Putting the “apology” in apologetics

Ever read something that almost instantly strikes you as strange?

I read an article today by Christianity Today (read it here) that claims that apologetic teaching (a field of study that aims to provide logical arguments in favor of Christianity) has come back en vogue for teenagers and youth ministry.

Now, I want to be clear. I personally enjoy good apologetic discussion. I like to use my brain in conjunction with my faith and wish more Christians would as well. I think logical reasons for trust in Christ can be useful in proper context and that student ministry curriculum should include some of these elements. However, this article raised all kinds of red flags and questions for me:

Are apologetics really the hot new trend for teenagers?

Are today’s students really lined up outside the door to hear William Lane Craig argue creationism and God’s existence against his nemesis, Christopher Hitchens?

Can mental arguments for religion inspire today’s students to live like Christ?

Does the religious “I-can-prove-I’m-right” candy of modernity really taste that sweet to the children of postmodernity?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Almost every study available on this generation suggests that in fact the opposite is true; that apologetic classes are in fact not en vogue. And my personal experience with teenagers seems to agree. Even Christian studies by George Barna, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Thom Rainer, and others show time and again that young people today are turned off by logical arguments for faith alone.

That’s not to say that kids today don’t want to think about evidence for their faith. They do. They desire some rational answers to religion. However, they don’t perceive these discussions as having real value unless they are embodied in experiential Christ-like living. If you don’t live it, they don’t care whether it is intellectually believable.

The primary question that the majority of young people (both in the church and outside of it) are asking today is not, “Do I believe what you believe?”

The big question is: “Do I want to be like you?”

If I don’t like who you are as a person, if you’re not kind, generous, loving and accepting, then I’m not interested in what you believe. Because, clearly, neither are you.

In an environment where truth has become relative, apologetics has just become your spin on how you see truth. It matters, but not universally. It matters to me, but not necessarily to you. It’s important, but limited.

What does matter is your actual experience.

The question has moved from “is Jesus who He says he is?” to “do I really see Jesus living in you like you say He does.”

Some have called this an embodied apologetic; rational answers given credibility by how we actually live and treat others.

The questions of apologetics, then, aren’t unimportant to young people, it’s just that the answers are meaningless unless they have context of actual life transformation.

The famous quote: “No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument,” is completely understood and valued by this generation. And actually, I think it is mostly admirable and honest.

With this well documented cultural mindset as a backdrop, I find it very hard to believe that arming students with arguments is or will be any time soon the new youth ministry fad.

With one exception…

One of the great problems with American Christianity today is it’s insistence on winning the so-called “culture wars”. There is a strong feeling in many church circles that the prevailing culture has lost it’s moral compass (which is mostly true) and that it is the church’s job to legislate, argue and demand a return to Judeo-Christian moral principles (which is mostly untrue).

This “Us vs. Them” mindset is being played out on our political stage on a daily basis. There are Red-States and Blue-States. Conservatives and Liberals. Bumper stickers and talking heads have replaced actual conversation. As of today, the President and House Republicans can’t even agree on what day he should give his “jobs speech”.

We are a very divided country and this culture war mindset is deeply entrenched in many of our churches.

And don’t think this doesn’t rub off on our children. There are, I believe, an increasing amount of children of culture-war soldiers that have been told they must know the arguments to “defend their faith & country” from demise.

It is these students (and perhaps more accurately their parents) that have started this niche trend toward apologetics. And while apologetics is a great field of study, I believe any resurgence in it’s popularity for students and youth group is born out of this more fear-based rhetoric then actual interest in youth culture more broadly. It is localized in the Christian subculture and certainly not a trend for young people generally.

I’m encouraged that this field of study is being included in youth ministry curriculum, but I pray that youth leaders across the country will have the wisdom not to cave into this small minded view of “my god is better than your god” spiritual war mongering. I pray we will not only teach students what we believe to be true about God, but that we’d spend even more time modeling how we actually live like Him.

If we don’t we’ll have a lot of churches full of answers with no one who wants to hear them.

And, we may end up doing a lot of apologizing for all our apologetics.

McLaren Q1: The Narrative Question

Looking for a good, open conversation about faith?

Well, our friends at the conversation-starting website: www.theooze.tv are currently doing a video series with Brian McLaren about his new book: “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith”.

Each video features McLaren discussing one of the specific questions raised in his book.  And, due to the subject matter, I’m sure there will be much conversation generated! And really that is the goal.  There may be more than one thing that you find yourself at odds with him about, but according to McLaren himself, these questions:

“are not intended as a smash in tennis, delivered forcefully with a lot of topspin, in an effort to win the game and create a loser. Rather, they are offered as a gentle serve or lob; their primary goal is to start the interplay, to get things rolling, to invite your reply. Remember, our goal is not debate and division yielding hate or a new state, but rather questioning that leads to conversation and friendship on the new quest.”
(Brian McLaren)

So, here is the first of these videos.  It discusses briefly, McLaren’s first few chapters on the “storyline” of the Bible and how to properly frame our picture of Jesus.  Give it a quick view (less than 5 minutes) and feel free to comment here on your thoughts or go to www.theooze.tv and watch them all as they become available.

Love Connection – 3/22/09 – Part 2

Ok, this may be the most “scandalous” blog that I have written to date.  Wait, a minute… probably not.  The “Gay-Bath House” series was a bit scandalous too, huh? (Gay-Bath House article).

love-connection-jpgOh well, apparently my lot in life is to get involved in the dirty, messy and controversial subjects.   So, let’s jump right into the final question for this week, which almost gave me a coronary attack as I read it knowing I’d have to answer it!  Thanks everybody…  Let’s just get back to asking questions that are “safe,” huh?  LOL.


Question #3:
What are your views on masturbation?  Is it okay?

Wow, so we’re gonna go THERE now?  Ok.  I guess I should have known that we would eventually get here.   This question doesn’t necessarily have to do with relationships, however it is an issue that could impact relationships on many different levels.   So let’s go ahead and discuss it.

This is a very difficult question to answer.  On the one hand, many people believe it is wrong.  But, on the flip side, many Christians believe it is not.  Either way I answer I do two things:  1) I make half of everybody angry.  2) I assume that I actually know the answer.  (LOL)

So, let me give you my best effort at an answer.  It may not be perfect, but for better or worse, it is what I believe by faith right now.

First, the Bible has nothing to say directly about this issue.  The word “masturbation” is not in the Bible at all.  It is a subject, like dating, that isn’t discussed.  And without making too much of an “argument from silence” it does at least gives us a little bit of flexibility here.

However, there is one Bible text that has been used to condemn the behavior and it is worth mentioning here because its often use in this manner is not only unwarranted but flat-out coercive and wrong.

onanGenesis 38:8-10:  “Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.  But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.  What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.”

Wow!  How’s that for a little provocative Bible reading?  Just tell your parents: “Hey, you wanted me to read the Bible.”

Now, when I was a teenager (like 100 years ago), this verse was quoted to me as God’s ultimate word against masturbation.  The line went like this, “See, Onan wasted his seed  (sperm) and God’s punishment for him was DEATH!!”

Nothing like a little fear that God will strike you dead to keep you from masturbating!

However, this story has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH MASTURBATION.  It is a story about a strange, but merciful Jewish law that took care of widows and passed on family inheritance.

In the Jewish culture, if the husband of a woman died, his brother was required to marry her and save her from widowhood.  And if she did not have a son to pass the deceased husband’s land and assets to, then the brother was required to father a son with her.   This son would not be considered the brother’s son, but the deceased husband’s son and thus he would inherit the land.   It was God’s way of providing for families in crisis and ensuring rightful land inheritance.

In this text, then, God is not addressing masturbation at all.  He is punishing Onan for purposefully being disobedient and not taking care of his brother’s family.

So, if the bible doesn’t directly address this question, than what are we to make of it?  Is it okay?  Is it a sin?

Well . . . to say that it is a sin goes beyond what we have God directly saying to us in the Bible.  Because of this, theoretically, I believe that the act itself is not sin.

looking with lustHowever, while this makes sense theoretically, there is a very practical reality to consider.  Maybe most compelling are the inevitable thoughts that go along with this act.   And while no Bible text deals with masturbation, per se, Jesus does have some pretty radical things to say about our thought-life.

“You have heard it said that you should not commit adultery.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  — Matthew 5:27-28

What Jesus is saying here is that our “thoughts” are as important as our “actions.”   The intention behind what we do or don’t do is as crucial as our actual actions.

Now, even if theoretically, masturbation isn’t a sin, think of all the thoughts that usually invade your mind during those moments.  I would say that it is extremely rare that one engages in that action without some sort of impure thoughts about another person, whether you know them or don’t know them (in the case of most pornography).  And these thoughts are IMPORTANT, because they affect our relationships with other people and how we see other people.  Particularly for guys, this type of visualization reinforces “objectification” of women–seeing women as “objects” to possess rather than people to be honored and loved.

Couple that with the fact that masturbation is about selfish gratification (as opposed to sexual intercourse which when performed “in love” as intended is done as much for the other person as for you) and you at the very least have a less than beneficial activity.

So when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I can make that judgment call for you.  I don’t know what goes on in your head.  Only you do.  And I don’t know what God’s Spirit convicts you about.

But it might help as you think through this issue for yourself to be reminded that sin is not primarily a legal infraction.  Sin is not like a speeding ticket.  God isn’t necessarily keeping track of all your tickets and waiting for you to “pay-up.”

Instead, I believe sin is more like an infection.  It is something that messes up your relationships with God and other people, like an infection messes up the way your body is supposed to work.

With this in mind, I don’t think God is going to kill you for it and you won’t be sent to hell for masturbating too much.   However, it may warrant a bit of caution.  Just because something may not be sin, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for you or for your relationships with other people.   And if this issue causes problems between you and God or you and other people, you would be wise to listen to that prompting of the Spirit and choose differently.

Ok.  Hope that helps.

By the way, for those counting at home, I said the word, “masturbation” nine times.  Oops, make that ten.