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Monday, January 30, 2012

Revival Can Begin with Today's Young Adults

I’m being deeply enriched as I’m reading George Marsden’s landmark biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life. In one chapter Marsden describes a remarkable revival that took place in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734-35, where Edwards was serving as pastor.

By 1734 (Edwards was 31 years old), the spiritual and social condition of the young adults of Northampton, Mass. was dismal. The prevalence of premarital sex had risen dramatically, even to the point that pregnancy out of wedlock lost much of its stigma so long as the couple married following conception. This was partly because the parents of these young people were distancing themselves from the strictness of their own upbringing. But it was also aided and abetted by economic forces. A land shortage—partly driven by property consolidations widening the gap between wealthy and less propserous landowners—prevented young people from starting families on new farms, so they were stuck living with their parents with no immediate economic prospects. The average marriage age rose considerably to 28 or 29 for men and 25 for women. With real adulthood postponed, these young adults were living without purpose; youth culture revolved around taking advantage of days off working for their parents to hit the party scene at local taverns instead of attending church activities scheduled on those days.

Then in April of that year one of the young men in a hamlet a few miles away from the town center died of a sudden illness. Edwards, who had nearly died of illness twice himself, preached a gripping funeral sermon about the precariousness of life and the pointlessness of the kind of lives the young people were living in light of death and the next life. The young adults there were deeply affected. Edwards returned and called a service just for that age-group soon after, and these young adults quickly began showing evidence of conversion—changed lives.

Soon this wave of conversion spread to young adults all over Northampton and from them to all generations, from children to the aged and everyone in between, men and women, high and low, rich and poor, free and slave. Virtually the entire town was converted. People of all kinds were meeting in homes to pray and encourage each other through Scripture and singing the new worship music being churned out by the likes of Isaac Watts. During the 14 months of the revival, physical and mental illness virtually disappeared from Northampton. The revival spread to other towns along the Connecticut River, and similar phenomena occurred in New York and New Jersey. This was an intense local precursor to the Great Awakening that swept all the colonies about five years later.

What amazes me perhaps even more than the miraculous work of God in this revival is where the revival started. It started among young adults whose social situation and culture are shockingly similar to those of young adults today. Just like in Northampton in 1734, premarital sex is commonplace, there is a widening wealth gap and bitterly difficult conditions for getting hired into a promising economic future, the marriage age is high (28.4 for men and 26.5 for women in 2009), young adults are living with their parents at high rates, the Jersey Shore ideal is in, and church attendance among young adults is not.

But it was among these very people, the group that the church was least successful in reaching, that the revival began. It began because of a sobering tragedy, a God-soaked pastor who cared deeply about them and loved them enough to tell them the hard truth, and a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. And once it caught, it transformed every segment of society.

The soil today among young adults may be even harder to till. Puritan Northampton’s young adults had a set of doctrinally sound basic beliefs that Edwards could refer and appeal to. But as Kenda Creasy Dean reports in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (which, by the way, you have to read), young people today regardless of religious self-identification are largely devotees of the parasitic religion of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” and are virtually ignorant of the gospel. On the other hand, perhaps this is an advantage—perhaps today’s young people’s ignorance has kept them from being inoculated to the Christian message. But in either case, God has already proven that he can launch an incredible spiritual awakening from young adults just like the ones in America today. This drives me to prayer and gives me great hope.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's Here: "On Freedom and Destiny"

It’s official: my first book, On Freedom and Destiny: How God’s Will and Yours Intersect, is in print and able to be purchased online. I’m delighted that it is finally available to the reading public. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to hearing your comments.

What follows is the bulk of the introduction to On Freedom and Destiny, subtitled, “Why I Wrote This Book.”

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you’re in a social gathering with some good friends and new acquaintances. Everybody is warm and open and relaxed, because they know that they are in the company of like-minded people. So everyone at the gathering, including you, is speaking candidly and unguardedly, without fear of offending anyone or putting their foot in their mouth.

At a brief lull in the conversation, you reach for the chips and salsa on the coffee table just as one of your newly-met fellows says, “Did you hear what [presidential candidate] said today? Is he a boob or what?” Your stomach and throat tighten, because you made a small campaign contribution to Candidate Boob last week, and you’re looking forward to your complimentary campaign bumper sticker arriving in the mail. Suddenly you’re grudgingly thankful that the sticker wasn’t already on your car when you pulled up to the house. To your consternation and disappointment, the others gathered around the coffee table take up the taunt against Candidate Boob. You’re the sole exception. And you wonder, how did this happen? Ten seconds ago I thought I was in the company of friends. I thought I was accepted. Now I find out that if they know who I’m voting for, they’ll think I’m an idiot or something worse.

Maybe you’ve never experienced this unsettling feeling around a political candidate, but you’ve probably felt it in some context. There’s nothing that feels quite like other people assuming they know what you think, because everybody thinks that, or because only morons or infidels would think the opposite. Or maybe they neither endorse nor deny your position but simply ignore it because they have never considered it before.

