On Approaching Culture

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 17.15-18 (ESV)

With these words from the Upper Room Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus (probably intentionally) set the stage for how His followers should interact with the world. Often characterized as a call for Christians to “be in the world, but not of the world,” these words (along with various New Testament statements by Paul and James) have been used as the basis for Christian cultural engagement.  That is to say, Scripture sets the parameters for how Christians should live in, participate in, and relate to the world in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, exactly what this engagement looks like has varied even among faithful followers of Jesus. In fact, over the years, various Christians have crafted and lived different interpretations of what Scripture communicates about the appropriate relationship with the world. Today, there are five basic approaches that Christians take:

Five Approaches to Culture

First is what we might call the Antagonistic Approach. In this view, the expectation is that followers of Jesus should generally oppose the world and its culture, norms, and practices. Think of the Amish or ultra-conservative Christians who eschew many modern practices and technology. For the sake of comparing all five views, I want to use the Harry Potter books. If for no other reason that the clarity of the example, since their release, Christians have had very clear reactions to these books (and the movies). So they make a solid test cast. For the antagonistic approach, since the Harry Potter books are not explicitly Christian, they are something in culture that should be personally avoided and perhaps even widely opposed.

A second option is the Accommodating Approach, where the expectation is that followers of Jesus should accept and welcome the world and its culture, norms, and practices. This is a more prevalent and often “Christian-lite” approach, although ancient Christians such as John Chrysostom reveal that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. The perspective on the Harry Potter books here is that they’re all good, something to be enjoyed and accepted and adopted without any thought to the contrary.

A third option is the Countercultural Approach, where followers of Jesus should forge alternative, Christ-centered options for cultural expression and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is largely the approach taken by Christian bookstores and the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Here, rather than reading the Harry Potter books, you should instead read some Christian fantasy, perhaps The Lord of the Rings (for the fifteenth time) or the Chronicles of Narnia or something similar.

The fourth option is the Two Worlds Approach. Here, followers of Jesus live between two worlds (sometimes called Two Kingdoms), where sometimes we prioritize the culture of Christ and other times we prioritize the culture of this world. This is the historic view of the Reformation, as this approach was fostered by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological descendants. To continue our example, the first question for this view would be which world do the Harry Potter books belong to? If you’re going to use them for mere entertainment, they’re probably safe, since they belong to that world. But if the books are going to form your worldview, they have overstepped the boundaries of their world and should thus be returned to their proper place.

And finally, there is the Redemptive Approach. In this view, followers of Jesus should seek to redeem the world and reorient its culture, norms, and practices toward Christ and His Kingdom. Not everything is redeemable, of course. But many things are. In this approach, Harry Potter gets recast in various ways. Perhaps the books get celebrated for encouraging literacy or maybe parts of the story are mined for lessons about the battle between good and evil. In this view, culture is engaged for the purpose of finding and drawing out what is true and good and beautiful.

Which Approach?

Now, there are faithful Christians who attempt each of these approaches. And in my experience, there’s typically some overlap in approaches by individuals, families, and communities. (Here I should also not that the accommodating approach seems likely to be the kind of thinking that Jesus and James push back against in Scripture, so it’s probably best to not default to that approach.)

But personally, I lean toward attempting a redemptive approach to our world. A redemptive view takes seriously the reality that culture tends toward sinful brokenness and thus we should not be easy friends with the world. But it also focuses on the fact that our world consists of people made in the image of God who need redemption and whose cultural output is often worthy of redemption too. A redemptive approach understands that not everything is beneficial for the follower of Jesus, but that our world must be engaged and redeemed, nonetheless. This is why, for example, the church as pastor at often uses video clips to open messages. It’s why we spoof culture to make points. It’s why we have message series that use pop songs from the 90s as ways to think about the book of James.

There is much about culture that is not great and should be cautiously engaged by Christians, yes. But there’s also a lot that can be redeemed for the Kingdom of God, not ignored or feared or cast aside.


What about you: what are your thoughts on approaching culture? What boundaries or indicators to do you use?

Endgame and the End

A version of this post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Disney+ is something of a temptation, especially for those of us who are Star Wars and Marvel nerds. Want to binge your absolute favorite shows? Now, I don’t even have to find my DVDs–they’re right on my phone or TV in HD perfection. This had lead (as you might expect) to my watching (and re-watching) my favorite films from the MCU. I only saw Endgame once in theaters, but have probably watched it four or five times now.1

On each subsequent rewatch, something stands out quite clearly during the first half of the film: Endgame says quite a bit about the process of grieving. Many of the film’s other tropes and lessons have been rigorously discussed (often in concert with other MCU films), but I have yet to see any substantive discussion about what Endgame communicates about how people grieve and respond to loss.2 In this article, I want to explore what Endgame tells us about the end and the various ways that people respond to death and loss.

