A Christian Nation No Longer. How Did We Get Here?

Does it feel like we are no longer living in a Christian nation? The influence of Christianity seems diminished compared to just a few decades ago. We, who are Christians, may feel like we are now outnumbered. With the pace of change in Canada, we might feel like we are living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did we get here? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the diminished role of Christianity in Canadian society? Should we blame the government for changing laws? Should we blame the people for a lack of interest in Christianity?

Scholars have been pointing to the Old Testament Books of the Bible from the time of the exile of God’s people as a good mirror of our position today. The Northern Kingdom fell in the 700’s BC, while the Southern Kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians in the 500’s BC. Those who were deported to Babylon from Judah, including Daniel and his friends from the Book of Daniel, found themselves living in a new and strange land with new and strange values.

How did they get there? Who gets the blame? Who is responsible for the likes of Daniel and his friends winding up in Babylon? Could they blame the Babylonians for being cruel? Could they blame their own government for defence cuts?

Where the responsibility lies is made quite clear in the Old Testament:

15 “Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. 16 For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.
17 “But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, 18 then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy. Deuteronomy 30:15-18 (NLT) 

Long before God’s people were deported to Babylon, covenant promises were made as recorded in Deuteronomy. God’s people were not deported from their land because the enemy was stronger, but because their devotion to God was not strong at all. They refused to listen to God over the course of hundreds of years! God’s people themselves, were responsible for their ending up in a strange land.

Do we, as Christians in Canada bear any of the responsibility for the fact we find ourselves in a strange land? Yes, for several reasons.

First, we have watered Christianity down.

We have tried to make Christianity palatable to a people who find the beliefs and values to be weird. By “we,” I of course do not mean all of us, but many of us, too many of us. Many Christian teachers have downplayed the supernatural elements of Christianity, focusing instead on faith as being ‘helpful’. The messaging has been; become a Christian, not because it is true, but because it is useful. However, when we water down Biblical teaching, when we delete the supernatural, Christianity becomes tasteless. Who could be bothered?

The Psalmist tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8 NLT). In many churches you can taste and see that the social club is good, but perhaps not as good as the senior’s centre, the entertainment is good, though perhaps not as good as Lady Gaga, that the celebrity pastor is good, though not as good as Oprah, that the good works are good, though maybe not as good as the cancer society. Church needs to be a place where people experience that God is good. Church needs to be a people who know that God is good. We cannot water down the teaching of God’s goodness and grace.

I recently attended a church where the vision statement was something like “helping people on whatever journey they are on, wherever it leads, thanking the earth for its goodness.” Where did God go? What about Jesus? When Christ is diminished in our churches, don’t be surprised when Christianity is diminished in our society.

Second, we have added unnecessary ingredients to Christianity.

My Mum once tried adding a tin of Heinz baked beans to Kraft Dinner. That did not work. The beans destroyed the Kraft dinner. Likewise there are beliefs and practices people try adding to Christianity that don’t work. These are destructive to Christianity.

By adding in religiosity and making it all about the rules and traditions, we have made Christianity taste awful. When Christianity is all about being religious, and not at all about being in relationship with the living God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then it becomes just another religion. When Christianity is just another religion, don’t be surprised when people choose another religion.

Also, by adding in unBiblical doctrines, we have made Christianity taste awful. I heard of some big-name Christians “de-converting” in recent years. Their faith began to unravel when they realized that what they were taught, that obedience leads directly to blessing from God, just didn’t work out in real life. However, that theology misses the mark with regards to what the Bible teaches. When Christians have trouble holding onto the theology of a church, because it is apparently not how the world works, then don’t be surprised if no one else is interested either.

Third, we have taken away important ingredients from Christianity.

Some people don’t need cream or milk in their coffee, but I do. I have great difficulty drinking coffee without a wee bit of something. Likewise, many will struggle with Christianity without some helpful ingredients.

