Why I am so excited about China

forbidden_cityToday the greatest Christian evangelism movement ever to occur in any country in the world is taking place in China.  It’s one of the most exciting developments to be happening on the world stage right now and most American and western Christians do not seem to be aware of it.  In part I think that the reason why we are not is because the media that surrounds us in our electronically saturated culture is focused so much on other things.  Perhaps in part also the reason why we Christians in the west are not aware of it is because we are so busy slugging it out in the trenches, trying to save the moral and logistical remnants of our Christian past in a western culture that seems rapidly to be turning in a different direction.  To be sure, slugging it out for the gospel in the west is a valuable mission.  It’s a mission to which I am currently dedicating my life.  But at the same time I do think that a case could be made for saying that we Christians in the west are needed every bit as much on the mission field in China.   At the very least our financial resources are needed on that mission field.  Consider the following points.

1) Chinese people right now are incredibly receptive to the gospel.  Both the mainline, government-controlled churches and also the burgeoning house church movement are being overrun with people who are seeking the love of Christ.  The openness defies region – from Harbin in the north, to Xian in the west, to Guangzhou in the south, to Tsingtao in the east.

2) There is a deep need for grounded theological education on the mission field in China.  While tens of millions of Chinese people are receptive to the gospel, from what my friends tell me there often is an unfortunate lack of theological training among their leaders – especially among the pastors and leaders of the house church movement.  This lack of grounded theology is in part the reason why many house churches are spiraling off into syncretism, which is always a danger for Christian churches.  Pseudo-Christian spiritualist movements like Falun Gong are an ever-present temptation in the absence of good theological training.

3) The numbers do vary a lot, depending on the statistical source.  It depends also on how you count the house church movement.  But the Chinese church is probably today as large as 70-80 million people.  Occasionally I have heard learned estimates of 90 million or more.  If these numbers are right then contemporary China is the third largest Christian country in the world – behind the United States and Brazil.  That’s an incredible demographic shift in just a couple of decades of openness in the post-Deng Xiaoping era.

4) Anecdotally, I have known dozens of Chinese people in my life.  And every one of them has been receptive to the gospel.  Mind you, they certainly are not all Christians.  But every one of them has been interested in hearing the Christian message – considering what it has to say – and not a single one of them has approached spiritual discussions with me in the hardened and cynical way that we Christians have become so familiar with among many of our peers in the west.  Among Chinese today there is not a cynical cultural memory of past Christian misdeeds.

When you think of a Christian today, you still think of a white American Evangelical, or a Latino Catholic or Pentecostal, or an African Anglican.  At least that’s what I think of when I reflect on it.  But one hundred years from now the largest Christian church in the world, by far, will almost surely be in China.  So when our descendants at that time think of a Christian they will probably think of a Chinese layman, a Chinese worship leader, or a Chinese missionary.

The future of Christianity is in China.  It’s time for western Christians to embrace that reality.

Ukraine and the Just War Tradition

APTOPIX Ukraine ProtestIn recent weeks the eyes of the world have been fixed on Ukraine, where some tragic events have unfolded.  The troops of the former government, under the direction of then-president Victor Yanukovich, fired on protestors in Kiev and elsewhere in the country over a several-day period, and killed dozens.  The protestors began their demonstrations after yet another effort, late last year, by corrupt forces in the government to cut an unfavorable energy deal with Russia.  The current state of the crisis, as of the time that I am writing this blog post, is that the president has been ousted and is now at large somewhere in the eastern part of the country – perhaps in Crimea.  A warrant for his arrest has just been issued by the current Ukrainian government, which has replaced the president by calling for new elections.

Needless to say, these events are deeply troubling.  The tragic loss of life is incredibly troubling and has been recognized as such by worldwide sources.  But I do not want to focus in this short blog post on the macro story as it has been carried by the mainstream media.  What I find deeply intriguing about the events that have unfolded in Ukraine over the last few weeks is the small but impressive effort by some of Ukraine’s orthodox priests to quell the violence.  You’ve probably seen the pictures – usually two or three priests, standing courageously in the middle of the street between the protestors and the troops they are opposing.  These priests, as far as I can tell from the accounts that have been offered about them, have been endeavoring to keep the peace between the warring factions.  And their courage raises some interesting questions for Christians about circumstances in which the actions of governments are unjust.

