwas — How Real is America’s Christianity?

Professor Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University’s Divinity School is a man who enjoys probing questions and has a habit of irritating the faithful. In a recent edition of The Guardian, London’s famed newspaper of record for the political Left, Hauerwas assured Britons that, contrary to popular reports, America is not so religious. As a matter of fact, he argues that America is actually more secular than Great Britain.

Now, that runs counter to just about all evidence and common sense. Sociological studies indicate that Americans report far higher rates of belief in God and identification with Christianity. Americans attend church at rates that dwarf those of Britons — so much so that America ranks as one of the most religious societies on earth, while the United Kingdom is one of the least. The data is so overwhelming that sociologists have had to explain what is often called American “exceptionalism” when it comes to secularization. America is profoundly unsecular.

So, is Hauerwas nuts? Not likely. He is a provocateur, however, and he means to provoke some thinking here.

The immediate background to the Hauerwas article in The Guardian was the selection of Ed Miliband as the new leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Miliband is an atheist, and as Hauerwas admits, that would be virtually unthinkable in the United States. “Indeed, it seems to be a requirement of political office in America that you believe in God,” he acknowledges.

He then writes: “In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.”

He is no doubt right about this, and this is evidence of the power of “civil religion,” which is not to be confused with biblical Christianity. Britain and most of Europe also had a well-established version of civil religion until the period between the two world wars. In Germany, a tragic form of civil religion served the cause of the Nazi regime.

Hauerwas continues:

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing. Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

Now, there is much in that paragraph to appreciate. Hauerwas wants to make a clear distinction between authentic theism and its counterfeits. Any serious-minded Christian should agree with the necessity of this distinction.

At the same time, one of the difficulties of Hauerwas’s framing of the issue is what appears to be his lack of appreciation for lay Christianity and what some sociologists now define as “lived religion.” While I find Stanley Hauerwas to be unfailingly provocative as a thinker, I go away from the experience of reading his books with the firm impression that the Christian in the pew is just not to be trusted as really believing much of anything. I share his concern to reject civil religion as true Christianity, but I cannot share his dismissive approach to the faith of millions in the pews, who may not be theologians, but who are faithful believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bankruptcy in the Cathedral

It turns out that Robert Schuller offers the best analysis of this crisis with his own words. “No church has a money problem; churches only have idea problems.” The theological crisis in Garden Grove is far more significant than the financial crisis.

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For You, A Video on Reading

I had the honor of joining a panel of great friends at the 2010 RESOLVED conference in Palm Springs. I was asked about reading. Here is the video:

I will hope to see you at RESOLVED 2011. See www.resolved.org

Life — Not Only for “the Perfect, the Privileged, and the Planned”

One of America’s most brilliant voices on behalf of the unborn is now silent. Dr. Mildred Jefferson, the first black woman to graduate from the Harvard Medical School, died on October 15 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, Dr. Jefferson was stunned and outraged. She saw the decision not only as a direct assault upon the unborn, but also upon the ethics of her cherished profession. She later told the U.S. Congress that the decision “gave my profession an almost unlimited license to kill.”

Throughout her long life, Dr. Jefferson remained a stalwart defender of the unborn, and she was a sworn enemy of the Culture of Death. A surgeon, she dedicated her life to preserving and extending the lives of others. She was bracingly honest about what abortion meant for the medical profession:

“With the obstetrician and mother becoming the worst enemy of the child and the pediatrician becoming the assassin for the family,” Dr. Jefferson told Congress, “the state must be enabled to protect the life of the child, born and unborn.”

She once summarized her sense of urgency with these words: “I am at once a physician, a citizen and a woman, and I am not willing to stand aside and allow this concept of expendable human lives to turn this great land of ours into just another exclusive reservation where only the perfect, the privileged and the planned have the right to live.”

Rarely do we encounter such moral clarity matched to such personal courage.

Boys to Men — A Revealing Angle from the World of Advertising

The “Sunday Styles” section of The New York Times is often a useful barometer of the culture. On October 17, that section featured a front-page spread entitled, “From Boys to Men,” and the article is a sign of something larger than mere fashion and advertising.

