Author Archives: Clarke Morledge

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit.

Andy Stanley and Jeff Durbin: An “Unbelievable” Discussion About Apologetics

Veracity readers will know that I have posted several times about Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America. Last month, my wife and I attended the Buckhead branch of Andy Stanley’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. Though pastor Stanley was not preaching that week, it was eye-opening to experience how Stanley’s NorthPoint community network of churches function, to reach a large city like Atlanta.

Andy Stanley has become rather “infamous” for coining the phrase that Christians should “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament, a theme present in his bestselling book Irresistible. Despite what one might think of this controversy, Andy Stanley is more fundamentally known as a preacher who engages in what is called evidentialist apologetics, in an attempt to reach the non-believer with the Gospel. Evidentialist apologetics is a way of establishing common ground with a skeptical non-believer, seeking to share the Truth of Christ, by making an appeal to scientific and historical evidences that support the validity of the Christian faith. Some good examples of Christian apologists who make use of evidentialist apologetics include J. Warner Wallace, Frank Turek, Michael Licona, and the most well-known of them all, William Lane Craig.

In Andy Stanley’s particular approach, Andy Stanley says we should not start with the Bible, but rather start with the Resurrection of Jesus. We build our case for Christ by making a series of arguments in sequence, beginning with the reality of Christ’s resurrection, which leads to establishing the divine authority of Jesus, which then leads to the authority of the Bible, and its salvation message. The simplest way to put it is that it is the event of the Resurrection that gives us the text of the Bible, as we have it today, and not the other way around.

So, I was really excited to learn that Justin Brierley, of the British apologetics podcast, Unbelievable?, was able to get Andy Stanley together with presuppositionalist apologist Jeff Durbin, in order to discuss the nature of apologetics. In contrast with evidentialist apologetics, presuppositional apologetics takes a different approach, whereby you begin with the self-attestation of the truthfulness of Scripture first, and only then speak of the various doctrinal claims of the Christian faith, including Christ’s resurrection. Jeff Durbin himself is a pastor in Phoenix, Arizona, who has been mentored by perhaps the most influential presuppositional apologist, of a Calvinist persuasion, of our day, James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, also headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona. Durbin, a popular YouTube Reformed apologist, has the unique distinction of being cast in several martial arts movies.

While I do believe that presuppositionalist apologetics does have its place, I am more of an evidentialist. Perhaps that is because that is how God reached me with the Gospel. I tend to differ with Durbin’s brand of apologetics, as presuppositionalist apologetics often begs the question: How do you build a case for Jesus, based on the Bible, when the non-believer does not believe the Bible to be trustworthy in the first place?

Sure, you could begin an evangelistic discussion by asking your listener to pretend that the Bible is reliable and true. But there is a big gap between pretending to believe the Bible, versus actually believing the evidence that exists, to support the authenticity of its message.

Even Christians often come to the Bible with their own negative judgments. An evidentialist approach seeks to build a bridge, that can help the skeptic or puzzled Christian to rethink their own reason for looking down at the Bible, or certain parts of the Bible. A presuppositional approach works great, if the person shares the same presuppositions. But a purely presuppositional approach tends to lead people to talk right past one another. In the worst cases, the presuppositional approach blows up bridges instead of building bridges, in our evangelistic or discipleship conversations.

A more troublesome question for presuppositional apologetics is this: Why start with the Bible? Why not the Book of Mormon? Or the Koran? Or the Bhagavad Gita?

Even if you start with the Bible, as opposed to starting with the evidence for the Resurrection, you still have to figure out which systematic view of the Bible you plan to go with: A Calvinist view? An Arminian view? A dispensationalist view? A charismatic view? Which one?

Andy Stanley’s particular approach does have some problems, as I have discussed before, so it is great to have someone like a Jeff Durbin, with whom I still have more disagreements with, on the other side of the debate, to challenge him. In the end, it is quite clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to Christian apologetics that works for everyone. The discussion between Stanley and Durbin is great way to figure out where you stand, with respect to how you defend your faith, when engaging a skeptical non-believer. A riveting 90-minutes. This really is an amazing discussion!!


To Know With Certainty: A Perfect Present for a High School Graduate

On a recent trip down to Florida, my wife and I met up with a cousin of my mom’s, Dr. G. Lee Southard. Lee has been retired for a few years, living with his wife, Nancy, in Ft. Myers, Florida. After a successful career in pharmaceuticals, Lee has now become a Christian author. So, if you are looking for a great book, to give to a high school graduate, I can make the perfect recommendation, as I personally know the author!

