Almost Christian 3 – Mormon Envy

The National Study of Youth and Religion has shown that teenagers highly devoted to faith have families and churches that provide support. Specifically, this support reinforces four cultural tools that set young people firmly in their religious tradition (Almost Christian, 49):

1. They confess their tradition’s creed, or God story.

2. They belong to a community that enacts the God-story

3. They feel called by this story to contribute to a larger purpose.

4. They have hope for the future promised by this story.


If we wanted to look at one group who does this extremely well, and Kenda Dean spends an entire chapter on this group in Almost Christian, we should look at Mormons: “Mormons invest heavily in teaching young people to exemplify and promote Mormon beliefs and behaviors. By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’ particular God-story, by immersing young people in a community of belonging, by preparing them for a vocation and by modeling a forward-looking hope, Mormons intentionally and consistently create the conditions for consequential faith – so much so that Mormon teenagers are more likely than teenagers from any other group to fall in the category of young people the NSYR called highly devoted” (50).

Dean gives us a glimpse of how this plays out in Mormon subculture. More than half of Mormon teenagers wake up at 5 AM, every school day for four years, to attend “seminary”. During this time various religious practices are emphasized and students are also given advice on planning for their two-year commitment to service and evangelism. This two-year missionary service functions as a premier rite of passage for Mormons. Also, throughout their whole lives, families do devotions together and, at the urging of the church, have weekly family nights.

When it comes to developing highly committed youth, Mormons win! But briefly at the end of the chapter, and setting the stage for coming chapters, Dean turns from sociology to theology. It would be tempting, I think, for Christians to look at how well Mormons do and simply copy them (Mormon parents wake their kids up at 5 AM for an hour of religious study, we should do that too! Mormons require two years missionary service, so should we!) What this leaves out is the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and Grace: Christian formation is less about acquiring cultural tools than surrendering them, placing ourselves – cultural tools and all – at the disposal of a God who transforms them, and us, into means of grace (Almost Christian, 60).

What I take away from this chapter is that Christians can learn a lot from Mormons but, like anything else, we should not just uncritically swallow it. Mormonism is a distinctly different religion in their understanding of who Jesus is and how humans are made right with our Creator. It is tempting to say it works for them, let’s do it! In the same way, it is probably tempting to copy off of corporations, other churches or whomever we observe that has been “successful.” To some degree, this may be okay for the simple reason that all truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found. We can learn lessons in surprising places. But at the end of the day, we cannot ignore the distinctives of historic Christian faith: Grace and the Incarnation. In the name of “success” it is tempting to ignore such things that the Scripture itself often calls stumbling blocks. But if we sacrifice these vital truths in order to create devoted young people it begs the question,what exactly are they devoted to?



Tibetan Monks visit PSU Berks!

The last few days Penn State Berks has been host to the “Mandala Sand Painting Exhibition” by Tibetan Monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery.  I did not see a write up about it on the PSU Berks site, but you can check out the monks’ site here.  I heard a lot of students saying how amazing the sand painting was and when I finally got a chance to check it out I was not disappointed.  It was brilliant.

Yet one question comes to mind.  This is not a malicious or loaded question.  I am fully in favor of this exhibit and think it certainly benefits the campus life of students.  But I could not help but wonder whether such an exhibition by Christian monks would be so welcomed on campus?

The Tibetan monks are clearly religious.  As they did the sand painting, there was a picture of the Dalai Lama behind them in a prominent place, akin to a religious icon.  I make no claim to be an expert on Buddhism, but this was clearly a pro-religious group.  Would a group of Christian monks from Italy doing sculptures be as welcomed on campus?  What if while they sculpted, there was a picture of Jesus or a cross prominently in the background?

I hope this does not sound like I am playing the persecution card.  And I understand that our country has a history of ties to the Christian faith while eastern religions, like Buddhism, are foreign to us.  I mean, the obvious difference is that there are numerous Christian students on campus who hold Bible studies, pray and talk to their peers about Christian faith.  So I am not saying Christianity is underrepresented in any way.

I merely think it is interesting that this obviously religious exhibition was so welcomed on campus.  It surprised me.  Maybe I am probing too deeply, but I am not sure what to make of it.

Recent Reads

THON!  I danced in THON in 2002 and it was awesome.  Adam, a PSU alum, can tell you what THON is.  I wish I had written that!  My prayers are with all the dancers this weekend!  WE ARE…

Newsweek had a recent article on the Bible and sex.  Get Religion demonstrates what a mess this article is, both from a basic bad interpretation standpoint as well as from a poor journalism standpoint.  Here’s a sample: “The piece (which attempts to expose contradictions in the Bible) also has too many contradictions and curiosities that are left unexplained. Is the Bible wrong or is it just the interpretations that are wrong? And if the Bible is an ancient, patriarchal, awful text, why are we arguing that it embraces gay sex, premarital sex, etc? And why are we saying that’s a good thing if, again, the Bible is this awful, patriarchal mess of incohesion?

Speaking of questions Christians need to ask, what happens if (when?) computers become human?  Science fiction or only three and a half decades away?  I have heard of Ray Kurzweil before and should probably read one of his books.  Check out this article from Time on the Singularity: “Here’s what the exponential curves told him. We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.”

Do babies that die automatically go to heaven?  Most Christians would either say yes (of course, they have not committed sin yet) or maybe (if they are elect for Calvinists, if they have been baptized for Catholics).  Greg Boyd points the question in another direction.

I work with college students and this is not breaking news: email use plummets among teens.

I enjoy football, but this article asks good questions.  Are Christians mature enough to question the uncritical acceptance of the greatest American sport (sorry baseball, its true)?

A special treat for my fellow fans of The Simpsons.