The OG Avengers and Grief

It’s well noted that the six original Avengers survive Thanos’s snap at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. While many of the newer rising stars of the MCU crumble into dust, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow all survive the snap. Each of the original Avengers (along with some other, albeit lesser,3 members of the team) is left to pick up the pieces of their shattered world. In the aftermath of their revenge visit to Thanos and the realization that their friends are really gone, the behavior of each OG Avenger follows a grief-type.

Captain America, whom we first see facilitating a support group in New York, uses his pain to help others come to terms with what has happened. Cap casts the grief of the snap as an opportunity for redemption, encouraging people to do the hard work of finding their “new normal” amidst loss (although he privately confides to Black Widow that he’s personally struggling to follow his own advice).

Similarly, Black Widow throws herself into her work, although it’s less of a support group than mission control for those who are left.4 We are not given much insight into Natasha’s interior life, but her focus on the ongoing mission and her desire to fix things (even seemingly unfixable under-ocean earthquakes) suggests that she’s throwing herself into her work to keep her from fixating on what has happened.

Although we don’t see Hawkeye’s reaction until later in the film, once he appears we learn rather quickly that he has chosen the path of anger. Clint expresses his grief through murderous rage (though directed only toward cartels and organized crime). He has lost his family and, since he cannot fix that, he lashes out against those who have survived who were not worthy of survival.

In response to the snap and (especially) the loss of Peter Parker, Iron Man doubles down on his commitment to family, devoting his life to the family he has left. In what are undoubtedly some of the more touching scenes of an already-emotional movie, we witness his clear love for his daughter Morgan. Tony realizes that he’s lost someone important, and he’s (initially, at least) not willing to risk what he has left.

Bruce Banner, a.k.a The Incredible Hulk, takes the path of self-betterment following the snap. He remakes himself, creating through hard work and dedication his new life as the “Credible Hulk.” Banner becomes a mix of the best parts of his two personas, maintaining his appearance as the muscled Hulk without the accompanying personality of the enormous green rage-monster.

And finally, we have Thor. After decapitating Thanos in a fit of rage, the God of Thunder manifests his feelings of failure and loss by trying to escape reality, very nearly losing himself in gluttony, entertainment, and the abandonment of responsibility. Although much of the pop culture response to “Fat Thor” has been one of approval, the character is clearly teetering on the edge of self-destructive tendencies and tremendous grief.

Some Takeaways

Our OG Avengers thus respond to their grief through the paths of helping others, immersing themselves in work, anger, recommitment to what’s important, self-improvement, and escapism. These portrayals are far too clear to be unintentional; clearly, we are meant to learn that there are many ways forward through the grief journey that follows trauma and loss. Each of these approaches are real ways that people deal with loss, pain, grief, and death in real life. Our favorite superheroes stand in our places for a moment, but these are paths that each of us can choose when we face loss in our lives.

Of course, we are also expected to see that not every manifestation of grief is a positive one. Although there is little explicit explanation, values are certainly being communicated. Cap’s desire to help others and Tony’s commitment to family are clearly models to be followed. The Hulk and Black Widow follow paths that are largely positive, although they may veer too close to clichés to be a real help to most grieving people. Finally, the routes of rage and escapism taken by Hawkeye and Thor only lead to negative consequences—roads that even superheroes ought not walk down for very long.

There are, of course, many other lessons that we can take from Avengers: Endgame when it comes to grief, loss, and the healing process. For instance, one extremely significant lesson that the film’s time-hop unfortunately obviates is that grief takes time. Five years after the snap, some people are on the right track—but everyone is still bearing the scars of what happened. There are no magic “get over it” moments with grief. Loss is loss. Death is death. Heartbreak is heartbreak. Time helps, but it doesn’t fully heal.

Similarly, the way that our heroes emerge from their various grief journeys is telling, as it’s only together that they can make sense of what happened and do something to fix it. This is, of course, one of the major themes of the entire MCU and Avengers franchise: we should face challenges to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness together, whether that togetherness entails winning or losing. And it’s in their togetherness that the Avengers truly make their last stand against Thanos—one imbued with the power of sacrificial love. From the Marvel-Trinity of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor tag-teaming Thanos to the climactic moment of the critical final battle, where everyone has a role to play, everyone supports one another, and one hero makes the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of all the others, love for one another is what brings an end to the grief of the snap.

There’s a lesson to be learned there too; not that movies based on comic books can’t deliver truly meaningful lessons or messages to a complex and contentious world. Things like love for another other can make our world less complex, less contentious, and less grief-filled than they are today. Now, isn’t that a story worth thinking about?


