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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is a "Personal Relationship with Jesus" Part of the Feminization of Christianity?

I'm taking another short break from my "Vision Thing" series to strike while the iron's hot on a post by David Murrow called Why we call it "a personal relationship with Jesus."

Murrow's shtick is called Church for Men, and the passion that drives his writing and speaking is to see the church become a place that isn't a foreign cultural landscape to men, a place where men don't have to act like women in subtle ways in order to belong and thrive. Noting the pervasive tendency of churches to be numerically dominated by females, Murrow incisively critiques the habits, practices, verbiage, and ideas that we have come to take for granted in the Christian church that form obstacles against most men becoming strong Christians. He is probably the expert on this topic.

I love what Murrow is about and avidly follow his online stuff. (In fact, stay tuned for a coming post in which I link to a triad of recent posts by him that blew my mind.) A couple days ago Murrow posted his investigation into the origin of the ubiquitous evangelical phrase "personal relationship with Jesus," which he claims is "the number one term evangelicals use to describe the Christian walk." In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, Murrow claims that this phrase "frames the gospel in terms of a woman's deepest desire—a personal relationship with a man who loves her unconditionally. It's imagery that delights women—and baffles men."

According to a search for this phrase in Google's large scanned literary corpus, the phrase first appears in the late Victorian era (ca. 1880). Interestingly, as a percentage of all phrases in all of English-language publishing, "personal relationship with Jesus" enjoyed small and temporary but noticeable upsurges during both World Wars, while men were fighting, not writing. But it was still fairly obscure language until the mid-1960s. Since then its prominence has rocketed up steadily and may not have peaked yet. Murrow points out that "This was the growth era of the evangelical subculture and its focus on female consumers. Christian books, music, and media outlets proliferated, all heavily dependent on female buyers and viewers. [So true.] Savvy authors and preachers realized this and began using female-friendly metaphors in their books and sermons. [Max Lucado, we're looking at you.] Chief among these: a personal relationship with Jesus."

Murrow claims that unlike women, "Men are obsessed with mission. . . . Men are happiest when they're on a mission, and that mission is going well. . . . [M]en also enjoy good relationships, but they are often a secondary concern." He suggests that if evangelicals want to present the gospel of Jesus to men, they need to replace the invitation to a passive or contemplative "personal relationship with Jesus" with something active. He also suggests that "personal relationship" implies equality with Jesus which minimizes his transcedence as a commander above us. If so, that is important theologically as well as evangelistically.

Murrow isn't wrong that a "personal relationship with Jesus" appeals to women today in a deep, primal way that it does not to most men. But he is wrong that the term, or at least the concept behind the term, is inherently feminine.

In order to understand "personal relationship with Jesus" verbiage, you have to go back further than the Victorians. You have to go back to the Pietist movement in German Lutheranism and the Evangelical Revival/Great Awakening in Britain and her colonies in the 18th century. Notwithstanding evangelicals' rightful claim to descent from the Reformation and the Apostles themselves, that awakening almost 300 years ago is where evangelicalism as such was born.

The early evangelicals/Pietists emerged as a renewal movement that fought battles on two fronts. The front we're familiar with consisted of the Enlightenment types whose ideas would eventually make theological liberalism possible by undercutting confidence in the reliability of Scripture. But at the time, the battle on the other front was even more intense. Those opponents were orthodox dogmatists. They defended ornate creeds that synthesized the biblical witness with rigorously logical philosophical speculation.

The evangelicals didn't have a problem with the creeds. In fact, the disparate creeds that they subscribed to (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Baptist) frequently limited how closely they worked together. The evangelicals' problem was that these creeds were all that the orthodox that dominated the church believed. They did not know the God that the creeds spoke about. As a result, though the orthodox analysis of justification was spot-on, their preaching simply urged people to religious practices that kept institutional worship rolling. It did not save, nor did it transform lives.

Challenging this dead dogmatism in the early 1700s, Pietistic theologian August Hermann Francke wrote in "The Idea of a Student of Theology" that Christianity does not consist in "knowing, averring, and chattering, nor in high speculations" or "in all kinds of strange opinions." Rather, "true Christianity consists in this, that one acknowledge the Lord Jesus as personal Savior and Lord." Personal Savior and Lord—could have been written yesterday, right? But what Francke meant three centuries ago was that the core of Christianity was not intellectual cognition or institutional allegiance but a direct connection to ultimate spiritual reality, which is not merely an idea, but a person.