Here is one helpful ingredient; the possibility of expressing doubts. Christian churches, movements, and even denominations can become subcultures which are based on certainties on practically everything. Doubts are not allowed, often about anything. Leaving out this ingredient leaves a bad taste in many mouths.

Here is another helpful ingredient; the encouragement of thought. Thinking is often discouraged in Christian circles. Christian artist, Marty Sampson from Hillsong, recently expressed his doubts publicly. In his post he listed some things along with “nobody is talking about it.” Actually Christians are talking about the things he listed, perhaps just not in his church. He also said that ‘science has pierced’ religion. Maybe science and faith don’t mix well in his church, but they work well together in ours, and many others. Freedom to be able to think through things, including how Christianity and science interrelate, can be a very important ingredient for many of us.

If thinking is discouraged, if the expression of doubt is impossible, if understanding is not there, then don’t be surprised if people are not there either.

Daniel and his friends found themselves in Babylon as a consequence of their own actions. If we, who are Christians, find ourselves in a strange land, we should not blame the government or the people of the land. We bear some responsibility for where we are. In spurning Biblical teaching we have watered down Christianity so that it has no flavour. In adding in unBiblical rules and doctrines we have added unnecessary, even harmful ingredients, to Christianity, so that it tastes awful. In taking away opportunities for people to express doubts, to think and rethink, and grow, we have taken away important ingredients. Before we call Canadians to repentance, let us look to what we need to repent from.

(This is an introduction to a series on the Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian Society.” Watch for the rest in the weeks to come.)

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A Bitter Beginning. A Bitter Woman. Senseless Suffering and the Book of Ruth.

 

19 So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
20 “Don’t call me Naomi, [which means ‘pleasant’]” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara [which means ‘bitter’], for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” Ruth 1:19-21 (NLT)

The Book of Ruth begins horribly. Naomi and their family flee their homeland to escape famine. Then Naomi’s husband and children died. Naomi’s story begins with grief upon grief. It may have helped Naomi if there were some reason for the deaths. A chain-smoking husband, a dedicated older son dying in the line of duty, a reckless younger son dying in a motorcycle accident. Naomi might then have at least made some sense of their deaths. She could connect the dots. However, there is no reason Naomi can give. All she can say is “the Lord caused me to suffer.” The dots cannot be connected. This is senseless suffering.

Perhaps you have experienced loss and grief that cannot be explained. Perhaps you have experienced senseless suffering yourself, or watched a loved one go through it. The Book of Ruth can help.

Notice first, that in the Book of Ruth, no effort is made to explain Naomi’s suffering.

The townspeople make no attempt to make sense of her loss. There are no platitudes. The writer of the book offers no theological insights at this point. We may need to the resist the desire to explain away senseless suffering.

This is true when we see others suffering. Job’s friends could not resist explaining why Job was suffering. After pages and pages of argument, we eventually discover that they were wrong. Words and arguments can lead, not to a healed heart, but to a hurting head. Our presence can be of greater comfort to someone living though senseless suffering than our words. We may need to accept that our suffering makes no sense, and may never do so.

Notice second, that Naomi holds nothing back in her lament.

Let us read it again:

20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” Ruth 1:20-21 (NLT)

Naomi is honest in her assessment of God. She may not be correct, but she is honest. She may not be in touch with good theology, but she is in touch with her feelings. There is no effort to correct her assessment of God, or her theology. The writer of the book sees no need to defend God at this point. There is no explanation of the fallenness of humanity, the corresponding fallenness of creation, and that sometimes bad things happen. God’s goodness will be seen later, but for now, God gets the blame. For now, Naomi expresses how she really feels. We do well to make space for honest sharing. We do well to be honest in our sharing, and in our prayers. Sometimes it is best to sit with someone in their emotions, than try to correct their thinking. Sometimes we need the space to lament and experience the depths of our souls, even when our heads can’t figure it all out.

Notice third, that suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story.

Let us jump to the end of the book to see how it turns out:

14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!” 16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. Ruth 4:14-17 (NLT)

In the book of Ruth, suffering is at the beginning of Naomi’s story. There are better days ahead. We can put suffering and loss at the beginning of a new chapter in our lives, rather than the end of our stories. Better days are ahead. When we think of suffering and loss as “where we have ended up,” we can get stuck. Our lives become for us a road that has led to tragedy. When we think of suffering as the beginning of a new chapter of our lives, we put ourselves on a road which includes tragedy, but does not end there. Tragedy is part of our experience, but is not our destination.

Putting suffering at the beginning is something we can do as Christians, because all suffering, indeed your entire life, is the beginning chapter of a really long book:

18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. Romans 8:18 (NLT)

Sometimes we need to jump to the end to see how it all turns out. In Christ and by the grace of God, in being reconciled to God, it turns out well.

Notice fourth, that baby steps are taken.

Naomi returns home. Ruth, in a beautiful step of commitment and care, goes with her. There is connection. If we read ahead into chapters two and three, we will find Ruth doing what the poor people of the land did in that time and place. She followed along the reapers and gleaned the leftovers. There is connection, and there is survival. Naomi and Ruth take steps to make life work. When faced with senseless suffering, we can take the next step. We can take the next best step, however small a step that might be. We can turn the page. We can get further into this new chapter. Is there a step you need to take today?

The Book of Ruth begins with horrible and senseless suffering for Naomi and her daughter-in-laws. If you are a human being, chances are good that senseless suffering will happen in your life at some point. When it does, don’t dwell on explanations, make, or take space for honest sharing, put the suffering at the beginning a new chapter, and turn the page, taking your next best step into the future. With God, whom we may blame for the time being, the story will go on.

Believable and Beautiful. Why Christianity is Compelling.

Can we really believe what we read in books written so long ago? With so many world-views and so many religions, how could we ever pick just one? Does it really matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere, and don’t bother others with it? Don’t people need to leave their brains at the door of a Christian church? Many people are reluctant to consider Christianity. However, in our series we have considered how Christianity is compelling, both in being believable, and beautiful.

First let us review why Christianity is believable, why one need neither leave their brain at the door of the church, nor their faith in the university parking lot. (Click on the links to read the corresponding “Shrunk Sermon.”)

BELIEVABLE

  • Compelling Truth.  People who are “relativists” when it comes to faith and religion suddenly become “modernists” when they need surgery. Truth can be known and does matter. We consistently live as people who know truth can be known and does matter. The truth about Jesus can be known and does matter.
  • A Compelling Cosmos. We considered that the universe had a beginning, the “fine-tuning” of the universe to be life-permitting, and the fact that anything exists at all. What we learn from studying the universe points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Morality. Very few people will say that there are not certain behaviours that ought to be considered evil for all people at all times in all places. The reality of objective morality points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Life. Life began and now flourishes in a world that seems ideally suited for it. The realities of life point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Minds. Thinking people point to the reality of a thinking God.
  • Compelling Religion. The appetite for the spiritual points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Evil. The existence of suffering and evil is consistent with what the Bible teaches about our experience. Suffering and evil point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Holy Books. What caused each of the books of the Bible to be written? The documents that make up the Bible point to the reality of God whose interaction with the world stirred up much writing.
  • The Compelling Man. The most compelling man in history, compelling in his activity, his teaching, his ethics, his presence, his good works, his love, and his impact, points to the reality of God.
  • A Compelling Turn of Events. The tomb was empty and disciples were going about telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. They were willing to die for that testimony. Naysayers like James and Paul, changed their minds. Devoted Jews took radical shifts in their theology. The events of, and following, Easter, point to the reality of God.

Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace speaks of a cold-case trial as being a cumulative case. That is, the best explanation of the evidence is the one that explains all the evidence. With regards to religion and faith, certain world-views may explain some of the evidence. For example, with regards to suffering, Eastern religions have a nice tidy explanation. If you suffer, it is because you deserve it. Your karma is catching up to you. There is a cosmic justice and suffering makes sense. However, there are still many things that don’t makes sense. If Eastern religions are correct, then how did the Bible come into being? Why was the tomb of Jesus empty, why did the disciples go around telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead and why were they willing to die for that? Why did naysayers like James and Paul change their tune about who Jesus is and what he is about? Likewise, atheism also gives a good explanation as to why there is suffering. However, again, atheism can not explain all the evidence. Christianity explains all the evidence! Therefore, not only are the truth claims of Christianity believable, there are compelling reasons why we can see them as being the best depiction of reality. God is for real, and in Christ, God is for us.

We can further ask if each worldview is consistent in where it leads. It would be strange if, while the evidence points to the existence of a good and loving God, belief in, and devotion to, that God led to a terrible way to live, and a horrible society. We have used the example of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If you have read the novel, or watched the tv series, you will see the dominance of a worldview which leads to ugliness and not beauty. Does Christianity lead to ugliness, or to beauty? In our series we considered how Christianity leads to beauty.

BEAUTIFUL

  • Compelling Evidence. Science and Christianity point in the same direction. Christianity helped science get started. A perspective which denigrates science is ugly. That Christianity can work with science is beautiful!
  • Compelling Religion. While religion can, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “poison everything,” a Biblical Spirit-led Christianity leads to healing. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace. The love of God for people is beautiful. God’s grace and forgiveness is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace, Part 2. The call to grace, forgiveness, and wisdom in human relationships is beautiful!
  • The Compelling God. The perfect justice and wonderful mercy of God is beautiful. Only at the cross do we see God being perfectly just while also being merciful. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Mission. The sharing of good news is always beautiful. That we share the good news through words, rather than by force, and give people the space and freedom to choose for themselves, is beautiful!
  • Compelling Family. The Christian vision for parenting and marriage is beautiful. Yet the flexibility that no one is forced to fit the mold of “married with children” is also beautiful!
  • A Compelling Life. The Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, life lived in wisdom is beautiful. That we don’t just follow rules, but grow in character, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Society.. Christians are not called to takeover the government and set up a society that enforces Christian living. That Christians are called to be salt and light is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Perspective on Humanity. No one has greater value than anyone else. That all people are created in the image of God, without exception, and without exception Christ bore the cross for all people, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling People. That the Church is to be a people who do good works in Jesus’ name, in allegiance to Jesus, under the influence of the Spirit, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Future. The future of every single person, whether they receive Jesus or not, is reasonable & consistent with a good and loving God. This is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Invitation. Everyone is invited! You are invited! This is beautiful!

The outworking of the Christian faith is consistent with the good and loving God the evidence points to. There are many aspects of Christianity that make us say “of course that is how a good and loving God would do it.” However, Christians have often made a mess of things and been the cause of ugliness rather than beauty. When this happens, it results from a disconnect from Jesus, and often, an unfortunate understanding of God’s WordThe inconsistency is ours. The ugliness is ours. But there is beauty. There is beauty, because there is God.

Perhaps you still have questions. I do. We don’t need all the answers. I have long thought of faith as being like a jigsaw puzzle. As we are figuring out our view of the world, our spirituality, and the way things are, pieces come together. Some people start with the most difficult of questions and give up. But for many of us, the puzzle pieces come together in such a way that the picture begins to form. It is a beautiful picture. So beautiful, in fact, that we cannot help but keep working on it. Sometimes there are pieces that we cannot yet place. Sometimes we have the sense that we are forcing certain pieces together that don’t fit. Sometimes we need to take pieces out that we thought fit, and fit them in where they really belong. This is all a normal part of growing and maturing in our understanding. The picture that comes together as we grow in our understanding is beautiful, and well worth the effort. It is a picture of the cross, of God’s love in Christ.

My prayer throughout this whole series is that you would find the Christian faith to be believable and beautiful, that you would find Christ to be compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here.)