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Joshua Harris: An Opportunity for Empathy

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Author Joshua Harris influenced a whole generation of evangelical Christians with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Now he has a new documentary, called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about his new ideas on dating.

This last weekend, Joshua Harris posted this on Instagram:

“My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.

“I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)

“The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction,’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away.’ By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now…

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Joshua isn’t the first or last person whose soul-searching journey led them out of the faith. Sometimes when someone leaves it is obvious that they are doing it in a willful desire to justify sin (think Prodigal Son). Other times it is about the wearisome nature of the church and its subculture, the dissonant value systems between Christians and their Christ, or the deafening silence of God. In these moments I empathize with Josh’s struggle.

Empathy is an important word. In Romans 12, Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” That means empathetic living. Opening yourself up to feel what others feel is a tremendous way to love people.

Sympathy can have a tinge of superiority. I feel sorry for you because you are experiencing pain. Sympathy is not the same as empathy. Empathy says, I feel pain as you feel pain.

The important thing about feeling what others feel is recognizing that you CAN ACTUALLY feel what others feel, and you CAN feel it without condoning ALL of their behaviors or beliefs.

My kids constantly celebrate things and cry about things that are objectively stupid. But I love my kids so I celebrate their stick figure drawings with them and I show empathy for their imaginary bruises (sometimes). The truth is that loving my kids doesn’t mean that I need to think that all the things they celebrate and cry about are wonderful and accurate. It’s enough to see someone I love sad, or someone I love happy. The question is: Can I join them in their pain and joy?

I want to be clear. I do not know Joshua Harris personally, but I am sure that the last several years of his personal life and faith life have been filled with both tears and joy. Tears over the emotional and spiritual turmoil of coming to grips with what you truly believe. His divorce may be amicable, but that doesn’t mean there were not hours upon hours of hurt and pain involved in coming to this decision. Have you ever felt these type of emotions? Have you ever struggled in your relationships? Have you ever changed your mind on something you believed? Have you ever been scrutinized and/or attacked by strangers who don’t know you?

Objectively, these things suck. You don’t have to assume a person is sinless to acknowledge that these things suck and to weep with the one who weeps.

Can you weep with Josh? I’m not asking if you can weep about the fact that he is stepping away from his beliefs. Nor am I asking how his situation makes you feel about Christian leaders. I’m asking if you can weep over his pain. Don’t make this about you. This is about him and his wife and his kids. Can you be sad for him about the things that are painful for him?

And now I’m going to ask for more than most of my readers would probably consider: Josh said he feels awake, alive, and hopeful. Given everything he’s been experiencing, this may be the first time in a while he’s felt these things. Can you rejoice with him?

“Joshua Harris made a heavy announcement. Will we weep with him as he weeps AND rejoice with him as he rejoices? Or will we make this about our opinions and expectations and lose sight of the person in process?”

This one is probably much more difficult to wrap you head around. You may feel that celebrating with Josh is celebrating sin or celebrating walking away from Jesus. (Many readers are doing exactly that, this one is easy for many of you.) I want to be clear, I do not believe the Bible calls us to celebrate sin. So without celebrating sin, is it possible to rejoice in the journey that Joshua is on? Is it okay to be hopeful for him? Is it okay to celebrate some of the freedom he now feels from the religious expectation that has likely oppressed him his entire life? The freedom of finally being honest about what he believes and the state of his marriage? It is truly a soul-crushing endeavor to be living a lie. He must feel free in this moment. He seems excited. I am happy for him. Not happy that he “fell away;” happy that the burdens and expectations saddled upon him have been lifted and that possibilities for the future are wide open. I pray blessings upon Joshua Harris. I want good things for him.

To be clear, in my paradigm, that means I also pray that he comes to see that Jesus was not the source of his frustration: religion was. I pray he comes to know the easy and light burden of Christ in new ways. I pray God works all these things for his good. But that’s what I want for him. Empathy doesn’t start there. Empathy begins by listening and understanding him.

Pastor Kanye & the Problem with Celebrity Conversions

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Kanye West has been on a wild ride the last couple years. Most recently, he has been leading Sunday Services, where they basically sing songs to worship God interspersed with Kanye talking a lot about Jesus. He has even said that he will never again make “secular music.” Crazy, right?

But as you probably know (or can at least imagine), no one in the world knows what to make of this. For the gossip media outlets, Kanye’s just wild and unpredictable and therefore good for business. I sense the average Kanye fan standing back a bit to see what will come of it all. I see some in the Christian community excited about Kanye’s conversion and the new direction of his music. In my circles at least, I see more Christians skeptical or even derisive about “Pastor Kanye.” I personally see things that are really cool about what Kanye’s up to right now. I have mixed feelings overall: I actually wrote a book about the mistaken view of “secular vs. Christian music” that Kanye seemed to invoke, but I also love his enthusiasm to use his music for God’s glory.

Overall, I think this is yet another example of how tricky it is when celebrities convert. Bob Dylan famously became a Christian, and then eventually he leveled out. I have no idea what the implications of any of that are. But I do think we as Christians make this weird for celebrities. On the one hand, we talk as though having a celebrity become a Christian will lead to instant worldwide conversion. On the other hand, everyone policies their every statement and action, looking for reasons why they’re not a true Christian.

I first thought about this years ago. As I was stepping out of the back room onto the stage to lead the congregation in worship, my buddy said to me, “Don’t freak out, but Pamela Anderson is sitting in the front row.” I said what any worship leader would have said: “Yeah, right.”

I grabbed my guitar and stepped up to the microphone, and there she was, sitting directly in front of me. She seemed fully engaged in the music and the preaching, and as soon as the service ended she slipped out the side door.

This event didn’t have a huge impact on my life, but it made me wonder what church must be like for celebrities. Pamela made it through the service without being hassled, but I did notice that as she rushed out the door one of our pastors went sprinting after her. I’m sure he was just trying to give her a personal connection at the church, but I wonder if that seemed any different to her than the people who swarm her on her way out of other public places. I doubt it.

On another Sunday, I was running the soundboard when Leann Rimes walked in. She arrived early, found a seat in the middle of the Sanctuary, and graciously small-talked with the churchgoers who recognized her. Meanwhile in the sound booth, we whispered like Junior High girls about having a celebrity in front of us. We watched her reactions to the music and the sermon and speculated about the nature of her faith.

We likely agree that joining a community of faith is vital for anyone wanting to follow Jesus. But what would that look like for a major celebrity? Could they really just be part of the church family? We would all agree that celebrities are no better than the rest of us. Most celebrities would affirm this as well. But we don’t really believe it’s true. We get weird.

I once made awkward eye contact with Quentin Tarantino in a Starbucks. As we locked eyes, I saw the soul of a man who was trying hard to blend in, scanning the room to see which one of us would recognize him and call him out for attempting to buy coffee in public like a normal human being. I don’t know what he read in my eyes, but I didn’t out him. Instead, I pretended not to be watching him and walked across the room to discreetly tell a friend, “Don’t look now, but Quentin Tarantino is standing right behind you…”

I can’t imagine how a celebrity maintains normal relationships. Do people actually like me, or are they just trying to get something or look a certain way by hanging out with me? I would think you’d have a ton of acquaintances and very few actual friends. This would be tough in terms of church life.

“Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: ‘I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.’ Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace. Be happy for him.”

I don’t have a solution for this, but this should give us more compassion for celebrities who are trying to follow Jesus. We get so disgusted when we hear that “so and so claims to be a Christian but isn’t part of a church.” We are bewildered when a celebrity who seems to love Jesus makes a statement that is theologically off base. You’d be pretty weird too if every person in every church made it difficult for you to connect with the body of Christ.

I don’t know what any of this means for Kanye West. My opinion doesn’t matter at all. But this poor guy seems to be trying to take his first steps at following Jesus and using his enormous platform to draw attention to Jesus. There’s a pastor who actually attended the same seminary I did that has been pastoring Kanye pretty directly, and he vouches for Kanye’s faith. I think that’s pretty cool. At a recent event, Kanye asked people to give him a little grace if he’s mispronouncing certain phrases: “I’m a new convert. I recently got saved.” Maybe we could do that: give him a little grace.

Seems like we should be happy for him. I know I don’t know better than the pastor who’s vouching for him. Seems like I can be excited about a lot of what I’m hearing about the Sunday Services. Also, my trust in Jesus doesn’t hinge on what Kanye says or does. I’m confident he doesn’t need to be policed by the council of evangelical public opinion. I also think it’s cool he seems to be finding life in Jesus, just as I do.

Beth Moore vs The SBC

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Or more accurately, the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) versus Beth Moore. I want to be nuanced and careful here in terms of what specifically is being said and who specifically is saying it. But I also think it’s important to say that this whole thing feels gross and has a major jackass theology vibe. I can tell you that if you try to defend Beth by writing (or poeticizing) about how Moore is being mistreated, you’ll find people choosing their perception over her clear statements and talking like she’s the enemy of Christianity.

This episode, in which the conservative church weirdly and suddenly turned on Beth Moore, continues, and I believe it offers us a helpful lesson in jackass theology.

Here’s what’s happened recently. Moore tweeted that contrary to the arguments of some, the SBC has not been consistently opposed to women preaching. In doing so, she cited a couple of examples. Josh Buice, an SBC pastor who has called for the SBC to “say ‘no more’ to Beth Moore,” complained that he is being “hammered by all sorts of slander” and then accused Moore of being a full-blown egalitarian, despite her actual claims.

