Category Archives: Witnesses

Mister Roger’s Neighborhood

When I was a college student, on those days jam packed with classes, labs, and the stresses of deadlines, I would take a few minutes, towards the latter part of the afternoon, and veg out watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood. It was a few minutes of respite, and Reverend Fred Rogers was always there to bring me down to earth, before I had to run off to the library to read another 100 pages of assignments.

The new movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks, has received a variety of reviews in Christian circles. Rebecca Davis’ review for the American Family Association tells us that “Mister Rogers Movie Gets Mixed Reviews,” noting on the positive side, a candid interview with Fred Rogers’ surviving wife, Joanne, while on the other side, observing that the film has some difficult material, including some mild language, and pointing out that “Everything about the film points to man’s goodness – the goodness of Mister Rogers and the innate goodness in all people – as the foundation for a transformed life. Believers know that type of transformation is contrary to Scripture, yet the faith-based promotion of the film may cause viewers to mistake goodness for the gospel.

While Davis’ remarks are theologically correct, it bears emphasizing that what made Fred Rogers, Fred Rogers, truly was a profound intimacy with God. In a post-Christian age, where orthodox Christian faith gets sidelined in the culture, we must not underestimate the potential for such a film to carry on Fred Rogers’ work, to “make goodness attractive,” as his wife, Joanne, says.

Ryan Pemberton, in his review for Christianity Today magazine, writes of “The Quiet Liturgy of Fred Rogers,” and observes that “Fred Rogers was a pioneer in recognizing television as a powerful vehicle of formation.” Pemberton reminds us that Rogers did everything he did with radical intentionality, allowing the message of the Gospel to penetrate the viewer’s heart, as opposed to merely appealing to the mind.

The challenge for those of us in the Internet age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media is see if God might raise up a Christian in this generation to realize the potential of these newer forms of media, to spark a spiritual transformation of people in our day. That is something to think and pray about.

 


Dois Rosser, Founder of ICM, Moves Onto Glory

Dois I. Rosser Jr., the 98-year-old founder of International Cooperating Ministries, died yesterday (November 12, 2019).

It was a unique partnership. Dois Rosser was a businessman, a Hampton Roads car dealer, when he met Dick Woodwood, pastor emeritus of my church. Dick was teaching at a men’s Bible breakfast, making the Bible accessible to many people in our local community, and Dois Rosser listened intently as Dick teached the Bible, week after week. Dois encouraged Dick to assemble his teachings into something called the Mini Bible College, and the teachings of the Mini Bible College were shared across the globe, via Trans World Radio.

Dois Rosser soon learned that many of Dick’s worldwide listeners did not have a church building to meet in. So, in 1986 Dois founded International Cooperating Ministries, whose purpose was and still is to help churches, grounded in the teachings of the Mini Bible College, to build church meeting places, within walking distances of their homes. By 2019, over 8,000 churches have been built, or are under construction, in nearly 90 countries, while the Mini Bible College has been translated into 56 different languages.

Dois Rosser’s wife, Shirley, died approximately one month before her husband. Learn more about Dois I. Rosser, Jr. here. Learn more about the ministry of International Cooperating Ministries here. The Mini Bible College lessons are available now on YouTube, with Dick sporting those 1970’s sideburns still into the 1980s. Classic stuff!


Intelligently Designed: Phillip E. Johnson

I had the privilege of joining the University of Berkeley legal scholar, Phillip E. Johnson, for dinner with some friends, several years ago, before he gave a lecture at our church on Intelligent Design. Johnson, who wrote the 1991 landmark book, Darwin on Trial, died in early November, 2019. Professor Johnson, a gracious and kind gentleman, nevertheless puzzled me. Why would Johnson, as a lawyer, spend so much of his intellectual energy, challenging Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution? Why would a lawyer bother with biological science?

Johnson had a been a successful legal scholar, rising to the top level of his career, when in his 30’s, his life began to fall apart. His marriage failed, and he felt like he was going nowhere in his academic career. He then became a Christian, he remarried, and he gradually decided to invest his life in something more, something that really mattered.

When he read Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, he was baffled by the logical argumentation employed by Dawkins’ all-encompassing evolutionary worldview. Johnson then made it his mission to understand and expose Dawkins’ logical flaws. In many ways, Phillip E. Johnson was the “godfather” of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement, reinvigorating the late 18th century (early 19th century) Christian apologetics of the British clergyman, William Paley, who first articulated the watchmaker analogy, promoting intelligent design.