The title is pretty self-explanatory, To Know With Certainty: Answers to Christian Students’ Questions Upon Leaving High School. As a proud grandfather, Lee has become burdened with what he sees is a crisis among today’s Christian youth. In his book, Lee cites a troublesome statistic, that roughly 1 out of 3 kids growing up, in Christian homes today, will probably leave the church, sometime after hitting age 18, never to return back to the church. Like me, Lee believes that most young people, in evangelical churches, are woefully unprepared, to survive the cultural pressures that exist to desensitize young Christian people from sticking with the Christian faith. Many Christian parents and even youth leaders and pastors, are either unaware of the challenges that young people face today, or they lack the resources to know how to help equip young people to face these challenges.

After taking a quick read, I am excited to say that Lee has written a most excellent book. To Know With Certainty has several features that make this such a great gift to a high school graduate:

  • To Know with Certainty is unpretentious, and down-to-earth, without being shallow. Lee opens the book with a forward, by a former classmate of his, Bobby Ross, a retired college football head coach (The Citadel, University of Maryland) and retired NFL football head coach (San Diego Chargers and Detroit Lions). Lee’s writing shows that he is a thoughtful writer, as you get a sense of his strive for excellence and detail, harkening back to his years getting a PhD in chemistry.
  • To Know with Certainty is short, without being skimpy. At under 130 pages, this book is far from being overwhelming. But he hits all of the major topics, and challenges facing students today, in Christian apologetics.
  • Want to know about the challenges to a young person’s faith, once they leave high school? Read this book. Does God exist? Who is Jesus? Is the New Testament true? How did the Christian church develop? Is America a Christian nation? What about the supposed conflict between science and faith? These and many more topics make this a very comprehensive, compact tool.
  • To Know with Certainty is fair and balanced. This is what I liked the most about the book, in that a lot of books, in this genre, can sound like they have an axe to grind. But Lee is really good about laying out some facts and ideas, and encouraging the reader to do their own research, and think for themselves.

I know I sound like I am gushing with enthusiasm for To Know with Certainty, as I know the author, but it really is wonderful. Nevertheless, I would change up just a few things, if I was writing this book.

For example, Lee’s treatment of Christianity’s role in American history is very good, yet I would not make as much use of the work of populist historian David Barton, as Lee apparently did. There are much more reliable evangelical Christian historians out there, who can give an accurate reading of American history, with respect to the story of Christianity.

Also, Lee uses the terminology of “theistic evolution,” to describe the efforts of some Christians, to try to find compatibility between Neo-Darwinian biological theory and the Christian faith. A lot of “theistic evolution” advocates are all over the place theologically, and do not necessarily present the best case for reconciling the Bible with contemporary science. Alternatively, those who intentionally speak of “evolutionary Creationism,” are generally better advocates for a view of science that is compatible with conservative evangelical Christianity, a point that Lee does not bring up clearly. However, Lee does a great job showcasing some of the leading ideas, being advanced by Christians, including Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism. Nevertheless, it is clear that Lee favors an Old Earth Creationist approach, blended with arguments for Intelligent Design, which is arguably a centrist position in the Creation debate.

Lee also does not address timely, cultural issues regarding race, and particularly gender, ranging from same-sex marriage to the transgender trend, that confuses a lot of young people today. Having just a short chapter on such topics would have rounded out the book a bit more completely.

But these criticisms are minor, as the book is really geared as an introduction towards your typical high school graduate, and their parents. I just ordered several copies, to give out to some young people, who are finishing high school this June, to encourage them in their faith journey. If you want to learn more about the book, go to Lee’s website.  He might even send you an autographed copy, just like I got!! Or just go over to Amazon, and order that gift to that young person leaving high school soon!

 


Pagans: A Review

Rome’s famous Colosseum, right before dusk (October 2018)

If you have a “bucket list,” of things do in this life, consider putting a trip to Rome on there. My wife and I spent two weeks last October, walking through Rome’s ancient side streets, following tour guides underground in the Catacombs, and savoring some delicious food above ground, all while uncovering layers and layers of buried history. I could have spent a whole month in Rome, and still hungered for more.

What stood out to me the most was how this once great center of pagan, classical culture, was overtaken by the story of Christianity. How did this marbled, sculptured story of the Greco-Roman world get superseded by the painted images of the Crucified and Risen Christ, found throughout so many of Rome’s churches?