In the Christian tradition there undoubtedly is space for a just war view.  So it is indeed possible, in circumstances in which governments and rulers are engaging in nefarious actions, for Christians to go to war against them.  But an important component of the just war tradition as it has been developed down through the centuries in the Christian tradition is that war-making should always only be a last resort.  Some major Christian leaders in the twentieth century, recognizing this, carved out space instead for another option – civil disobedience.  Martin Luther King Jr. is the most famous of these twentieth-century Christian leaders.  King advocated a form of social protest that was thoroughly committed to non-violence.  Under no circumstances, King thought, ought the civil rights demonstrators to agitate for violent changes in their society.  But the civil rights demonstrators nonetheless sought to bring about social change.  Instead of violence, they focused on the production of cultural tension.  The idea was to use non-violent means to produce so much tension in society that the segregationists would be forced to re-examine their policies.  And ultimately King and his followers were successful.

Of course, the time has now passed in Ukraine for civil disobedience.  Unfortunately, the events of the last several weeks spiraled out of control and violence erupted.  And my impression from the news reports is that it was the government troops in many cases who initiated the violence.  But whenever the people of Ukraine or of one of the other countries of Eastern Europe again feel the need to agitate for social change, my prayer is that they will remember the peacemaking actions of the orthodox priests over the last several weeks.  And my hope is that, instead of turning to violent forms of confrontation, they will instead act in accordance with the deeply Christian ideal of civil disobedience, as held up by twentieth-century icons like Martin Luther King Jr.

Why I’m pulling for Peyton Manning

Peyton_Manning_-_BroncosWell, I didn’t think this would happen, but now it has.  I am now rooting for Peyton Manning this week.  It took a while, but the man’s sheer persistence and grit has paid off for him and, although I might be accused of being a fair-weather fan, I do want now to jump on his bandwagon this week.  What is it about rooting for an old horse like Peyton Manning that has such a pleasant feeling of nostalgia and comfort to it?

Part of it is that Manning seems to have underachieved somewhat at the game’s highest level.  To be sure, Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played the game.  Perhaps he is in fact the greatest.  But at the same time Manning only has one Super Bowl victory to his credit, in two tries.  So part of the fun of rooting for Manning is the feeling that he deserves to succeed at the highest level because he’s done so much in the trenches for so many years.  Manning has had an incredible year this year – perhaps the greatest year by a quarterback, ever – and it certainly would be poetic for him to win it all with the Broncos now.

Part of what makes it fun to root for Manning this week is that he works so incredibly hard.  Undoubtedly, Manning has enormous physical gifts.  But he has also done the most to maximize his gifts over the years.  Along the way he seems to have done it the right way.  I remember when he was a quarterback for Tennessee.  He had an incredible junior year and had an opportunity to leave early for the NFL.  But Manning decided to stay at Tennessee because of his loyalty to his school and also because he wanted another year to mature.  He and his father, Archie Manning, took out a multi-million dollar insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London on his arm.  So they didn’t want to take any chances.  Since that time Manning has delivered and worked his way to the top, again and again.  Sure, it’s a lot of fun to root for a winner.  But it is even more fun in my book to root for a hard worker, and Manning is certainly that.

I think that part of me wants, in rooting for Peyton Manning, to get back at Tom Brady.  Recently they did a poll of 8 NFL GMs to see which quarterback they would rather have, Manning or Brady.  Want to know the result?  It was 7-1 in favor of Brady.  The GMs want a winner and in their mind Brady is the man who can win it all.  But I’ve never liked Brady quite as much.  When I think about it, I think that it is mostly his off-field persona.  Brady tries as best he can to live a glamorous off-field life.  So he’s kind of a showboat off the field, more so than Manning.  I see Manning as a quieter character who is just as committed to on-field excellence.  If I remember correctly, Brady has won four Super Bowls.  A Manning win this week would give him two and an opportunity to even the odds somewhat.

And of course I want Manning to prove Indianapolis wrong.  A couple of years ago the Colts were facing a huge franchise dilemma.  They had to choose between two players: Manning and the first pick of the draft, Andrew Luck.  To complicate matters, Manning was coming off of a disastrous season in which he had suffered from a mysterious and dangerous neck injury.  Manning had not really played in a year.  So his future status as a quarterback was very much in doubt.  The Colts chose Luck as their franchise quarterback of the future.  Manning was left dangling in the wind, and he ended up in Denver.  I really feel strongly the pull of rooting for a player who works hard to prove himself after a setback when the franchise lets him go.  And Manning has certainly fought his way back from injury.  So I’ll be pulling for him this week, in the hope that he’ll be able to fight his way all the way back to a Super Bowl victory.