By observing the behavior of the Ichneumonidae group of parasitoid wasps, that devour their hosts alive from the inside out, Charles Darwin had rejected William Paley’s argument: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.” Darwin was most well-known for his Origin of Species, but he also extended his arguments in works like his The Descent of Man, suggesting that evolution was an “unguided” and “undirected” process.

Johnson believed that the “unguided” and “undirected” elements of Darwin’s theory had horrific implications that extended beyond the domain of biology. The “purpose-less-ness” advocated by modern defenders of Darwin, like Richard Dawkins, tore at the very fabric of Judeo-Christian culture. Johnson marshaled his legal training against Darwin, combatting against the pro-Darwinian trends within academia.

Johnson’s counter-arguments to Darwin gained sympathy among a growing cadre of intellectuals, including Christians like Michael Behe and Stephen Myers, and many non-Christians as well, including Jonathan Wells, a member of the Unification Church (the Moonies). This eventually encouraged the growth of the Discovery Institute, a think-tank dedicated towards refuting Darwinian evolution. In this sense, Phillip E. Johnson’s “Intelligent Design” movement is not specifically a Christian, biblically-based movement. Technically speaking, the “designer” in “Intelligent Design” need not be the God of the Bible. It could even be some super-intelligent life-form, from the reaches of outer space. Rather, “Intelligent Design” is but one apologetic strategy, that has been used by at least some Christians to defend a Christian, biblical worldview. Yet in many ways, Johnson’s broadly argued case for “Intelligent Design” has been a rallying point, a unifying effort to break the impasse that divides Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s critique against Charles Darwin has been very controversial, even within the church. For one thing, even atheistic scientists concede that there are a number of elements of Darwin’s theory of evolution that are no longer accepted within the larger scientific community. For example, Darwin knew nothing about genetics. We have Austrian monk Gregor Mendel to thank for giving us the contemporary scientific consensus as to how genes actually work… NOT Darwin.

But among Christians, the controversy over Johnson’s work centers around the definition of that slippery word, “evolution.” By “evolution,” does one actually mean “micro-evolution,” whereby small changes within species happens? Or does one mean “macro-evolution,” with large scale biological changes among plants and animals? What is meant by “directed” or “undirected” evolution?

Most Christians are willing to concede the principle of “micro-evolution.” Yet even the most ardent Young-Earth Creationist will argue that “macro-evolution,” at the level of biological families (though NOT beyond that!), indeed did happen, in a highly accelerated manner, after the global flood of Noah, as a means of explaining the extraordinary biological diversity we see today. Proponents of “Intelligent Design” have fashioned themselves as opponents of “theistic evolution,” despite the claim that Michael Behe, one of “Intelligent Design’s” greatest advocates, is actually a “theistic evolutionist” himself! Christians are all over the map when it comes to defining what they mean by “evolution.”

Phillip Johnson’s efforts to see the Intelligent Design movement expand more into popular education stalled in 2005, when a judge in a Pennsylvania federal court, against the Dover School District, ruled that the teaching of “Intelligent Design” violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  But “Intelligent Design” still lives on, as a vital intellectual force, as evidenced by the popularity of such films as Ben Stein’s “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.”

Phillip Johnson’s arguments for “Intelligent Design” will surely survive his death. How well they will convince those living in the next generation yet remains to be seen. The larger consensus among academic scientists still rejects “Intelligent Design” as pseudo-science. Some theologians, who possess scientific training, such as Oxford’s Alister McGrath, are concerned that “Intelligent Design” leaves Christian apologetics vulnerable to a type of “God of the Gaps” theology, that does not adequately serve as the best way to defend the Christian faith. Nevertheless, best-selling books by Intelligent Design advocates, such as Stephen C. Myers, continue to be enthusiastically read. All the while, many Young Earth Creationists regard “Intelligent Design” as a halfway attempt to uphold Christianity, that does not go far enough in defending the Bible. I still have lingering questions myself, following my dinner with Phillip E. Johnson, some years ago. Nevertheless, the legacy of Phillip E. Johnson will continue to give many a lot to think about, for years to come.


Bishop Robert Barron at the Graves of Tolkien and Lewis

Happy Reformation Day!…. which is a not-so-subtle reminder that I am not a Roman Catholic.

But I have a great appreciation for so many of my Roman Catholic friends, and particularly an admiration for a number of great Roman Catholic thinkers. Bishop Robert Barron is one name that comes to mind.