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell, tells the fascinating story of how “pagan” Rome became Christian Rome.

My wife and I took another trip recently, a bit closer to home, down to Florida and back, which afforded me a lot of time driving and riding in a car … for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity to listen to some Audible audiobooks, so I downloaded James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity , and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt like I was right back there in Rome, ascending the Palantine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum.

Pagans is one of the recommended books that you will find, while viewing Tim O’Neill’s excellent website, History for Atheists. Followers of Veracity will know that Tim O’Neill has done a great service by properly educating atheists regarding the accurate history of Christianity, and Christians can learn from him as well.  As an atheist himself, to accuse O’Neill of having a cognitive bias favoring Christianity simply falls flat.

Likewise, O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University, and biographer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, manages to correct a lot of popular errors of pagan and early Christian historiography, despite having a somewhat contrarian bent of his own.

In O’Donnell’s retelling, “paganism” as a religious system, did not exist, prior to the rise of Christianity, in the latter days of ancient Rome. The religious traditions of the Greco-Roman world were an amalgamation of various local practices, shrines, and deities, all jumbled together, to be ultimately synthesized by Greek philosophy and Rome’s politics. Christianity essentially invented “paganism” as a concept, as a convenient way of describing what the Christian faith was not. Christianity was unique, as was Judaism, from which it came, in that it claimed that the God is Israel, who raised Jesus from the dead, was the one and only true divine being. The victory of Christianity therefore made the ad hoc assemblage of pagan gods and goddesses irrelevant.

In describing the transition of the pagan world to a Christian Rome, O’Donnell skewers many common misperceptions, that all too often get tossed together along with other “fake news” of our day, propagated by social media. Take the word, “pagan” itself. Historically, to be “pagan” had no religious connotation. The root word, pagani, simply meant “country folk.” This makes great sense considering that the early Christian movement took root in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, and not the countryside.

More “fake news” gets annihilated with O’Donnell’s prose. No, the emperor Constantine did not impose his imperial thumb on the Christian church, in order to “make” Jesus into a God, at the Council of Nicea. If anything, O’Donnell correctly shows that Constantine went along with the bishops’ decisions at Nicea, affirming the divinity of Jesus, largely as a matter of political expediency. But he  was actually more sympathetic to the Arian heresy, that situated Jesus as being something greater than merely human, but nevertheless, still not wholly divine. You can think of Constantine as a politicized promoter of Jehovah’s Witnesses-style theology, as opposed to someone who supposedly “made” Jesus into becoming God.

It was not until emperor Theodosius, several regimes later, that orthodox Christianity, as we know it today, got the full rubber stamp from the seat of political power in Rome, as affirmed by the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

This did not mean that Theodosius’ orthodox theology necessarily made him a nice guy. Theodosius was excommunicated from the church, by the influential bishop Ambrose, following a massacre that Theodosius ordered in Thessalonica. Only after months of penance was the emperor readmitted back into the church. Though Theodosius did crack down on pagan temples, much of the old ways of the Greco-Roman gods were already fading away.

Veracity blogger, on-site, overlooking the Roman Forum, in 2018, where the “pagan” culture of Rome reigned supreme, until the story of the Crucified and Resurrected One superseded it.

Furthermore, the greatest Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Ambrose and Augustine, made use of the classical tradition, when it served the purposes of promoting the Gospel. They were not afraid of any inherently polluting influence of paganism, though such thinkers often disagreed with one another, as to what aspects of pagan culture could be redeemed, and what aspects of pagan culture should be rejected, when advancing the cause of the faith.

I appreciated O’Donnell’s frank retelling of this fascinating period, avoiding the over-romanticization of Christianity’s history, on the one side, while also correcting a lot of the misinformation, regularly propagated by atheists on the Internet, on the other. It was a relief to hear from a genuine scholar. Alas, O’Donnell’s contrarian tendency disturbed me at a few points, which I thought took away from his overall presentation.

For example, O’Donnell matter of factly describing Saint Augustine of Hippo to be entirely ambitious in using his rhetorical skills, to promote himself, as a defender of the faith. I can see this in Augustine as the young Christian, but I would certainly hope that as Augustine matured, so would his growth in sanctification. Plus, O’Donnell’s insistence that Augustine never actually “converted” to the Christian faith, came across as forced and unconvincing. Yes, Augustine had a Christian mother, and so he surely did have some basic Christian instruction as a child. But that did not mean that Augustine automatically embraced his mother’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions still tells that story of his conversion, as a young man, into the loving arms of Jesus, rather well.