Reporter Guy Trebay explains that advertisers have shifted their images of male identity from the “skinny skate-rat” of recent years to real and recognizable men. Trebay credits Hedi Slimane of Dior men’s wear for inventing the boy image so prevalent in recent culture. Images of skinny youths with slightly (or more than slightly) androgynous appearances have dominated. Trebay describes this pattern as “designer subversions of age and gender expectations.”

But now, a far more masculine and traditional model of manhood is showing up in advertisements and media images. Joe Levy, editor in chief of Maxim, a magazine that skirts the edge between the traditional men’s magazine and pornography, attributes the shift to economic factors. In other words, when unemployment threatens, skinny skate-rat images bring no comfort. Instead, men who look like they might actually hold a job are back in style.

You will love how Trebay describes the trajectory of the new man-in-demand: “You lose the T-shirt and the skateboard. You buy an interview suit and a package of Gillette Mach 3 blades. You grow up, in other words.”

That is a classic statement that deserves great prominence. The crisis of delayed manhood for so many boys and young men is now well documented, and the larger culture reflects this phenomenon. Advertising does not rule the world, but it is a powerful indicator of the cultural direction. Advertisers make it their business to know where the culture is headed. This new trend can only be seen as good news, even if it does not yet represent any profound recovery of sanity in the society.

One important aspect of this report ties directly to a vital aspect of biblical masculinity — the reality and value of a man’s work. These advertisers are not shifting merely to older and more rugged males, but to men who look like they just might be able to hold a job and do it well.

That is a healthy and promising dimension of this new development. One statement from this article deserves to be imprinted on the male brain: “You grow up, in other words.”

Evolution and the Empty Nest Syndrome

Michael Shermer publishes Skeptic magazine, teaches at Claremont Graduate University, and writes a regular column for Scientific American. He is an ardent defender of evolutionary theory and a well-known critic of all supernatural claims. In today’s edition of USA Today, Shermer writes about the “empty nest syndrome” — the difficulty many parents face when their offspring go off to college.

While this has always been a difficult time for parents, in recent years many parents seem to be having a more difficult time than usual. Some colleges report that parents have to be told to go home. One college reported about a mother who slept in her daughter’s dorm room for a couple of nights until the girl’s roommate complained to school authorities.

Shermer has now experienced the “empty nest syndrome” for himself, as his daughter began her college studies just over a month ago. He clearly misses his daughter. And yet, how does he explain this experience?

He writes: “Why does it hurt so bad? Science has an answer: We are social mammals who experience deep attachment to our fellow friends and family, an evolutionary throwback to our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days of living in small bands.”

You read that right. Shermer reduces the love of a parent for a child to “an evolutionary throwback.” He adds to this a physiological theory:

We parents can’t help feeling this way, and neuroscience explains why. Addictive chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin surge through the brain and body during positive social interactions (especially touch). This causes us to feel closer to one another. Between parents and offspring, it cements a bond so solid that it is broken only under the most unusual (and usually pathological) circumstances.

He concludes with words that can hardly be described as sentimental. “Each of us parents makes one small contribution to the evolutionary imperative of life’s continuity from one generation to the next,” he suggests.

Rarely is the sterility and bleakness of the evolutionary worldview displayed with such candor. The love of a parent for a child is reduced to an evolutionary factor that works through a physiological process of chemical interactions in the brain.

If evolution is true, it must explain everything. Michael Shermer’s article demonstrates just how unsatisfying that explanation is.

Science and Religion Aren’t Friends?

Are science and Christianity friends? The answer to that is an emphatic yes, for any true science will be perfectly compatible with the truths we know by God’s revelation. But this science is not naturalistic, while modern science usually is.

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Four Views of God? Another Look at the Baylor Study

Does America worship four different gods? Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today gives considerable attention to a recent study undertaken by two sociologists at Baylor University. The professors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, report their findings in a new book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us.

The angle USA Today took is both predictable and interesting. With an important election date before us and with any number of issues dividing Americans, any argument that puts these questions into clearer focus is likely to gain attention. Froese and Bader argue that Americans cluster around four different understandings of God. They identify these “four gods” as the “Authoritarian God,” the “Benevolent God,” the “Critical God,” and the ‘Distant God.”