Father Barron has dialogued with the Canadian “Intellectual Dark Web” phenomenal figure and psychologist Jordan Peterson, as well as with Protestant evangelical apologist, William Lane Craig. Even as a “son of the Reformation,” I personally get an education from one of the most articulate and winsome Roman Catholic minds, whenever I heard Father Barron speak. Recently, Father Barron participated in England, as part of the beautification ceremony of John Henry Newman, the 19th century Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic apologist, perhaps the greatest Roman Catholic mind of the 19th century.

While in England, Father Barron stopped to visit the graves of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Below are two short, 3-minute videos that give you a flavor of Father Richard Barron. Finally, I included a clip of Father Barron’s Word on Fire episode, discussing the canonization of John Henry Newman, from Rome, with St. Peter’s in the background. I recall many fond memories from my trip to Rome, almost exactly a year ago. For those who appreciate “The Great Tradition,” that folks like Lewis articulated so well, enjoy:

Even though more people convert from Roman Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism, a surprising number of Evangelical Protestants move in the opposite direction, and “cross the Tiber,” so to speak, and join the communion in Rome. This can be quite puzzling for some.

If Roman Catholicism is like a “black box” to you, and you really do not understand much about it, you might want to investigate some of the videos put out by Ascension Presents. Father Michael Schmitz is a very gifted, dynamic, young priest and communicator, who knows how to explain the intricacies of Roman Catholic doctrine, to younger audiences. As opposed to Father Richard Barron, who can be academic at times, Father Michael Schmitz is very good at making Roman Catholic teaching accessible, to just about anyone. You may not be convinced about purgatory, but perhaps you will understand a little bit better what purgatory is all about.


Netflix Goes Conspiracy Theory With The Family

While we are talking about conspiracy theories….

Some of the buzz this past month in social media is about the docu-series by Netflix, The Family. The Family purports to tell the story of Doug Coe, who died a couple of years ago. He was the leader of a pretty amorphous group that has sponsored the National Prayer Breakfast, for decades, attended by Presidents, Congressmen, and other world leaders.

The whole objective? According to “The Family,” otherwise known as the “Fellowship Foundation,” they are about introducing “the person and principles of Jesus, which are at the core of our mission and message,” to men and women in the halls of political power, bridging the divides that separate and alienate people.

But apparently the writers behind the Netflix production see something more sinister at work. A review of the docu-series, at Vermont Public Radio, contends that “a secretive group has been grooming young, Christian men for leadership positions in American politics for decades, all the while ingratiating itself with presidents and congressmembers of both parties — and sidling up to some dictators around the world.

Say wha???

Doug Coe (credit: A. Larry Ross)

I met Doug Coe’s son, Jonathan, while I was in college, just a year or two before Jonathan died of cancer. His enthusiasm for knowing Jesus was infectious, and he and some other friends encouraged me, and some of my other college buddies, to see what they were doing in Northern Virginia.

I had nearly zero interest in politics, and in the post-Watergate era, I disliked politicians generally. But in such a divided world, where it seemed like Republicans and Democrats were at one another’s throats all of the time, in the midst of international tensions surrounding the waning years of the Cold War, perhaps some time in Washington D.C. would give me a more positive view of how Christian faith might make a difference for good, in the public sphere.

I lived at Ivanwald, a house where young Christian men live in Arlington, run by “The Family,” for about a month after college. There I attended Bible study meetings, washed dishes, pruned some shrubbery at another home that serves as an informal retreat center, and got to meet a few Congressmen. Some were Republicans. Some were Democrats. I actually was privileged to pray with them. It was encouraging to see how these political figures, who could be so acrimonious in public, were also able to find common ground in private, by discussing the leadership principles of Jesus Christ.

Quite a few of these Congressmen seemed quite sincere in their faith. Some others, I were not entirely sure about. And one or two of my fellow Ivanwald housemates knew very little about the Bible, spouting some ideas that lacked theological depth and cohesion. But the odd apples were rare. Most everyone else was great to be around.

It was all very low-key. I also played lots of volleyball. After my few weeks there, I started my new job after college, and said goodbye to many of those new friends. I have kept up with several of them, on and off over the years, drifting away somewhat as we all got involved with our families, other friends, and jobs, among other things.

Wow. I never would have thought that I had been part of some “secretive group,” doing something so insidious as praying together and playing volleyball.