But aside from a few prickly moments like these, I found O’Donnell to be generally an excellent, accurate tour guide of ancient Rome. O’Donnell does not reveal where his sympathies regarding the Christian faith really stand (based on his few, cynical digs, here and there, he probably is not), but for a work of history like this, he need not to. If you want to understand how the ancient world transitioned from “paganism” to Christianity, O’Donnell’s Pagans would be a good place to start.

 

See Don Webb’s excellent review of Pagans here, and Michael Bird’s brief review.

The Temple of Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was a site for “pagan” cultic activity, back to the 7th century before Christ. The temple was eventually closed during the late 4th century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.


Rachel Held Evans Reflections ( & on Warren Wiersbe, Bonhoeffer, and the Crisis of “Big Tent” Evangelicalism)

Veracity readers have observed that I have briefly commented on the illness and recent death of Rachel Held Evans. Many who have appreciated her writings, whether they agreed with her or not, have mourned her untimely death, yet not without controversy.

I have thought quite a bit about her over the previous few weeks. Rachel’s story is a lot like mine, yet at the same time, very different from mine. First, I will note the similarities. I knew her only through articles on her blog and podcast interviews, but I have shared some of the same experiences.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart

After growing up in a conservative, evangelical Christian home, in Dayton, Tennessee, “ground zero” for the Scopes Monkey Trial, between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, in the 1920s, Rachel Held Evans went to a Christian college, where she learned of the story on television, of a woman in Afghanistan, named “Zarmina,” who was publicly executed, in the middle of a soccer stadium. She was rightly horrified of this news, but what threw her faith into a tailspin, was a series of followup conversations, with some of her Christian classmates. Rachel’s friends had insisted that Zarmina, despite the injustice done to her, nevertheless ended up going to hell, solely on the basis that she was a Muslim.

Rachel began to wrestle with deep questions about heaven, hell, predestination, religious pluralism… you name it. But as Rachel put it, in one of her blog posts, “It was not the so-called ‘scandal of the evangelical mind’ that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart.”

She could and did read some books on Christian apologetics, that sought to provide answers to her questions, that helped to make a decent amount of sense in her head (here is a YouTube link showing how apologist Frank Turek answers such questions). But what really bothered her was the callousness of her Christian friends. How could her Christian friends, without shedding a tear, matter-of-factly say that Zarmina would spend an eternity in eternal torment, due to her lack of a verbal Christian confession, after being cruelly shot in the back of the head, because Zarmina failed to satisfy the legalistic demands of the Taliban? Rachel wondered if the Gospel really offered anything to someone like Zarmina.

In her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, formerly titled, Evolving in Monkey Town, and a myriad of other blog posts, Rachel explored how her doubts about God, with respect to Zarmina, opened up a floodgate of other questions, a Pandora’s Box of issues ranging from her belief, from early childhood, about Young Earth Creationism, to questions about genocide and violence in the Bible. Nevertheless, despite her doubts, she could never let go completely of her Christian faith, even though the shape of her faith was indeed changing.

But what really caught people’s attention, was with the release of her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master.” In this book, Rachel questioned how the evangelical Christian movement has at times treated women, based on certain readings of the Bible, that struck her as misogynistic. In response, a host of young, millennial Christians today have gravitated towards books like this, as a call, for example, for more women to enter full-time Christian ministry. Rachel affirmed that women do have a voice, among God’s people. Rachel asks, why do traditional views about women  selectively elevate certain texts in the Bible, while ignoring others?

Though I have been hesitant to follow the whole line of Rachel’s thought, what I have appreciated so much about Rachel Held Evans was her unflinching honesty when asking these questions. Sadly, not everyone who heard her story felt moved to give her room, to wrestle with her doubts. This antagonism, from otherwise well-meaning Christians, only served to add fuel to the fire of her doubts.

Rachel represented what some might call the more progressive wing of evangelical “egalitarianism;” that is, the view that women should be able to serve as pastors and elders, on an equal basis with men. Rachel’s “more progressive” wing has been highly emotionally motivated, appealing to a sense of justice, that women should be serving in Christian leadership, because of the abuse of power that are at times employed by men to “keep women down.”

An Example of Something That Drove Rachel Held Evans Crazy

Rachel’s critics have felt that she was attacking some core elements of Bible teaching, yet her critics have not all been united in their opposition to Rachel’s brand of egalitarianism. I digress for a moment to reflect on a recent public controversy, within weeks following Rachel’s death….. I can guarantee you that if Rachel were still alive, she would have been all over this….