You can pretty much figure this scheme out for yourself, but the Authoritarian God is a deity of divine judgment, revealed truth, and moral precepts. The Benevolent God is loving and non-judgmental. The Critical God is a deity of delayed judgment and little engagement with the world. The Distant God is the god of Deism — a deity who created the world but is really a distant force in the cosmos.

Now, the front-page placement of the story in USA Today can be traced to what Froese and Bader assert are the likely moral and political postures taken by those who believe in each of these four gods. In the main, the big issues divide those who follow the Authoritarian God and the Benevolent God.

The big theological problem with this scheme is that it is a pure abstraction. The God of the Bible is unquestionably authoritative, but He is also loving, merciful, and truly benevolent. He is transcendent, but He also actively rules over his creation and creatures. No theologian would argue against the notion that an individual’s concept of God is largely determinative of all subsequent thought and mental operations. But the easy division of America’s religious diversity into these four arbitrary categories is more unhelpful than helpful.

Hats off to USA Today for its coverage of this research and book. The front-page exposure of this story indicates that this paper still believes that theological issues are important and worthy of primary attention.

We will not answer to four gods, but to the triune God of the Bible. This new research out of Baylor is interesting, but more for its political and social implications than for any serious theological consideration.

Evolution: When Atheists and Baptists Agree?

Writing at “On Faith,” a joint project of The Washington Post and Newsweek, Rachel Held Evans calls for me to stop arguing against evolution and get with the program. She takes particular aim at this statement I made at the 2010 Ligonier Ministries National Conference: “The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures.”

Evans, author of Evolving in Monkey Town, a memoir about growing up in Dayton, Tennessee, scolds me for presenting the theory of evolution as inherently contradictory to Scripture. Furthermore, she insists that the net effect of my opposition to evolution will be an exodus of evangelical young people who will believe me when I insist that this contraction is irreconcilable. She accuses me of presenting a “false dichotomy.”

She writes further:

Mohler would be wise to consider the words of St. Augustine, who, (centuries before anyone had heard of common descent), said this of his interpretation of Genesis: “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

There are few figures so influential in my own thinking as Augustine, and his wise counsel about allowing the plain texts of Scripture to interpret the more obscure is inherently healthy. But it is Rachel Held Evans who must bear the responsibility to explain how any acceptance of evolution can avoid “prejudice to the faith we have received.”

Her glib and superficial endorsement of evolution and its reconciliation with Christianity is all too common and all too irresponsible. If she is going to quote Augustine, she should deal with the consequences. How are we to reconcile the absence of an historical Adam, for example, with Paul’s very clear and unambiguous affirmation of Adam’s headship and its centrality to the gospel? The age of the earth is not the central question, though it is an unavoidable and important question.

Most of those who urge a reconciliation of evolution and the Christian faith do so at the most superficial level, without ever acknowledging the near-total transformation of Christian theology that must result if serious minds ask the serious questions and do the serious work of actually thinking seriously.

The impact of evolution on the Christian gospel cannot be reduced to “both an old earth and a loving God.” That just does not represent intellectual honesty. Those who think responsibly about these questions must deal directly with the theological implications — something totally missing from Rachel Held Evans’ article.

She is frustrated that atheists and Baptists (to use her terminology) agree that evolution and Christianity are incompatible. She may be frustrated, but on this score the atheists and the biblical Christians are both correct, and both understand what is at stake.

The Black Church and the Prosperity Gospel

The scandals surrounding Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long now center on allegations of sexual immorality put forth by four young men who had been teenagers under his ministry. But previous attention had been directed at the financial elements of his ministry at Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

Eddie Long is a teacher of prosperity theology, a perverse distortion of the gospel that transforms the message of Christ into a message of secular salvation through wealth and prosperity. Scholars of the movement have studied why it is that poor, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised people seem so drawn to a false gospel that leaves them poor but makes their preachers wealthy. They seem to find encouragement and hope, even a source of pride, in a pastor who preaches prosperity and lives in ostentatious wealth, even as they contribute their own meager funds.

