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From the Horses’ Mouths: Students on Religion

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

About this time last year I wrote a series of posts on the religious lives of twentysomethings, in which I summarized some anecdotal findings under the headings of things I didn’t find surprising, things I did find surprising, and some suggestions for Christian leaders.

I’m going to be briefer this time.

Here are some themes that have emerged consistently in the last year from my students’ reflections on religion in their lives.

They are pretty certain there’s a higher power.
I get my fair share of atheists and agnostics, but when push comes to shove, the vast majority of my students are confident there is Something or Someone out there. (In this way, they reflect the population of the United States in general.)

They don’t feel church is necessary.
Many of my students, regardless of their religious background, don’t believe worshiping with a religious community is necessary. For most of them, “being a good person” is essential; being part of a congregation is superfluous. Some of my Roman Catholic students feel guilty about not attending mass, because they feel they are supposed to—but that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t see the point.

They pray when they are in trouble.
An overwhelmingly high percentage of my students say that they do not consider themselves religious but, even so, when they are in a tight spot—they pray. I’m tempted to say this is a conditioned response that kids learn growing up in religious families or communities. But many without a religious background still claim to pray when the going gets tough.

They feel their questions are unique.
Many of my students say they are no longer religious because they wrestled with difficult questions as they were coming of age in their faith. They felt isolated by their perception that no one else was wrestling with the same questions. I hear this enough that I have to assume that many students are asking the same questions and none of them know it!

They feel their religious leaders and family can’t handle their questions.
These students who struggle with faith questions are routinely turned off by one of two responses: 1) they are scolded by parents or religious mentors for lack of faith or 2) their parents or religious leaders try—and fail—to offer satisfactory responses.

They don’t feel free to make truth claims.
Even my students who profess faith—whether in Christ or karma (or both!)—are afraid to claim that they are right. Many of them will say, “I believe Jesus is the Son of God,” and then immediately qualify the statement: “But that’s just my opinion and people are free to disagree with me.” Religious leaders may feel young people don’t know what they believe. It may be that they know but are afraid to admit it for fear of appearing intolerant.

What should we make of this? Well, for one, it strikes me that we most often emphasize what young people believe. We rightly want them to be equipped with the right information about the faith. Maybe, since prayer appears to be an instinct of sorts, we should emphasize spiritual formation. Second, we should be thrilled that students have questions about their faith. And we need to learn not to be intimidated by them. I frequently tell students, “I don’t know”; and they don’t mind. But they want someone to talk through the issues with. Who doesn’t?!

I’m eager to hear from you. Thoughts?

Misreading Scripture–Animated

Monday, January 21st, 2013

I can only imagine what a writer must feel like when Hollywood makes a movie based on his (or her) novel. It’s a feeling a writer of nonfiction, like me, doesn’t have much hope of experiencing. But wouldn’t you know it, a reader of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes has created a short animated video based on chapter six of our book.

How do you like that?

Christ, Culture, and the Generation Gap

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Grandma listened patiently as I described the content of the album I was obsessed with that summer. The songs told the story of two brothers. One was the family’s shame, an alcoholic in jail for some petty crime. The other was a politician with a promising future who appeared, to all outside observers, to have everything together. In the end we listeners discover that, deep inside, the loser brother is a decent guy, and his model brother is a monster.

“It doesn’t sound very edifying,” was Grandma’s simple reply.

I tried to persuade her of the virtues of such art. It laid bare our biases, I argued, especially the subtle seduction to judge people’s character by superficial appearances. I waxed eloquent about the value of viewing reality from different perspectives. I brought my best stuff!

She wasn’t convinced. She felt I was compromising my Christian values by allowing a secular worldview to warp my perception of the truth.

This conversation with my grandmother illustrates a broader issue. Younger Christians often feel their elders are out of touch, behind the times, chained to antiquated notions of proper behavior. At worst, they are ill-equipped to do good work for the gospel because they refuse to engage the culture for Christ. At the same time, older Christians often view younger generations as disrespectful, uncommitted to biblical holiness, or generally unwilling to hoe the hard row of Christian discipleship. At worst, they are compromisers who sacrifice Christian faithfulness in order to be accepted by the broader culture.

Central to my disagreement with my grandmother was this: I believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to engage this sort of cultural offering. She believed that to be a faithful Christian I needed to flee from it fast and far.

Read the rest at

How Christian is Local, Organic, and Fair Trade?

Monday, November 5th, 2012

Food is on my mind a lot of the time. Besides simply deciding what we might like to eat for dinner, my wife and I give careful thought to where our food comes from. We try to buy organic and local and seasonal produce whenever we can. We do this for a number of reasons, but a key reason is that we feel we ought to be more thoughtful about our food related decisions. On one side we feel the steady pressure applied by secular leaders and commentators urging Americans to get us to rethink food. Often termed the “food movement,” this increasing food-related advocacy has a host of loosely related goals, as food writer Michael Pollan explained in The New York Review of Books, including

school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare … [and] against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; … farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; … efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; … farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.

Christian leaders are weighing in on these issues, too. Not only are good food decisions a matter of good citizenship, some argue; they are central to good discipleship, too. In Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (IVP 2012), for example, coauthor Fred Bahnson daydreams, “What if we planted church-supported community gardens, permaculture parishes … and apostolic farms that fed entire neighborhoods? … What if we created infrastructures of holiness, where God’s kingdom of shalom could flourish on earth as in heaven?” It’s a dazzling vision for some. And it raises the stakes in the food debate, as it casts it in eternal terms.

It’s all a bit overwhelming. (And we’ve only scratched the surface.) The critical question at this point is how are Christians supposed to think about these issues? Is buying and eating a certain kind of food a Christian imperative?

Read the rest at

Sister Aimee on Broadway

Friday, October 19th, 2012

Aimee Semple McPherson, known as “Sister Aimee” in her lifetime, may have been America’s first mega celebrity. Think

"Stop! You are breaking God's law!"

Oprah squared—and before cable or Twitter. Comparisons to Oprah are apt, considering (if I remember correctly) Sister Aimee was the first woman in America to own her own broadcasting company. With origins in the Salvation Army, she was a light-up-the-stage actress/evangelist in Los Angeles with a heart for the poor and a passion for the limelight. She married and divorced several times, disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and reappeared a megastar.

Anyway, Kathie Lee Gifford has written a musical about Sister Aimee. I’m surprised no one’s done this yet, and I think it’s about time. You can learn more about the production here.

If you’re interested in knowing more about McPherson, I recommend two books. The first is Edith Blumhofer’s Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister looks at Sister Aimee’s religious background in Pentecostalism and the Salvation Army. It’s very well done. Another is Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. Sutton’s book focuses more on the cultural side of things, including issues of gender, media, and popular culture. Full disclosure, I haven’t read Sutton’s book but I think I’ll start it today.