Consider the controversy this past Mother’s Day (2019), among Southern Baptists about non-ordained women preaching a “sermon” from a pulpit on Mother’s Day. Some 25 years ago, the furor over the ordination of women in Baptist circles eventually led to a cleaning of house of Southern Baptist institutions, purging advocates of women’s ordination from the Southern Baptist leadership ranks. But when popular ladies Bible study teacher, Beth Moore, who is not ordained, and has no desire to become ordained, was invited to preach for a Mother’s Day sermon, and a Southern Baptist theologian, Owen Strachan, vigorously objected to such practice, it was like the whole Southern Baptist denomination was reliving the controversy from the 1990s, all over again.

But this time, the battle was not only between egalitarians and complementarians, it was largely among complementarians themselves, such “complementarians” believing that women are not to serve as elders or pastors, in a local church. The more traditional crowd, represented by Strachan, puts a hard line down, that women should NEVER enter a Sunday pulpit and preach a “sermon”, even if such a speech were to be given in a more gentle context, that of being a Mother’s Day “exhortation,” as opposed to an authoritative “sermon.”

But the more moderate complementarians, came to Beth Moore’s defense, viewing Strachan’s hard line as being way over the top, even to the point of obliquely bringing charges of heresy against Strachan, for having a deficient view of the Triune nature of God (!!!), as with this article by Mortification of Spin podcaster, Aimee Byrd. Byrd recalls the controversial 2016 change to the English Standard Version Bible’s translation of Genesis 3:16 (see Sam Powell’s articles here and here), that forced the English Standard Version translation committee to reopen discussion on how Bible translation decisions are made for that particular translation, sparked by disagreement among Bible translators themselves. What are the consequences of the Fall, with respect to relations between male and female, and how does this compare with God’s intended good purposes from the beginning at Creation?

The point of this digression is this: Rachel’s more conservative critics have not all agreed with her, but hardly have they agreed among themselves. Digression over: Now, back to more specifically about Rachel Held Evans’ story….

Rachel Held Evans and the Slippery Slope?

Were Rachel Held Evans’ writings on women and the Bible, where she would stop in her journey of theological doubt? Or was she on some “slippery slope,” where A Year of Biblical Womanhood was simply one point on her theological trajectory? Rachel herself even admitted that she was going down that “slippery slope,” but she insisted that it was not a slope away from God.

Rachel’s calls for justice eventually moved beyond concerns about women in the home and in the church, to broader topics regarding gender, most controversially for her support of same-sex marriage. Any lingering suspicions that her evangelical readers had about her unorthodoxy, regarding her views on women, were confirmed by this latest foray into supporting same-sex marriage. The reaction from her suspicious evangelical observers was swift and largely unrelenting. She was a Jezebel, bringing false teaching into the church, and therefore compromising the faith.

But Rachel also has had a loyal base of fans who have supported her, that makes up what some call today “progressive Christianity.”  The pushback she received, or at least, what she perceived, from conservative evangelicals, eventually encouraged her to “leave evangelicalism,” to finally make her way into a Protestant mainline church, a story she told in her next book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  Her last published book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, chronicles her journey further, showing how she was able to shed her previous view of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, to a more liberal, mainline Protestant approach to faith, that seeks to view the Bible, not as divine source of knowledge, but rather as a spiritual conversation partner, a written voice to be brought alongside, on equal footing, with one’s own, personal experience with God.

Rachel continued to say that her sliding down the slippery slope was not away from God, but rather towards God. But when she was saying that, what did she mean by “God?” Where exactly, was her faith journey leading her?

Evangelicals and Where to Draw the Line on What is Essential vs. Non-Essential to Orthodoxy

The deeper problem that Rachel Held Evans has exposed to the church is that evangelical Christians have a difficulty in discerning where to draw that line between what is essential to faith, and what can be safely set aside as non-essential, the adiaphora of Romans 14:1. Some draw the line in one place while other Protestant evangelical Christians draw it in another.

In the age of Billy Graham, there were obviously challenges to evangelical identity, but in the age of the Internet and social media, the challenges as to what can rightly fit under the “big tent” of evangelicalism have multiplied. For some, Rachel Held Evans left the fold of evangelicalism when she questioned certain aspects of the doctrine of hell. For others, it was when she questioned Young Earth Creationism. Others could tolerate these things, to a certain extent, as these controversies have been around for awhile.