As a result of that connection, the true believer wouldn't have mere "head-knowledge" but also "heart-knowledge." There would be a direct spiritual perception of divine things, including a supernatural experience like John Wesley's experience of his "heart strangely warmed." The subjective experience emerged from an objective reality—not only "Christ for us" but "Christ for me" and "Christ in me." That objective reality necessarily involves a complete reorientation of the stuff of the human psyche, the understanding, emotion, and will, a reorientation called conversion.

As Jonathan Edwards put it, "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections" (in his aptly titled Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections). Edwards didn't just mean "emotions" by the term "affections." He meant the wellsprings of our choices, those deep-seated, subrational loves and hates, preferences and revulsions, that move us to want what we want and act as we act. True Christianity is about God's reformation of the believer's affections to be holy, as he is holy. It is about more than emotion, but it is not about less, because our affections reveal themselves in part in our emotional responses to God and to our world.

As it happens, "holy affections" caused the early evangelicals—conspicuously led by young men—to do amazing things. They were anything but passive; they were men on a mission. Gripped by a personal connection to Jesus Christ, they preached to thousands, defied ecclesiastical authorities, and did absolutely, wildly courageous stuff like the two guys described in this video:



So taking Christ as one's personal Savior—an extrabiblical phrase that the early evangelicals freely employed—meant Christ living his life in and through the believer in a direct, unmediated, supernatural fashion a la Galatians 2:20. This is the heart of the personal relationship with Jesus.

But as time changes, so does culture, and as culture changes, so does the meaning of language. The irrationalism simmering under the surface of the rationalistic 18th century finally blew up into Romanticism, which affected both liberal and evangelical Protestantism. By the time of its full bloom in the latter part of the 19th century, it reduced affections to emotions, and it drew intense attention to God's love, expressed by liberals as a friendly benevolence for the whole human race (see the lyrics for "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee") and by evangelicals as a quasi-romance with the individual (see "I Am His and He Is Mine"). This is the late Victorian influence on the concept of the personal relationship with Jesus that Murrow talks about in his post.

But the other impact is the Sexual Revolution, which coincided with the surge of "personal relationship with Jesus" that Murrow notes in the mid-1960s. Since then, in ordinary parlance the connotation of the word "relationship" has become sexualized because our concept of intimacy has been so heavily sexualized. But that's not the heart of the word "relationship" (or the concept of intimacy), at least not traditionally. "Relationship" used to refer merely to the nature of the connection between two persons, extrapersonal entities (like states), or ideas. On its own, there is nothing about the word "relationship" that implies equality between the related parties. It simply means that they are, in fact, related. The idea that a personal relationship with Jesus means that that relationship isn't the relationship of Master to servant, Commander to soldier, Sender to sent reveals just how vastly the Sexual Revolution has impacted our language and way of thinking.

But this is the world in which we live, and it does require us to be careful with our language. Murrow's post reveals that when we use the term "personal relationship with Jesus," men and women may be inferring things we don't mean to imply, and we have to be rigorous with our speech to prevent that. But does that mean that men don't need a personal relationship with Jesus? Absolutely not. A personal relationship with Jesus, rightly defined, is central to salvation. Any way around that, even if pragmatically successful in winning guys, will just win them to works-righteousness that is every bit as deadly as the naked sin they were living in before we met them. A personal relationship with Jesus isn't feminine fantasy. Rather, without a personal relationship with Jesus, rightly understood, there is no gospel.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Vision Thing (18): Seeing the Details That Matter

We are deluged with information as never before in history. That any one of us can (or soon will be able to) access virtually the sum of human knowledge through a device that fits in one's pocket is astounding. In addition to the information that we may actively pursue, there is the information that is shot at us uninvited in the course of our pursuit of information or pleasure (through advertising and through the static and rabbit-trails of web searches gone awry). There is also the information we ask for (knowingly and unknowingly) through our e-mail subscriptions and RSS, Facebook, and Twitter feeds.

Amid the swirl of all the information we have at our disposal, true vision includes picking out the details that matter, which turns haphazard "knowledge" into insight and wisdom.

Jesus teaches an example of this which is extremely important in its own right but also serves as a model of what true vision does across a range of situations. In Matthew 24 (and parallels in Mark and Luke), Jesus answers his disciples' two questions, "When will [the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem] happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (v. 3). As the disciples' questions were lumped together, so Jesus blends his answer to the two, alternating subtly between short-distance prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction and long-distance prophecy of his return and the end of this world.

Jesus begins by giving examples of information that does not matter. "Watch out that no one misleads you," he warns. "For many will come in my name saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will mislead many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains" (vv. 4-8).