I felt something like this where-do-I-fit-in feeling when I read an essay by a friend a few years back. A portion of his essay read: “Underlying all of Judeo Christian [sic] theology is the concept of ‘free will,’ which essentially means that every person is free to choose right or wrong.” This statement and others like it make me rather uncomfortable, because though I am a Christian, I am not sure I can sign onto it. It all depends on how one defines “free will” and “choose.” I had a hunch that what I mean by those things aren’t what my friend had in mind. Apparently my beliefs on free will weren’t even on my friend’s radar screen, or if they were, he believed at the time that they are outside the bounds of Judeo-Christian theology. Now if this were one essay by one guy, this would not be a big deal. But I know dozens of Christians who would agree with the statement I quoted above without a second thought. It would not even cross their minds that there are concerns about it from within the historic Christian faith. Or if they do know there are concerns―well, the people who came up with them must be way out in left field.

This book contains what I think regarding freedom and destiny and why I think it. Admittedly, it is written to persuade, but it is also written to explain. I cannot count the number of times I have encountered an opportunity to express my beliefs on these issues and have totally failed―either by mixing up my words, or by starting in the middle instead of at the beginning, or by not having enough time to express myself, or by being easily offended, or by avoiding discussion altogether. This book is first of all my opportunity to explain myself thoroughly to all my friends and relations in a way that I cannot possibly do in conversation.

Yet I also write because I feel like I have some obligation to do so. See, I have changed my mind radically on these matters, and I think a radical change like that carries with it a special responsibility to explain the new thing in a way that’s comprehensible to people who know only the old thing.

So what are we talking about? The answers to a number of questions:
  • How does God relate to time (ch. 1)?
  • How does God get his way (ch. 2)? (A.k.a., what’s the deal with predestination?)
  • What does it mean to have free will, and how is it compatible with predestination (ch. 3)?
  • Is it possible for people to have a personal relationship with God if their lives are predestined by him (ch. 4)?
  • What does it mean for Christ to set us free and how does he do it (ch. 5)?
  • What is the nature of evil, and what is necessary for someone to be guilty of it (ch. 6)?
  • Does God’s plan force people into hell (ch. 7)?
  • If God wants everyone to be saved, why aren’t they (ch. 8)?
  • Why is there evil in the world (ch. 9)?
  • If God predestined everything, why would we do anything (ch. 10)?
  • Do the answers to these questions make any practical difference (ch. 11)?
  • What makes “Free Churches” free (ch. 12)?
Before we dive in, a couple of disclaimers. First, I’m a pastor. In my preaching and teaching and writing for my church I spend almost all of my time talking about non-negotiables, things that are clear from Scripture that are necessary for us to know and act on for our salvation, things that if someone disagrees with they are risking the state of their soul. This book is different. Don’t get me wrong―I think the issues contained in this book are important or I wouldn’t be writing about them. However, there are other things that are more important. A person can thoroughly disagree with a whole lot of what I write here and still be saved. I don’t believe that a person can thoroughly disagree with the Nicene Creed and still be saved. So let’s keep this stuff in perspective. But if the things in this book are important but not that important, why am I taking the trouble to write about them at all? Exactly because there is room for a diversity of opinion on these questions, and many American Christians don’t realize that. They think their answers are as non-negotiable and straight-ahead obvious as John 3:16, and I’m writing to demonstrate that that’s not so.

Second, I am an evangelical Protestant Christian assuming that most people reading this are something like me. Therefore my work carries certain unargued presuppositions (for instance, about the divine inspiration and reliability of the Bible) that I share with most of my audience. Christians from other branches of the faith (and even some from my own) may not share all of these assumptions with me; nevertheless, I expect them to be able to enjoy this book as well because of the common ground we do have. I even believe that non-Christians may enjoy this book, as long as they keep in mind that I have made little attempt to meet them where they are. In any case, if something here sets you thinking in a profitable direction on the road to knowledge and life, more power to you.

To purchase your copy of On Freedom and Destiny, click here.


Monday, January 23, 2012

What Should Jesus Look Like?

Dan Buttry, American Baptist International Ministries Global Consultant for Peace and Justice, has written a great article on artistic depictions of the face of Jesus. What should Jesus look like? Is it okay to portray him like oneself and one's neighbors look? If so, why? Though he leaves out the question about whether we should portray him visually at all (an important one), where he goes with the answers he does give ends in a thought-provoking meditation on the doctrine of the Incarnation. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nice, Kind, and Good

I think we’ve made a mistake by teaching our kids (and being taught by our parents) that we ought to be nice. And if it’s possible to change how we talk, we should stop. This is because “nice” as we commonly use the term means multiple things, and some of them are better than others.

“Nice” can mean “kind.” That means you recognize when someone has some weakness or vulnerability and gently extend help to that person. Kindness is produced by the Holy Spirit and is always a good thing.

“Nice” can also mean “courteous.” You don’t behave rudely toward anyone but act according to cultural standards of politeness and propriety that are a ritual way of demonstrating respect for others. Courtesy is a sort of foundational expression of regard for one’s neighbor, so this is also a good thing, at least in all but the most extreme circumstances.