But when Rachel Held Evans began questioning women’s roles in the church, appealing to the modern sentiment of feminism, some felt she definitely crossed the line there. Others, have given her the benefit of the doubt, and gave her a pass on that. But when it came to her support for same-sex marriage, she crossed the line for everyone…. well, just about everyone.

“Big tent” evangelicalism suffers from not having an arbiter to help to define such boundaries. Evangelical Christians can “believe the Bible,” as their authority, but not necessarily agree on all matters of interpreting the Bible. Contemporary evangelical traditions, that have typically honored the Bible, and the Bible alone, as the standard of revealed truth, while dismissing the importance of confessional statements, such as creeds and other historical statements of faith, that seek to somehow descriptively summarize the character of God, find themselves exposed by the wit, charm, and challenging critique that came from Rachel Held Evans’ keyboard, through her blogs and books. She exposed just how difficult it is to discern what those boundaries of “right belief” are in the early 21st century.

Evangelicalism is in crisis. Christianity Today senior editor, Mark Galli, wrote about this crisis in evangelicalism, just weeks after Rachel Held Evans’ death. I would say that it all comes down to be a crisis of authority, or as Galli himself put it, quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  “We have forgotten God.” The tricky part comes in trying to figure out, what do we mean by “God?”

The Calm, Trusted Figure of a Warren Wiersbe, vs. the Cacophony of the 21st Century

The death of Rachel Held Evans, and what it means for evangelicalism at large, is starkly contrasted by the death, two days earlier (on May 2, 2019), of venerable Bible teacher, Warren Wiersbe. Wiersbe lived to the ripe old age of 89, after serving in an impeccable preaching career in Baptist churches, following a conversion in high school at a Youth for Christ rally, led by then 26-year-old evangelist, Billy Graham. Wiersbe went on to teach at Moody Church in Chicago, and then at Back to the Bible ministries, with a radio ministry that continues to this day. Wiersbe lived a full life of Christian faithfulness. Warren Wiersbe’s grandson wrote this brief memorial for his grandfather, the “bridge builder.”

You would be hard pressed to find any controversy brandishing Wiersbe, in today’s online, social media world. His life’s work was focused on the exposition of the Scripture, a noble goal for any minister of the Gospel. For Wiersbe, the path to knowing God is clear enough, through a diligent, measured study of the whole of the Scriptures, following after Jesus. But the problem with Wiersbe is that if you did not travel in dispensationalist, non-charismatic circles, you might never have known who he was.

I never knew of Wiersbe until my wife started to listen to the Bible Broadcasting Network, some 15 years ago. So much of evangelicalism today is led, not by cohesive doctrinal statements, but rather by personalities, whom you can trust, and the media enterprises that promote them.

It was Gutenberg’s printing press that gave Martin Luther, the 16th century Reformer, a platform to share his thinking. Since that time, up until the modern age, ever more cheaper printing presses helped to galvanize other evangelical movements, though books, pamphlets, and newsletters. Yet it was the radio in the mid-20th century that helped to make Warren Wiersbe a trusted source of authority, for a whole generation and segment of evangelicals. Billy Graham experienced it with his televised Crusades and movies in the latter half of the 20th-century.

But the rules have changed in the age of the Internet, where FCC regulated FM radio is becoming outdated, and steadily replaced by Internet media vehicles, like Twitter, Facebook, and podcasts on iTunes, where the competition for gaining a hearing or attention is fierce. Anyone with a microphone, or GoPro camera, can upload to YouTube, and perhaps establish a following.

Who is able to step forward, and lead evangelical believers today? Do we gauge our leaders by the number of Twitter followers, or Facebook likes, someone has? Or some other criteria? If there is one thing that all can agree on about Rachel Held Evans, is that she was a master of the new Internet-based media of blogging, Twitter, and YouTube videos. Her loyal following has been just as dedicated as were those in an older generation, who clung next to their radios, to listen to Back to the Bible.

I surely do not have the definitive solution to the problem. But the common thread should be discernible.  Simply listening to old radio sermons, given by evangelical stalwarts, such as a Warren Wiersbe, can help to a certain extent, but it is not enough in the age of YouTube.

It would help the greater evangelical Protestant movement to look towards our fellow Christians in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to help us to establish a better path forward, in an increasingly secularized world. I throw in my lot in with C.S. Lewis, who argued the case for a “Mere Christianity.” Like Rachel, we should take measures to let go some of the quirkier things in Protestant evangelicalism, or at least, hold them more loosely. But unlike Rachel, recalling the ancient faith, that has been passed down from generation to generation, as C.S. Lewis did, is really the way to go. From my vantage point, the route of “progressive Christianity” is just as much a dead end, as is the knee-jerk fundamentalism Rachel reacted against.