Peyton Manning might not be the greatest NFL player of all time – Jerry Rice probably is.  But Manning is definitely up there and I think a win this week would cement his status at the top.  My little bit of fandom this week won’t make much of a difference in the outcome of the game, but it sure is fun to root for Manning along the way.

Things for which I am thankful

35099-thanksgiving-turkeyDuring this Thanksgiving season, I thought I’d list a few of the many things about American society for which I am grateful.  Often we hear only criticisms of our society – from both the right and the left – and for this reason I think that it is always important to step back and to think for a minute about some of the things in the society that we seem to be doing right.

1. I am grateful for the many things in our society that are merit-based.  Our Founding Fathers were intent on creating a society whose members would not reach positions of power or prominence by the accident of their birth.  Although we do still make mistakes on this issue, the vast majority of our business, professional, and political positions are merit-based.

2. I am grateful for the many men and women in America who are not seeking media attention, but who are faithfully serving in their professions and making the society a success.  I am thinking especially of policemen and policewomen, firefighters, doctors, public health workers, coaches, urban workers, and others.  There are a lot of people in our society who have no desire to become rich and famous, but who want to live successful lives in which they can give back to the community.  Their professions are not very highly compensating, but they work hard at their jobs anyway.  And I’m very grateful for that.

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Private Bible reading: let’s do it right

backyard-bibleRecently my colleague David Capes has discussed the decisions of several Christian leaders to give up on private Bible reading.  One reason why they are giving up seems to be that they lack confidence in their ability to be faithful interpreters of the meaning of the Scriptures.  Another reason is that they think that many of the books of the Bible were intended to be read publicly.

David is right.  It is not a good idea to give up on private Bible reading.  Here are two reasons.

First, these days, especially in comparison to past generations, we are struggling with a massive Biblical illiteracy problem.  Ordinary Christians like us these days quite simply do not seem to know what the Bible says.  So one reason why it is a bad idea to give up on private Bible reading is that without it our Biblical illiteracy problem would grow even worse.  Every tool in the tool set which can be deployed against Biblical illiteracy is a good tool.  And since the Bible is read so little in public outside of church services these days, without private Bible reading a major tool which could potentially be deployed against Biblical illiteracy would be lost.

Second, I think that with the right methodology the task of reading the Bible can be profitable.  In particular, I think that it is possible to read the Bible in private settings without necessarily running the risk of going wrong in one’s interpretative efforts.  I do of course agree that an interpretive community is incredibly important, especially when we are dealing with texts as difficult as the Holy Scriptures.  But at the same time I am confident that it is also possible for us to do the grunt work of getting the gist of the text in private, on our own, before getting together in church services and similar settings to interpret the difficult aspects of the text in a communal way.  The idea would be first to understand the bare facts of the text on one’s own and then later to interpret the meaning of the text, including especially its hard parts, in a public manner.  Through a proper methodology I do think that it is possible for us to be good stewards of the task of Biblical interpretation.

Marriage: why the ceremony’s so important

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Everyone these days is talking about same-sex marriage – and rightly so, since it’s such a big issue in our culture right now.  But today I want to give us a little bit of relief from the debate by mixing it up with something else about marriage.  I want to talk today about the marriage ceremony itself.

I’ll start with a full disclosure: I got married three weeks ago today.  It was without a doubt the most exciting and exhilarating thing that I have ever done.  And I simply adore my wife!  People told us that things would subside after a while, but it sure hasn’t done so yet – our love for each other is getting deeper and deeper each day of our marriage.

My dear wife and I were very particular about how we wanted our wedding ceremony to proceed.  A choice of a wedding ceremony is a deep and personal decision, and I want to talk about some of the reasons that were decisive in our own choice of our ceremony.

In short, almost all of our wedding ceremony came out of the Book of Common Prayer.  For those not familiar with this kind of a wedding ceremony, it is a very eloquent ceremony that cites numerous Bible verses, has numerous moments of prayer, and is reverential throughout.  The ceremony proceeds slowly.  It lays out the reasons for getting married, it cautions the couple not to enter into marriage for frivolous reasons, and it is deliberate about involving the surrounding congregation in the proceedings.