Hilarious: Nation Somehow shocked by Human Nature.

Almost Christian 2 – The Cult of Nice

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a guy who does campus ministry at the University of Delaware (Blue Hens for Christ). One thing we briefly talked about was how we do “membership” in our campus ministries. When does someone become a member of the Christian community on campus as opposed to just showing up? What is expected of members, if anything? We agreed that if you ask for little commitment, you get little commitment but if you ask for big commitment, you get big commitment.

In other words, young people (though, probably all people) want to be part of something that matters. They are willing to give a lot of time and energy if they are on board with the mission.

The problem is that, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, American teenagers tend to view religion as a “Very Nice Thing“. Kenda Creasy Dean says that this means they see religion as “beneficial, even pleasant, but it does not ask much of them or even concern them greatly, and as far as they can tell it wields very little influence in their lives” (Almost Christian, 33). We ask little more than assent and compliance, so why should we be surprised when do not get get conviction and passion?

Dean goes on: “If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary” (36).

Being nice is boring. Everybody likes a nice person, but no one will follow a nice person to the ends of the earth.

Part of the problem with settling for niceness is that when religious dialogue happens, being nice reduces all religions to being basically the same. True interfaith dialogue preserves the identity of the other person or group, recognizing the real disagreements that exist. Being nice glosses over it all to superficially pretend we are all the same.

From this, Dean contrasts niceness with Christian teaching on hospitality and compassion, saying, “God sends me to strangers in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls me to recognize God’s image in them and, because we share divine parentage, to acknowledge them – in all their glorious strangeness – as my brothers and sisters” (33).

The questions are of identity (who am I?) and otherness (who are you?). True, self-sacrificial love of the other cannot happen if we do not allow them to be different from us. The exciting, invigorating thing about Christian faith is not that Jesus said, “I’m okay and you’re okay so let’s be nice and play checkers together” but rather that Jesus said, “you’re a mess so I will love you and die for you to make you whole again”. Or as Dean puts it:

Imitating Christ makes people lay down their wallets, their reputations, their lives for the sake of others, which is why parents rightly fear it for their children. The cult of nice is so much safer; God is friendly and predictable, offering little and asking less. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not ask people to lay down their lives for anyone, because niceness does not go that far. Love goes that far – and true love is neither nice nor safe (40).

I can’t help but be reminded of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when the children first hear about Aslan in Narnia. Hearing of a great lion frightens them, so they ask if he is safe. The response from the Beavers is that of course he is not safe, but he is good.

People did not follow Jesus because he was a nice guy. Ask your average college student today about Jesus and they may even admit that he seems like a pretty nice guy. But people follow Jesus when they catch the vision: the world is a mess and God is putting it back together; God can put you together through Jesus Christ and you can join God in the mission of putting the world back together!

I end with a quote from Mere Christianity by Lewis that Dean opened the chapter with: “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save“.

The Steelers are the Yankees (and why you should cheer for Green Bay on Sunday)

I realize I may lose a lot of the goodwill I receive on my birthday with this post, but oh well.  For the record, this post is all in good fun.

To start, I am a lifelong Philadelphia fan.  I can’t say I never had a wandering onto a bandwagon in my younger days while the Phillies suffered through losing season after losing season.  Yet for the most part, I have been a Philly fan, especially the Eagles.  Like most Eagles fans, I detest our biggest rivals: the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins.  I also detest the Patriots, mostly for beating the Eagles in the Super Bowl, but also for being successful.  What I find interesting, or perhaps I am completely wrong, is that while I also have no love for the Steelers, it appears other Eagles fans do.  For some reason, some Eagles fans cheer for the team in Pittsburgh.

Again, maybe I am completely wrong with this, but the Steelers do not have the polarizing effect other great teams do (“evil empires”, “dynasties”).  There are teams in various sports, usually teams with a long history of success, that everyone either loves or hates.  In baseball, it is the Yankees.  They have won twenty-seven world series, far more than anyone.  They have many fans throughout the country,who decided it was just more fun cheering for winning teams.  But they also have myriads who see them as the big bully, the “evil empire” and cheer for whoever is playing them.  There are such teams in all sports.

Then there are teams who have become polarizing in this way more recently.  Sticking with baseball, the example is the Red Sox.  Winning a couple of world series titles gave us “Red Sox nation”, a bunch of people around the country who jumped the bandwagon.  With so many new Red Sox fans, the rest of us started to hate the Red Sox about as much as we hate the Yankees.

Back to the Super Bowl and my argument: the Steelers are the Yankees!  They have more Super Bowl victories than anybody else, they are always good, they have a national following (I have heard some on ESPN radio say they may be displacing the Cowboys as “America’s Team”). Yet, and again, maybe I am way off, they do not have the polarizing affect of the others.  They have lots of fans, but very few haters.  How come they are not as polarizing as the Cowboys, the closest NFL equivalent?

I am coming out and saying: I see the Steelers right alongside the Cowboys and Patriots as teams never to cheer for.  Actually, when the Patriots played the Steelers I was hoping the Patriots would win!

This is by no mean a knock at Steelers fans (at least, those who have always been Steelers fans).  Your team is great, giving you many victories.  By all means, enjoy it.  I fault you no more than I fault those who grew up in New York cheering for the Yankees.  I think people who jump the bandwagon, those who became Steelers fans recently, are leeches.  But the rest of you, enjoy the ride!

Just realize that the reason I am cheering for Green Bay is the same reason I cheer against the Yankees or other teams that win all the time.  I want to see the underdog, the new money, get a victory.  And I am calling all my fellow Eagles fans as well as all those who like to cheer against the big bully on the playground, to buy a cheesehead and root on the Pack!