Frankly, if it was not for conservative evangelicalism, that formed that rather “love-hate” relationship Rachel Held Evans had with it, I would have probably gone the route of secular agnosticism or atheism. But not “progressive Christianity.”

The Big Theological Concerns, That Evangelicals are Hard Pressed to Address

About 25 years ago, Eastern Orthodox bishop Thomas Hopko speculated that the coming crisis for the Christian movement over the next 50 years would be over the theology of gender, as to what it means to be male and female. I believe that Thomas Hopko was undoubtedly correct. Given Hopko’s prophetic insight, we are about halfway navigating through that process of ironing out what orthodox Christians believe, concerning gender. Just as the church wrestled with trying to articulate a theology of the divinity and humanity of Jesus, in the tumultuous 4th century, that gave us the Nicene Creed, so today we face a period of wrestling regarding a theological anthropology, of what it means to be male and female.

It should come as no surprise to understand that the role of women and the same-sex marriage were the real flash points for Rachel Held Evans. These are gender issues. I am hopefully optimistic that many of the justified concerns that Rachel had, during her lifetime, can be resolved within the remaining 25 years of Hopko’s prophetic vision, without overstepping the fundamental concerns, of a Christian orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, the eventual path that Rachel took reveals just how sharply different her journey has been from mine. Unlike Rachel, I did not grow up practicing “sword drills,” to see who could memorize the most number of Bible passages. I had grown up in a mainline church, much like the one that Rachel and her family finally ended up at.

I knew nothing about a “Rapture” of the church, whereby believers would be taken up into the air to meet with Jesus, and rise to heaven, as the definitive sign that the End Times had arrived. I was more into the eschatology of Star Trek and Star Wars, in my mainline Christian upbringings.

I never once contemplated the thought of how Noah was able to fit all of those animals on the wooden ark, or whether the Great Flood was local or global.

This was all foreign to me. Though I learned much about a number of aspects of the Christian faith, in its broader scope, in those years, I knew relatively little about the Bible, much less the interesting debates that have tended to divide conservative evangelical Christians.

The Bible was largely an unknown book in my childhood, aside from hearing a few Bible stories. It was not until I made my way into an evangelical Christian community, as a high school student, that I began to seriously read and study the Bible. I moved from a mainline to an evangelical community. Rachel moved in the opposite direction, from an evangelical to a mainline community.

Yes, I can relate to the “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that Rachel writes about. But my answer has been to try to learn how to read the Bible better. Instead of simply imbibing what I had been taught about the Bible, which was not much, I sought to learn about Scripture, by asking a lot of the questions that Rachel had, right up front.

I am still pretty much the same way. I do not find much appeal for the type of thinking that Rachel Held Evans grew up with, namely that of “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Sure, I believe the Bible, but I believe the Bible because I find the Bible to be true, because the evidence supports it. It may not mean that I accept whatever tradition gets passed on, as though we should believe such-and-such, merely because that is what we have always been taught, without ever thinking about it.

In my mind, this is what leads to the type of “scandal of the evangelical heart,” that really troubled Rachel Held Evans: a failure to really think. The disconnect between head and heart in much of conservative evangelicalism is a real problem. It is a barrier to experiencing the joy of personal discipleship.

To matter-of-factly conclude that an humiliatingly executed Muslim woman in Afghanistan would wind up in hell, without a sense of grief or compassion, or a twinge of wonder, reveals a really distorted faith. Troubles in our heart should lead us to ask questions that put our minds to work. To fail to have such troubles is a mark of spiritual deadness. Rachel was right to point that out.

Let us face it. If we as evangelical Christians really believe that others around us are going to perish in hell eternally, then why are we not driven with compassion to do everything we can to help them follow a different path?

What I did not share with Rachel, in her drive to “clean house” in her evangelical world, was her tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “Leaving evangelicalism” may provide a type of “solution” for those who are burned out by “the scandal of the evangelical heart,” but it is a solution that is really no solution at all, in the long run. When doubts plague us, the answer is not to go the route of the liberal leaning end of the Protestant mainline. I have been there and done that.

The problem with doubt, is not that it exists. That is a given. The problem with doubt is that it so easy to sit with it far too long with it, and allow it to paralyze our faith.