Jeff Lucas, a Christian reviewer of the film, put it this way at Premier Christianity magazine, over in the U.K., and he expresses the problem with the film exactly:

So how do you attack a group for showing love and support? First of all, cue spooky music throughout the docudrama, a cheap stunt. Put a frightening stanza as a background to shots of Julie Andrews running up a hill declaring that those hills are alive, and you can easily give the impression that that singing nun might be a serial killer and a member of the illuminati. The haunting chords create a conspiratorial atmosphere, which colours everything that is said.

But then in this series, not much is said. The notion seems to be that all influence is conspiratorial, and collaboration is criminal, a laughable notion not only in DC, but in any political arena, which is all about impact and partnership. And in this gospel according to Netflix, Christian influence is especially evil.

I shake my head in disbelief. It really makes me wonder. Why even bother to put the money into making a film series like this, supposedly “exposing” how political leaders, across political divides, come together around events like the National Prayer Breakfast?

Journalist Jeff Sharlet, who wrote the two books that served as the basis for the film series, also lived at Ivanwald, though I never overlapped with him. I am not sure what really got him there to Ivanwald in the first place, and what made him so ultimately hostile to it all, but he sure has a creative imagination.

While some people like conspiracy theories regarding how scientists, government educators and agencies, and museum curators have duped the public for decades regarding science, others like conspiracy theories about spiritually-minded people trying to manipulate Congressmen to think about God more over bacon and eggs, to impose some sort of “theocracy” on an unsuspecting public.

Cue the spooky music again.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

That kind of narrative is really ridiculous.

Alas, with every conspiracy theory there is a grain of truth to it. As any Christian can tell you, sharing your faith with another person involves some risk. You never know absolutely or completely if that person you are befriending might betray your trust, and use you for ulterior motives. Those involved with “The Family” have sought to reach out to some rather unsavory characters, just as Jesus sought to do with tax collectors and prostitutes. Furthermore, some drawn into those outreach efforts have had their faith built on shaky ground.

Some political elites can be really nasty people. Even spiritual sounding ones. As a result, Christians can be easily manipulated themselves by those who are solely motivated by the thirst and intoxicating lure of power. Christians are not immune from such temptation. As Sophie Gilbert writes in this mixed review for The Atlantic, there are people in the halls of political power who have exposed some in “The Family” to the darkest side of the political world.

NEWSFLASH: Political elites can cheat on their spouses, look for inappropriate favors, etc., just as easily as your unsuspected neighbor who hates politics can, too. Betrayal hurts people, no matter where it is.

If there is anything of value in the Netflix feature, it will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to Christians, to remind us of the seductive nature of power, particularly political power, that we might proceed with extreme caution when dealing with matters of state. In that sense, Jeff Sharlet has a valid point. The low-key nature of “The Family” has made it difficult to instill the most proper level of accountability, in those outreach efforts.

Yet what worries Jeff Sharlet, and his cohorts behind the Netflix production, is the fear that Christians have been working secretly behind the scenes to pull the levers of power, as a way of subverting American democracy. In other words, there is a conspiracy afoot, and concerned Americans need to put a stop to this. The silliest thing about this narrative is that it completely ignores the evidence, that trying to get a bunch of diversely-minded Christians together, to conspire much of anything is really difficult to do.

I see the problem very, very differently. The more insidious reality is that by trying to reach out to the political elites, the powers that seek to destroy the Kingdom of God will draw unsuspecting Christians into their sphere of influence, corrupting those Christians who seek to reach out to those political elites, and thus compromising their witness for Christ.

Surely, some viewing The Family will view all Christians with the deepest suspicion, fully consistent with conspiracy theory thinking. Likewise however, many people of various outlooks and perspectives will continue to look upon any and everyone in the political realm (and one another) with similar fear and mistrust, regardless of how spiritual faith plays into the mix.

So while The Family rightly observes how Christians can get their spiritual interests over-entangled, into the affairs of state, the whole conspiratorial flavor of the film merely reinforces they type of mistrust that continues to divide Americans from one another. The Family missed an opportunity to effectively engage in substantive issues of church-state relations, to create room for having conversations that matter, in a truly pluralistic society. Instead, it leaves the viewer anxious to demonize their ‘religious” neighbor, and shut down conversations.

This is all terribly sad.

Would it ever be possible to find a way to break down the barriers of mistrust that divides us all from one another? Is there anyone able to bridge those gaps that separate us?

Perhaps there is someone who has already done that.

I can think of one.

His name is Jesus.


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