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The Massacre in Boston

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Big-city road races are one of the great delights of life, so it is with deep sadness that I have been reading about the Boston Marathon tragedy in the last couple of days.  My thoughts and prayers have gone out to the victims of the bombing and I certainly have felt a good deal of shock as well.  I’ve never run Boston before, but I have run the Chicago marathon and also countless other 5k and 10k road races.  The finish line is normally a place of great exhilaration and accomplishment.  So it is with particular grief that I think about the mindset of evil that could have masterminded a random act of violence of this kind – an act whose sole purpose seemed to be to kill or maim the greatest possible number of people at a time of great festivities. Continue reading

Failure to Launch: North Korea

625595_10101347713917422_578368042_nCurrently we seem to be in the middle of yet another round of North Korean threats. As of March 30, North Korea has declared that it is in a state of actual war with the United States and South Korea. This is, I think, a classic co-dependency relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. And the unfortunate thing is that it is affecting the lives of about 25 million North Koreans, not to mention countless millions more in South Korea and Japan. The North needs the countries around it – including especially China – to support its many millions of starving citizens. But to get the attention (and food) that it needs from China it feels that it must make threats against its Korean and Japanese neighbors – thereby demonstrating that it is indeed an important regional player, a force to be reckoned with, and a country to which China should be sending countless food shipments from the depots in its northern cities of Harbin, Shenyang, and Jilin. Continue reading

The Conclave: Personal Relationships

conclaveWhile I am not a Catholic, I am very sympathetic to the concerns and insights of many of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Here are a few thoughts on the current papal conclave. I think that it first of all is important to remember during this papal conclave that there are a lot of behind-the-scenes things of which the media does not seem to be aware. Right now most of the media are concentrating on the demographic and geo-political dimensions of the choice of a pope. But my suspicion is that there are other factors which are probably more important even than geo-political considerations to the cardinals who are participating in the conclave. I mean in particular the personal relationships formed over many years among the various different members of the College of Cardinals. Continue reading

The Homespun Lincoln

lincolnI am re-posting my blog post from November 28, in honor of the movie Lincoln and the Academy Awards.

Recently I got to see the new movie ‘Lincoln.’ The movie is directed by Steven Spielberg and its music composer is John Williams. Without a doubt, it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. I highly recommend it, both for people who are interested in history and also for people who just want to watch a stimulating two-and-a-half hour movie. The heart of the movie is the story of the passing of the thirteenth amendment. The movie does a good job of portraying just how deeply racism was entrenched in the American psyche at the time – even among the citizens who sided with the North during the Civil War. Several things about the movie struck me as especially well done.

First, Daniel Day-Lewis is an outstanding Lincoln. Human and approachable, his Lincoln is just as good at commanding the attention of a room full of powerful men as he is at telling witty stories in the company of friends and acquaintances. I am not a Lincoln scholar, but the Lincoln I saw in the movie synchs with everything I know about the man – folksy, a backwoods type, charming, and a man with deep moral convictions. Day-Lewis is very deserving of the Best Actor award for this performance.

Second, Tommy Lee Jones deserves a Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of the Pennsylvania firebrand Thaddeus Stevens. I didn’t really know anything about the historical Stevens before I saw the movie. But I was highly impressed with the acting job that Jones pulls off in the movie. Jones’s interpretation of Stevens is a believable portrayal of a man whose political wheeling and dealing was essential to the post-war reconstruction effort. You can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he plots his political schemes in several different key scenes.

I liked also the movie’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. She is often portrayed as a historical villain of sorts, so it sometimes is hard to get inside her head and to see life from her perspective. The movie offers us a very sympathetic portrayal of how deeply touched she was by the death of her son Willy. After his death she was pretty much a broken woman.

I really have very few complaints about the movie. Its screenplay is outstanding – perhaps, in fact, its strongest part. One thing that I do think was insufficiently emphasized in the movie is the general amount of Christian and religious sentiment that was pervasive among Lincoln and the other political leaders of the time. Perhaps it is not politically correct these days to portray such religious sentiment with as much robustness as was actually the case at the time. The objectionable parts of the movie are its language (the F-bomb is dropped several times) and also its graphic portrayal of human death and human body parts in some battle scenes. John Williams’s musical score is not as sweeping as some of his scores for past Spielberg movies (E.T., Jaws, Indiana Jones), but it is a brilliant and intentionally understated musical background that lets other aspects of the movie take center stage.

On the whole, the movie appears to me to be an accurate depiction of one of the most important three-month periods in the history of the United States. For that, Spielberg, Day-Lewis, Jones, Williams, and the rest of the cast are deserving of our thanks.

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