One thing that is strange in all of this is that from where I’m sitting, it looks like Moore is being attacked more than the male pastors who are inviting her to preach. I’m thankful for people like Wade Burleson (an SBC leader) for calling out this inconsistency and the attending intimidation and degradation. Burleson recently warned his friends in the SBC:

“If you continue to go after people like Beth Moore and others, you will destroy the Southern Baptist Convention that you say you love. I for one will never again allow our SBC leaders to betray our trust by convincing us that our friends are our enemies.”

Beth Moore had this gracious response to this round of controversy:

“In a Twitter dialogue earlier today, I reiterated the point that Southern Baptists have historically held varying views regarding the specifics on the role of women in the church. In doing so, I inadvertently caused confusion, for which I apologize. I linked to an example of these varying views, not intending to align myself with them, as I knew little about the author or his views. When this was brought to my attention, I deleted the tweet so as not to cause further confusion.

“Similarly, when I referred to generous orthodoxy, my point was that we should be generous in our interactions because there are different applications of complementarianism within our shared beliefs. There is plenty of room in my church’s and my denomination’s doctrinal statement for where I (and countless others) stand. I know there are many who hold to different views on the application of Scripture and still deeply love the gospel as I do. I’m a soft complementation, and that view fits under the Baptist Faith and Message (which speaks specifically to ‘the office of pastor,’ and with which I concur).

“For more than 40 years, I have ministered alongside those who differ from me on these issues, because I want to make the most of every available opportunity to proclaim Jesus and to encourage people to come to know Him through the study of God’s Word. That’s my heart and my passion. That’s what I live for.”

As I said before, the problem is not that these pastors want to be complementarian. The problem is that I’m not seeing many treat Beth Moore with the kind of grace she is exemplifying here. She’s being humble, she’s carefully clarifying, and she’s calling for an end of the poor behavior that is being allowed in the interest of dogmatic theological precision.

I want to be careful with this part. Right now the SBC is buckling under the revelation that many of its pastors and missionaries have been sexually abusing minors, and that many of these instances were covered up by leaders in power. That’s awful, and all good SBC leaders are acknowledging the evil of this and working to bring repentance, healing, and safeguards against future wickedness. The SBC is allowed to continue debating female preachers even in the midst of such a scandal. But it felt jarring for me to read a recent tweet by Al Mohler in which he states his shock that many are calling for a renewed discussion on female preachers, which he considers a settled issue. He calls this a “critical moment.” Mohler has strongly denounced the pedophilia and scandalous behavior in the SBC. I’m not saying he has to choose which to care about. But honestly, how can women sharing God’s word be a “critical moment” with everything else that is going on?

People aren’t okay with this.

We’re getting caught up in these intense debates, where good servants of the Lord are the casualties, while serious evil is being perpetrated. Let’s get some perspective. I’m much happier with a statement Tom Schreiner (an SBC theologian) made in response to the “re-opening” of the discussion. He re-affirms his strict complementation view, but states:

“Of course good people who are evangelicals disagree! I am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me isn’t a complementarian, even if I am worried about their view and its consequences for the future. I worked in schools for 17 years where I was a minority as a complementarian. I thank God for evangelical egalitarians! And I thank God for complementarians who I think are slipping a bit. Still, what we do in churches in important, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter. It does matter, and I am concerned about the next generation. But we can love those who disagree and rejoice that we believe in the same gospel.”

Amen! We need more of this approach.

“Beth Moore sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced from conservative church leaders as an actual service to the SBC. And she’s right.”

I don’t think we help anything by pretending theology is unimportant. Schreiner is right that these issues matter. He’s also right in his tone. We’re not helping anything when we act as though everyone who disagrees is villainously trying—always with the worst intentions—to make everyone else miserable and usher in the kingdom of Satan. That’s just not how it works. In this case, I think we need to call out the voices who are actually misogynistic and focus on the real issues. One of those issues is whether or not women should preach. But the one I’m more concerned about is whether or not the conservative church will continue to demonize people like Beth Moore. As I cited before, she sees her speaking out about the misogyny she has experienced as an actual service to the SBC.

She’s right.

You don’t have to care about my opinion, but I think it’s time for the SBC and every conservative, myself included, to change our tone and rethink our priorities.

“I have loved the SBC and served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible school. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it right now.”

– BETH MOORE

Sectual Sin

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“The sect system” is a “grand disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism, and which must be considered…more dangerous, because it appears ordinarily in the imposing garb of piety.”

This is a sentence we could easily have written last week. It aligns with so much of what we’re trying to address at Jackass Theology. Our propensity to divide and attack—to form sects—is eating us alive. As Paul warns, “if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15).