So let's review. According to Jesus, the following information is next to meaningless as an indicator of when we are close to Jesus' return and the end of this age:
  • People who claim to be Jesus returned
  • Wars (yes—even in the Middle East!)
  • Famines
  • Earthquakes
These things are just the beginning of labor pains, which may begin long before the baby is born and are no indicator of how long labor will take.

It is amazing, therefore, how many Christians through the centuries have read these words and entirely missed Jesus' point. He clearly says, This is the information that doesn't matter. Do not draw any conclusions about these factoids. Ignore them. And yet believers without vision hear "rumors of wars" and conclude that the world is about to end.

But Jesus then continues by identifying three indicators that do matter, the bits that are worth picking out of the deluge of information the world floods us with.
Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all nations on account of my name. Then many will be led to sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will appear and deceive many, and because lawlessness will increase so much, the love of many will grow cold. But the person who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole inhabited earth as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come [vv. 9-14].
 Again, let's review. Here are indicators of the nearness of the end of the age that matter:
  • True Christians will be hated by all nations and put to death.
  • Many professing Christians will, in word or action, give up the faith and its moral requirements, being led astray by people who claim to be promoting the truth who actually aren't, and these surrendering Christians will inform the authorities of the whereabouts of faithful Christians.
  • The good news about the royal government of God in heaven about to overthrow the governments of this earth will be proclaimed and heard among every ethnos ("people-group") on the planet.
The first two indicators Jesus gives have happened ever since the first century, often in waves of persecution and apostasy, and in fact are happening now, in some places more than others. But we have not yet seen either of them as a truly global phenomenon—Christians hated and killed everywhere at once, and defections from the faith by compromise with the dominant society and state everywhere at once. The third indicator has gotten closer to completion every decade, especially with the rapidly accelerating pace over the last two centuries, though there are still ethnē composed of millions with no indigenous, attention-getting Christian witness.

This is all extremely important for followers of Jesus to know. But my point in this post comes from Jesus' conclusion: "Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door" (vv. 32-33). True vision involves a discriminating, analytical perception shaped by the Word of God that picks out the few details that matter from the many details that don't.

Let's face it—media, whether "established," "social," or "underground," will always be talking about wars, famines (especially famines of money), and earthquakes (and hurricanes and climate change and so on). They may even talk about the occasional false Christ, though they will always give loads of airplay to false prophets. As a rule, the media will rarely talk about Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith, even though it happens every day. They will not report on defections from the faith in those terms. And they will hardly ever report on the swell of proclamation of the Christian gospel that even now is sweeping the globe and transforming the world. But this is the information that is really telling the story of history. At the end of the age, everyone will finally discover that that is what it was all about. While we live in this age, wars, famines of all sorts, and natural disasters surely are important, and of course Christians would not and should not be indifferent to them and the suffering they cause and how they might be prevented righteously. But without vision one would never guess that they are ultimately subsidiary to the point of it all.

As it is in the world, so it is in your church. As it is in history, so it is in your life. The details are endless, the stream of facts overwhelming. But only a few details really matter. Vision from God shows you which they are.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Finding God in the Dark

You might think that my interminable series on "The Vision Thing" has finally terminated, but you would be wrong. I have a bit further to go on that topic yet, but I'm taking a short and timely time-out.

A few years ago I attended a seminar called "Dealing with Difficult People." The trainer spent the introduction getting us to want to listen to him for the rest of the day, and he did a good job. But I'll never forget the unsettling (though intriguing) way he ended his intro: " . . . and then, before we're done, we're going to look at whether you are the difficult person in your office." True to his word, we surveyed the menagerie of difficult people found in offices all over the earth, and we took a further step to discover why the difficult person we are dealing with is so peculiarly difficult to oneself individually. Then the kicker—we saw how that person sees ourselves. We turned and faced the elephant: "I am as difficult a person to him as he is to me." A difficult step, but a necessary one, and far more comfortable a few moments after taking it than the moment before taking it.

This step is what Ted Kluck and Ronnie Martin write about in Finding God in the Dark: Faith, Disappointment, and the Struggle to Believe (Bethany House), released today.


In alternating chapters, Kluck and Martin each describe their parallel journeys. As their stories begin, they are dealing with the equivalent of "difficult people"—usually involving literal difficult people but always involving difficult circumstances. In Kluck's case it was a crushing year that included an international adoption stolen away and financial freefall as a result of plug-pulled book deals. Martin's story included the end of a musical career when people stopped showing up to concerts and the sudden death of his father.