For Protestant evangelicals, we can take part of our cue from Rachel Held Evans, as Rachel herself suggested: To go back and really study the Bible. But it involves more than that. Celebrating the Great Tradition, that binds evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox together, despite ongoing substantial differences, has the most promising future.

Yes, we need the Scriptures as a conversation partner, but we need to learn how to hear the voice of God in the Scriptures, calling us to repentance, as our authority, so that our emotions and experiences can be brought in alignment with His Will and His Purposes, instead of trying to fit God into the grid of our own personal experience. This has been the historic teaching of the Christian movement, and we would do well to submit our own hearts, with their questions, to that.

This is a hard, hard thing to do. But do it we must.

We need the Bible as our authority, not because our experiences and emotions are invalid. But rather, we need to see the Bible as our authority because ultimately, I can not trust my own experiences and emotions, nor my own understanding of what constitutes a standard of justice. I can only trust God, and what God has revealed through Christ as being truly just.

Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at 37, is surely a cause for unbearable grief for her family, her husband, her children, and close family and friends. But it also raises some questions, as to what might have happened next in her spiritual journey, if she not have died so soon.

Lives Cut Too Short: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rachel Held Evans

This all may sound like rambling to you, but hang in with me for one more reflection….

Rachel Held Evans’ death reminds me, in some ways, of the untimely death of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a World War 2 prison camp, when he was executed, just days before the Allies liberated Flossenbürg.  Bonhoeffer had written several Christian classics, before being arrested, for his role in an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer was only two years older than Rachel Held Evans, when he died.

But Bonhoeffer’s last book, a series of Letters and Papers from Prison, raised a number of questions, as to where Bonhoeffer was heading theologically. The radical “God is Dead” theologians of the 1960s heralded Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a signpost signaling a new era, whereby the modern world would embrace a “religionless Christianity.” In other words, Christianity, as articulated by Bonhoeffer, was the spiritual forerunner to what the liberal theologian Harvey Cox called a “Secular City.”

For awhile, this vision of a “Secular City” looked like it might come to pass, a vision that was birthed in the Protestant mainline church. It surely appears that this is what has happened in the Protestant mainline church, in the early 21st century, and it continues to do so. The remarkable growth of the “Nones,” those who show that they have “no religious preference,” come primarily from mainline church backgrounds, and not conservative evangelical church backgrounds (learn about Dr. Tricia Bruce’s research on the “Nones” here).

As a result, the type of biblical illiteracy I grew up with in the mainline church has only increased, as that population has become more secularized. Such people do not have Rachel Held Evans’ type of hang ups about the Bible, because they do not know anything about the Bible.

Welcome to the postmodern, post-Christian world.

True, Western culture in general has become increasingly secularized since the 1960s, but evangelical Christianity, as expressed in a number of Bonhoeffer’s earlier books, has not gone away. In fact, the memory of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been rehabilitated, as one who faithfully kept the faith. We have books like Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, that continues to inspire many evangelical Christians today, to hold fast to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, despite the pressures of a culture, that seeks to either destroy, or merely ignore, historical, Christian faith.

So, if Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have lived longer, what really would he have become? Would he have become that advocate for “religionless Christianity,” a backing away from evangelical faith, where the “strange new world of the Bible,” that converted Swiss theologian Karl Barth, from an ultimately corrosive, theological liberalism, towards a more orthodox faith, recedes from view, a move that mainline liberal Christians from decades ago predicted? Or would he have seen his explorations of doubt, in his Tegel prison cell, as a temporary detour on his spiritual journey, that would eventually lead him back on the path, to a more firmly held confidence in the God of the Bible, affirming a faith that has been historically received, down through the centuries?

I wonder the same thing about Rachel Held Evans. Would she have continued on in her journey, following the trajectory that she was apparently following, that tended to follow nearly in lock step with the surrounding, secularizing culture? Or would she come to a full stop, and sense that she had gone too far away from the historic teachings of the Christian faith, and return more (though surely not completely) towards the faith of her youth?

We will never know this side of eternity. But I do wonder about it.

If you would like to support Rachel Held Evans’ family, here is where you can go to help.

 


Rachel Held Evans Has Died

I am out of town right now, but pretty stunned in reading this. Rachel Held Evans, the popular millennial, progressive Christian blogger and author, who announced in 2014 that she was leaving evangelicalism behind, exhausted by “wearing out [her] voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars,” did not recover from a medically induced coma. She died today, at age 37, leaving behind her husband, Dan, and two young children.


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