But we didn’t write those words. They weren’t even written in our current cultural climate. Those words were written 174 years ago by the prominent Protestant church historian Phillip Schaff. While Schaff was not describing what we’re experiencing now, his cultural moment was much closer to the root of the tree whose fruit we’re tasting now. So I’m going to quote several statements from Schaff’s 1845 book The Principle of Protestantism (from pgs. 107-121) to explore the implications of his uncannily prophetic take on where things were going. (To be clear, I’m not anti-Protestant whatsoever, nor was Schaff, but we can’t pretend we have no weak or destructive tendencies.)

While I think we have a modern tendency to divide over increasingly minor doctrinal disagreements, Schaff says this wasn’t the case in 1845. He saw groups in very close alignment theologically, but opposing each other based on structure and methodology. The controversies he saw “turn not so much on doctrine, as on the constitution and forms of the Church. In place of schools and systems we have parties and sects, which in many cases appear in full inexorable opposition, even while occupying the platform of the very same confession. “

I think we’re seeing a lot of this now as well. Churches and groups with nearly identical statements of faith find it impossible to validate what God is doing amongst a neighboring church or group. Schaff exposes the laziness of our excuse that we’re “just being bilblical” or that we’re “just standing on our convictions.” The problem is, there is no robust structure for church presented in Scripture. We’re left with a lot of freedom. Anyone who says there is a clear blueprint in Scripture that we can follow in crafting a modern church is not challenging his own assumptions. You’re filling in a lot of blanks with your cultural assumptions. And that’s ok. Necessary even. Just as you can’t have a soul without a body, so you can’t have a church without structural forms. Schaff: “The Scriptures are the only source and norm of saving truth; but tradition is the channel by which it is carried forward in history.” We’re all trying to honor Scripture in what we do, but we all make decisions in the stream of a given tradition.

We’re tempted to say “just follow the Bible and we’ll sort out every disagreement, but Schaff says it doesn’t work like that. This may sound off, but I’m convinced he’s right. “The Bible principle, in its abstract separation from principle, or Church development, furnishes no security against sects.”

Martin Luther: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

From his vantage point in 1845, he foresaw this trajectory would lead us into dangerous places: “Where the process of separation is destined to end, no human calculation can foretell. Any one who has…some inward experience and a ready tongue may persuade himself that he is called to be a reformer…in his spiritual vanity and pride [he causes] a revolutionary rupture with the historical life of the Church, to which he holds himself immeasurably superior. He builds himself of a night accordingly a new chapel, in which now for the first time since the age of the apostles a pure congregation is to be formed; baptizes his followers with his own name…”

Dang! Those are strong words. But was he wrong? Have we not seen this happen time and again on large and small scales?

“Thus the deceived multitude…is converted not to Christ and his truth, but to the arbitrary fancies and baseless opinions of an individual…Such conversion is of a truth only perversion; such theology, neology; such exposition of the Bible, wretched imposition. What is built is no Church, but a chapel, to whose erection Satan himself has made the most liberal contribution.”

Leaving room for a genuine work of the Spirit from time to time, I think we need to hear Schaff’s strong language. Do we think God is pleased with our constant excommunications and “farewells“?

Schaff says we should be seeing a Church that is characterized by the attributes of love that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 13. But instead:

“…the evidences of a wrong spirit are sufficiently clear. Jealousy and contention, and malicious disposition in various foams, are painfully common.” Instead, each sect is “bent on securing absolute dominion, take satisfaction in each other’s damage, undervalue and disparage each other’s merits, regard more their separate private interest than the general interests of the kingdom of God, and show themselves stiff willed and obstinately selfish wherever it comes to the relinquishment, or postponement even, of subordinate differences for the sake of a great common object.”

That is absolute fire! Is it untrue?

To those who foster a “hermeneutic of suspicion” and are quick to divide, Schaff says: “Not a solitary passage of the Bible is on their side. Its whole spirit is against them.” He then quotes passage after passage on unity.

“The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism…The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.” – Phillip Schaff, 1845

We may think we’re being biblical and standing up for truth, but Schaff warns that the opposite is true: “The sect-system is a prostitution and caricature of true Protestantism, and nothing else.” He says, “The most dangerous foe with which we are called to contend is the sect-plague in our own midst.”

I don’t have a lot to add to this. I just want us to hear Schaff’s 19th century warnings and ask ourselves if we’ve been working to make his fears reality. If we’re not concerned about the fractured, embattled state of the Church, we should be. After his work in trying to reform the Catholic Church and (accidentally) starting the Protestant Church in the 16th century, Martin Luther warned his fellow reformer Melanchthon: “After our death, there will rise many harsh and terrible sects. God help us!”

God help us, indeed.