Some of these might sound like fairly weak difficulties. "Wow, you lost a chance to get your name on a book. How hard for you. Looks like you bounced back." "What a shame you didn't get a fourteenth year getting paid to make music in front of people who want to hear it. A starving child in Africa is all broken up about it—as am I in my second straight shift changing bed pans." But trust me, the authors' trials don't sound weak when you read them. What makes our difficulties difficult is that they are ours. Kluck and Martin get the reader inside their heads and hearts, revealing just what made their difficulties so difficult for them and within the story making them convincingly and sympathetically difficult for us.

Then their journeys take a surprising turn for personal-disaster literature: the authors candidly reveal how the disasters expose their sin. (The most gripping chapter in the book is where Kluck describes his anger, bitterness, and jealousy over being strung along and dropped by the camp of a certain lantern-jawed, stubble-chinned, SEC football icon dubbed in the book as "American Hero.") The authors' sufferings that come from the outside are compounded by the perversion that reacts from the inside.

Eventually both men discover that they are the "difficult people." They start the hard process of repentance, confession of sin, and changing their attitudes and behaviors toward their circumstances and the people around them. They make amends. They make life-changing decisions, and they move on. They find God in the deepest, darkest place. Their pain ultimately came from the Lord's hand, a severe gift to drive them from their self-imposed death into abundant life. They describe it as "grace"—those truths of God's mercy on sinners that they had always professed, becoming existentially real in a way that they didn't know was possible.

It isn't hard to find a story in a book or a TV show about a person who experiences tragedy, digs down deep within, and overcomes to land in a storybook ending. It is rarer to find someone who admits that their victimhood reveals themselves as a perpetrator, and who has found inner peace though the denouement falls short of the fairy tale or has not yet come. If you're in the dark, alone, and wary of pat answers, Kluck and Martin's stories might help you find God there too.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Vision Thing (17): Seeing Strength

Everyone who devotes themselves fully to obeying the vision that God has given them will have a power encounter. It is the day that the Evil One, through those who deliberately sin, who accidentally sin, or who are simply confused and ignorant for now, tries to stop you in your tracks. He may use intimidation or temptation or discouragement when he comes, but he will come, and the stronger of the two of you will win.

When he comes, the vision may seem to unravel before your eyes. It may look hopeless. You may start thinking that you failed God, that you were not good enough to see it through. You may question whether you heard God at all. You may wonder if your calling was predestined to fail, given just to build your character somehow.

When the devil attacks and you think about quitting, may God give you vision.

Elisha the Prophet was gifted by God to see the battle plan of the king of Aram against Israel before he executed it. Elisha shared his intelligence with the king of Israel, and Israel was always waiting in ambush whenever Aram invaded. When the oft-defeated king of Aram finally discovered what the secret of Israel's success was, he adopted a new strategy: get Elisha.

Elisha and his assistant went to bed one night and woke up in a city besieged by an Aramean strike force. His assistant started freaking out: "Oh no, my master! What will we do?"

Elisha was unimpressed. "Don't be afraid, for our side outnumbers them," he said casually. And then he prayed,
"O LORD, open his eyes so he can see."
Elisha's valet raised his head and dropped his jaw. There, between the city wall and the Aramean force, was a host of blazing, angelic chariots and horses ready for battle.

Think about it: Elisha didn't act like this was a big deal. He saw his security detail all the time.

When the Arameans began their assault on the foes they could not see, Elisha asked God to strike them blind, and God promptly obliged. Then, in one of the most bizarre moments in the often bizarre collection we call the Bible, Elisha walks out and offers to lead the Arameans to the guy they're looking for. Then he leads this column of helpless, blind Aramean charioteers ten miles into the Israelite capital of Samaria—probably suffering an injury on the way from trying to keep from laughing—where at Elisha's request, God opens their eyes, and they find themselves surrounded. Then Elisha convinces the king of Israel to throw these marauders a huge party and send them home, with best wishes to the king of Aram. The Arameans never raided Israel again (2 Kings 6:8-23).

God opens eyes, and he blinds them, and he opens them again if he pleases. And while the world and its invisible ruler, hell-bent on crushing the church, froth and rage, God steals their vision whenever it suits him while he gives his servants the vision of his power and protection. Those who have true vision have a vision that they cannot be stopped.

I have frequently freaked out like Elisha's servant in the face of attack. But before I give up, God always opens my eyes so I can see his flaming chariots ensuring victory.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Vision Thing (16): Seeing the Needy

God's vision is tied to his compassion. He sees the needy people that others don't see, because he has a ceaseless motivation to meet the needs of all the dependent beings he has made. He sees, and so he wants to help. He wants to help; therefore, he sees.

This is best illustrated by the Son, God Incarnate. If you are like me, you expect to see Jesus paying attention to needy people that we are prone to overlook. And he does—for example, when he observes and calls attention to a poor widow, easily lost in the crowd, dropping a couple lepta (think a couple dimes) into the temple offering receptacle. Jesus sees this needy woman whom the rest ignored, and he honors her for giving more than all the rest, because she gave all she had. In this case, Jesus saw a needy person whom we all would agree was needy, but whom we would overlook.

But Jesus sees needy people in just the opposite fashion too. When a wealthy young man (Matt. 19:20), who happens to have been a community leader (Luke 18:18), ran up and dropped to his knees in front of Jesus, no one standing around would have overlooked him. Both his station and his unusually demonstrative action would have grabbed everyone's attention. But Jesus was the only person who saw that this rich man was needy. He lacked love for God, freedom from the possessions that possessed him, and the promise of eternal life. Jesus saw the needs that others could not see.

Jesus's vision of the needy was turned on all the time, and tied to his compassion as it was, he yearned for others to catch the vision too.
Then Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were bewildered and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest [Matt. 9:35-38].
(See John 4:27-38 for Jesus expressing a very similar wish in a different situation.)

This is the vision he wants you and me to catch. True vision from God is seeing what God sees, and what God sees are the needs of the whole world—the easily identifiable needs that we easily overlook and also the profound needs of those who appear to have it all together. If we have true vision, we will see both sorts of needs all the time, and we too will not be able to turn the vision off. And we will plunge in to reap a harvest as we urge God to grant his vision to even more.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Vision Thing (15): Seeing Heaven

Henri Lindegaard, Of Earth and of Heaven

Heaven isn't too far away from the person who has a vision from God, because that person sees the stuff of heaven here and now in this age. This is best illustrated in Jesus' conversation with a well-schooled Jewish religious teacher named Nicodemus. (You can read the whole thing, with the biblical author's commentary, in John 3:1-21.)

Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had come from God in some sense and that God was with him because of the miracles he was doing. But while Nicodemus was still warming up for his question for Jesus, Jesus interrupts him with, "I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

A couple things in this sentence are worth explaining. First, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, which, as I've explained briefly here, is God's authority to rule his world as king. It is his royal government. That government is real now, but it is obscured by the flawed (at best) and defiantly rebellious (at worst) governments that we see and live under now, which in turn are silently and invisibly manipulated by the Evil One. When Jesus returns, the invisible government of God will become visible and permanently up-end all other governments. Nevertheless, even now God's government is visible to and among all those who acknowledge him as king and obey him as such.

Second, the people who do see God's kingship even now and respond accordingly are people who are "born from above." The Greek word translated "from above" might best be understood as "from the top." "From the top" can have to do with time, as in "from the beginning" or "once again"—musicians at once recognize the direction, "Take it from the top" to mean, "Go back to the beginning of the piece and play it again." So "born from the top" has frequently been rendered "born again." As Nicodemus' response indicates, this might have been what he thought Jesus meant. But it is more likely that Jesus intended "born from the top" to mean "born from above," from heaven. Heaven is the spiritual realm where God's royalty is plain right now. People who are born from there, and only they, see God's royalty plainly on earth.

Jesus explains that the way people are born from heaven is to be born by the Spirit of God. Humans come into being physically alive and spiritually dead. Just as it is absurd that a person would perceive the physical realm before their body was conceived, so also only by God fathering us spiritually by the Holy Spirit do we perceive the spiritual order in which God is king.

For those who have been fathered and born like this—evidenced by their faith in Jesus alone as the one who made possible their birth—heaven is not foreign territory. In fact, somehow, even though our physical eyes cannot see it, we are already there even as we dwell with our bodies here (cf. Eph. 2:1-10 for all this). Likewise, we can see the activity of heaven here on earth. We can imperfectly recognize fellow residents of heaven when we meet them. We not only see the effects on earth of the exertion of the power of heaven, but we recognize the source.

When we articulate our vision, it will necessarily entail concepts and evidences that make sense to earthly people, because we are earthly people with a vision of what God intends to do through us on earth. But if there is not some heavenly dimension to the vision, some way that it simply does not make sense to people who have not been "born from above," then it does not come from above itself and is not a true vision at all.