“Nice” can mean “friendly” or “pleasant.” When you meet someone in a social gathering for the first time, you smile and make small-talk that puts others at ease. This can also be an expression of love, and it is also very useful. But though we should strive to put it into practice, this is easier for some than for others just because of their outgoing temperament, not because of any special virtue.

“Nice” can also mean “doesn’t make people feel bad.” This definition of “nice” isn’t just about the nice person but also about the reactions of the people around the nice person. So the same person may be considered nice by less easily offended people and not nice by easily offended people. In such a case, “nice” doesn’t describe the virtue of the nice person but rather the virtue of the people around him or her.

My problem with expecting and teaching people to “be nice” is that, depending on what we mean by “nice,” being nice can be very honoring to God or very dishonoring to God or in some cases just not as important as we make it out to be.

As I said before, being kind is always pleasing to God, and I hope that when we teach our young children to “be nice,” this is the main thing we’re trying to urge on them. And in fact, maybe we should stop saying, “Be nice,” and start saying, “Be kind,” instead to keep things clear. It’s also very appropriate to raise them to be nice as in being polite, so we should keep things going there.

But though it is a fine thing to desire and expect people to be nice as in friendly, let’s not put too much moral stock in it. Con artists are nice—a person can be nice and yet have nothing but the worst intentions for their neighbor. Also, as I said before, some people are nice not because they’re especially good but because they’re good at being nice. It’s a natural talent like being a good athlete or musician. This isn’t bad; in fact, it’s good. But its goodness is like good art that is pleasing to the eye, not like goodness that pleases the moral sense.

The diciest definition of “nice,” in my opinion, has to do with other people not feeling bad. Now, don’t get me wrong: not making people feel bad matters. If you have two ways to do something, and one way will make people feel bad and the other way won’t, then do the way that won’t. That’s not only kind (the really good sort of “nice”) thing to do, but it’s also smart. The problem is that when many people get their feelings hurt, they immediately conclude that the person who hurt them wasn’t nice. If being “nice” is such a great virtue, then their hurt is a marker that the other person is immoral. And maybe the person was. But maybe not. Because lots of holy, righteous people in history have made other people feel bad. Jesus did it all the time, and we know that he was the kindest person the world has ever seen, the living expression of God’s kindness to people who don’t deserve it.

Because all these different meanings are lumped together in the word “nice,” and because Sunday Schools and such, hopefully meaning “Be kind,” tell the children of Christians, “Be nice,” there are many, many people who think that not upsetting other people is the essence and goal of Christian living. They might not put it this way exactly. But how often have you heard someone say (or said yourself), “What So-and-So did is un-Christian,” when what they really believe is, “I don’t like what So-and-So did because it hurt my feelings and ticked me off.” Maybe the problem is with what So-and-So did. Maybe the problem is what the person did who was ticked off by So-and-So. Maybe So-and-So was truly exhibiting love, which both is “kind” and also “is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4, 6). Maybe the person who is upset by how “not nice” So-and-So is is really just a bit too attached to injustice and falsehood.

So, as I’ve proposed before, let’s back way off trying to be nice and instead zealously pursue being kind, and let’s teach our kids to do the same.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Announcing "On Freedom and Destiny"

I'm pleased to announce the publication of my first book On Freedom and Destiny: How God's Will and Yours Intersect, which will be available for sale online within the next few weeks. Here's the cover:

Let me help you read the back:
"Everything happens for a reason." + "Everyone has free will." = ???
You've heard people quote these sayings. Maybe you've said them yourself. But sometimes you wonder, if each person is free to make their own choice, how could it be for any "reason" outside themselves? On the other hand, if God has a reason for every choice we make, does that mean that he is the one making it?

Join pastor and blogger Cory Hartman for a journey through the deep waters surrounding these questions. The trip is full of surprises as no simple truth is quite as simple as it seems, but Hartman brings penetrating clarity to these mysteries without taking the mystery away. Whether or not you follow him to the end, you won't forget this odyssey through the issues that shape the choices we make and the lives we live.

"Cory Hartman's On Freedom and Destiny is both biblically grounded and philosophically informed. Using many insightful illustrations, Hartman explains the key issues related to the problem of reconciling human freedom with divine sovereignty. He ultimately shows how these teachings are compatible. Even readers who disagree with the book's thesis will profit immensely from reading this book." Jim Spiegel, professor of philosophy and religion, Taylor University, and author of The Benefits of Providence: A New Look at Divine Sovereignty

"Very few pastor-theologians get the balance right between being intellectual and being accessible. Cory Hartman does an admirable job in this book of writing material that is thoughtful, deftly written, and challenging but also eminently accessible for regular guys like me. This book comes from the trenches of pastoral ministry, the pages of Scripture, and the heart of a disciple of Christ who is striving to know Him more and proclaim His gospel." Ted Kluck, award-winning co-author of Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion and author of Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories