Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are a product of our influences. The traditions that have been handed down to us shape us in one form or another. These can be very good things, but they can also insulate us.
As much as our theology focuses our attention in a particular direction, it also draws our awareness away from other perspectives. This creates rigid, almost imperceptible boundaries in our thinking. When we encounter other individuals that have views or ideas that challenge our own, these boundaries prevent us from being able to engage them. Instead, we engage our perceptions of those ideas, which are often filtered and misunderstood.
Yet, we are not trapped by this. The key to discovering those less traveled roads, to opening ourselves to thinking deeper and wider, is to connect with those travelers whose journey follows a route different from our own.
Is it possible to love your neighbor as yourself and, at the same time, knee him in his face as hard as you can?
This is the provocative question that hangs like a lingering specter at the end of the trailer to the upcoming documentary Fight Church. The film follows the influence of mixed martial arts upon the culture of the church, looking specifically at a group of pastors who fight in cage matches on Saturday and lead their congregations on Sunday.
Violence has become a part of our culture. Worse, it has worked its way into our theology. This has impacted our Christian identity is some significant ways, and raises the bar on the challenge to live faithfully — or even to understand what living faithfully still means.
“Cutesy” Christianity annoys me.
Admittedly, this is my own hangup, but it simply feels… hollow. There is this unacknowledged pressure for Christians to have to pretty things up when it comes to Jesus, as if slapping on a coat of pretty pink paint suddenly makes the reality of this world’s suffering disappear.
Maybe it’s because this isn’t my story. My story is the opposite: life was “fine” before I knew Christ. It was after my conversion that everything fell apart. Yet in the midst of this, I discovered what the Christian hope really is. It doesn’t provide some cutesy shelter where we are protected from all the jagged edges of life in a broken world. Instead, Jesus offers the promise that we do not go through it alone.
And He understands. He went through it first.
Last Sunday we celebrated the most famous misunderstanding of Jesus in the entire Gospel narrative: the triumphal entry.
On that day all those years ago, faithful Jews laid down their cloaks and palm branches before the returning king of the line of David. In Jesus, they placed their hope of a return to the days of glory, the restoration of the Israelite kingdom, and the overthrow of the Roman Empire occupying their ancestral land. Less than a week later, Jesus would be crucified by those occupying forces, the Hebrew Messiah executed among thieves.
It would seem their hope was misplaced.
We know better. Their hope was not misplaced so much as misunderstood. They understood the promise of the messianic kingdom in terms of political power, yet Jesus proclaimed an other-worldly reign. From our vantage point on this side of the empty tomb, the mistaken identity of the King of Kings seems apparent.
And yet, we still define this kingdom in political terms. We still misplace our hope.
Here is how we can find it again.
Fifty-nine years ago today, the great German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer stepped onto a platform in a Nazi prison camp. Moments later, his body hung limp, executed by hanging. On this day — April 9, 1945 — Bonhoeffer joined a long legacy of Christian martyrs.
While his death was memorable, it was simply the exclamation mark at the end of a life that embodied the very essence of Christian faithfulness. Despite being cast into a prison camp to join the Jews he once protected, his influence did not cease. Bonhoeffer understood that Christian faithfulness does not rely on power or circumstance to be effective. Often, it is precisely how one lives when they are powerless and oppressed that is most impactful.
I think Bonhoeffer would have much wisdom to offer the Christian culture of today. Despite how stringently we battle in the current culture wars, we are losing our influence.
Here are five reasons why Christianity is declining in its ability to be culturally relevant and impactful… and what we can do about it.