The Bible is clear in warning against false prophets who preach false gospels and those who would use spiritual authority for their own wealth. The world is scandalized by the false promises of prosperity, and believers in Christ should be just as scandalized about this false promise. But Christians should be far more concerned about the eternal consequences of prosperity theology — its false promise of salvation through financial abundance, of health and wealth through the exercise of “seed faith.” Missing from the prosperity gospel is the message of salvation through faith in Christ alone — a salvation that makes every believer unspeakably wealthy in the grace of Christ but does not promise earthly riches or unblemished physical health.

Writing in the “Houses of Worship” column in today’s edition of The Wall Street Journal, DeForest B. [“Buster”] Soaries, Jr., pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, writes of the scandal of the prosperity gospel and its popularity among African American churches:

The prosperity gospel—the idea that God guarantees truly faithful believers physical health and financial wealth—is not new. But cable and satellite television broadcasting have turned prosperity preachers into celebrities that have followings similar to musicians and movie stars. A movement and a theology that once seemed like an aberration among black churches now appears to be mainstream.

He writes further:

Teaching that desire for more material possessions is a sign of one’s religious piety is simply offering a justification for crass consumerism. Prosperity theology elevates greed to a virtue instead of leaving it as one of the seven deadly sins.

Of course, it is much easier for clergy to preach this gospel when they are living proof that the “system” works. Hence the celebrity-like lifestyles of so many religious leaders. The fact that the people most likely to do well in the prosperity gospel movement are the people at the top suggests that it is all an ecclesiastical pyramid scheme.

Soaries seems mostly concerned in this article about the false promises of wealth and the economic effects of these teachings on African Americans. All Christians should share his outrage and know that prosperity theology is found among all races and ethnicities. The television screens are filled with their messages and heresies.

But the central problem with prosperity theology is that is is a false gospel. The prosperity preachers do not promise too much. They promise all the wrong things.

Of course, The Wall Street Journal is an interesting place to find an article on prosperity theology. The editors of that famous newspaper know what leads to financial wealth — that is their business — and they know that prosperity theology leads into deeper poverty. It’s only those at the top who drive the expensive cars and ride in private jets.

Divorce — The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

Evangelical Christians are gravely concerned about the family, and this is good and necessary. But our credibility on the issue of marriage is significantly discounted by our acceptance of divorce. To our shame, the culture war is not the only place that an honest confrontation with the divorce culture is missing. Divorce is now the scandal of the evangelical conscience.

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It Takes a Court to Define Sin?

When a scandal breaks in the media, attention to previous scandals comes almost as a reflex. With accusations swirling around Atlanta’s Bishop Eddie Long, the media have turned back to Ted Haggard, who, at the time of his own scandal, was pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a large independent mega-church, and president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Haggard resigned in 2006 after a male prostitute accused him of paying for sex and buying drugs. Confronted by the media, Haggard admitted to “sexual immorality” with the prostitute. Just last year, he admitted also to having engaged in “sexual immorality” with a male volunteer at New Life Church when the man was twenty-two, echoing the accusations against Bishop Long. In recent months, Ted Haggard has started a new church in Colorado Springs.

What makes all of this so instructive are comments made in the press by both Ted Haggard and his wife, Gayle. In light of the accusations against Long, Haggard told AOL News: “Nobody’s guilty until the court says he’s guilty.”

Nobody’s guilty until the court says he’s guilty?

In a legal context, that might have some cogency, but a church cannot possibly settle for this as a principle of how to deal with accusations of sin. The church does not need the courts to define either sin or its remedy. Haggard’s statement is particularly troubling given his own story.

On TV’s “Inside Edition,” Gayle Haggard said that Bishop Long “has been a great man. … He has done wonderful things. I hope they hold onto that knowledge as they try to understand what these allegations are about, if they are indeed true.”

The bizarre part of that statement is her encouragement to the church that it remember Bishop Long as a great man and “hold onto that knowledge as they try to understand what these allegations are about, if indeed they are true.”

Well, if true, I think we all know “what these allegations are about.”

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