Notes

1 For the sake of full disclosure, I have long been a fan of Marvel’s creative storytelling, from their early use of intertextuality (or inter-screen-ality) to their character development (for heroes at least), and from their encapsulation of important moral lessons to their pop culture hilarity. Others have said it better than I, but the MCU is truly an impressive technical, storytelling, and economic accomplishment.

2 Here I should note that I have trawled the depths of the internet for any possible source. Additionally, of course, we must note that Spider-Man: Far from Home is itself in many ways an extension of this reflection on grief, as a major trope of the film is how Peter comes to terms with Mr. Stark’s death.

3 Deus ex Captain Marvel not withstanding.

4 The “throw yourself at your work” approach also seems to be the preferred option of the non-core Avengers as well, as each prioritizes focus on their mission during the grief stage of Endgame.

Books I Read in 2020

As many of you know, I love reading. So each year, I commit to reading as much and as widely as possible and (as a means of remembering everything I’ve read and holding myself accountable to my reading goals) I track the books I’ve read each year. (Click here to see what I read in 2019)

Now, a couple of notes before my list. First, I read a fair amount of churchworld and theology, so don’t read this as a “what you should read” list. Second, I continue to push myself to read more fiction, so those works are separated from non-fiction in my reckoning.

Third, please note a couple of special markers. My favorite books (and the one’s I recommend you consider reading) are marked with an asterisk and hyperlinked. Additionally, the books I’d read prior to this year but re-read are marked with a [re-read] notation.

Finally, my goal the past several years has been to read 150 books (~3/week). There were moments this year when I was not sure that was going to be possible (I worked more hours in 2020 than in 2019, at least in part due to COVID). However, I’m pleased to say that this year’s list of books read includes 170 titles completed.

So, without further ado, what I read in 2020 (presented in chronological order of reading):

Non-Fiction

  • Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl
  • The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis
  • Crazy Busy, DeYoung*
  • Talking to Strangers, Gladwell*
  • How to Lead in a World of Distraction, Scroggins*
  • The Rise of Rome, Everitt
  • The Parables of Jesus, Jeremias
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo
  • Short Stories by Jesus, Levine
  • Something Needs to Change, Platt
  • The Benedict Option, Dreher*
  • Hope in the Dark, Groeschel
  • The Point of It All, Krauthammer
  • The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell
  • Unfreedom of the Press, Levin
  • Color Outside the Lines, Hendricks
  • The Case for Jesus, Pitre*
  • The Infinite Game, Sinek
  • Cur Deus Homo, Anselm [re-read]
  • The Secret Lives of Color, St. Clair*
  • Preaching Parables to Postmoderns, Stiller
  • Our Father, Pope Francis
  • Who Was Jesus?, Morgan
  • Fifty Great American Places, Glass
  • Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Lamott
  • The Joy of Discipleship, Pope Francis
  • The Parables of Jesus, Schottroff [re-read]
  • Speaking Parables, Buttrick
  • Preaching the Parables, Blomberg
  • A Diary of Private Prayer, Baillie [re-read]
  • The Devil in the White City, Larson*
  • The Right Side of History, Shapiro
  • Divine Direction, Groeschel
  • The Big Short, Lewis
  • You Are Not Special, McCullough Jr.*
  • Love Does, Goff
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Channing Brown
  • Everything Happens for a Reason an Other Lies I’ve Lived, Bowler*
  • Purple Cow, Godin
  • The Liturgy of the Ordinary, Warren *
  • Erasing Hell, Chan and Sprinkle
  • How to Hide an Empire, Immerwahr*
  • K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Kepner
  • Parables for Preachers: Year A, Reid [re-read]
  • Out of the Treasure: The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Lambrecht [re-read]
  • Failing Forward, Maxwell
  • Sitting at the Feed of Rabbi Jesus, Spangler and Tverberg
  • Planting: Principles for Starting New Churches, Bustle and Crocker
  • Follow Me, Platt
  • The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, Maxwell
  • Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us, Sprinkle*
  • Liar’s Poker, Lewis
  • Death on a Friday Afternoon, Neuhaus
  • Rooting for Rivals, Greer and Horst*
  • The Explicit Gospel, Chandler and Wilson
  • The Road to Character, Brooks
  • The 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell
  • Passion: The Bright Light of Glory, Giglio et al
  • Range, Epstein
  • The Bomb, Kaplan
  • 360 Degree Reading, Esler
  • The Oxford Handbook of Prayer, ed. Appleton
  • Boundaries: Updated and Expanded, Cloud and Townsend
  • The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington
  • Streams of Living Water, Foster
  • The Externally Focused Church, Rusaw and Swanson
  • Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Steinke
  • Euthyphro, Plato [re-read]
  • Apology, Plato
  • Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis, George
  • Crito, Plato
  • Phaedo, Plato
  • Leading Change, Kotter [re-read]
  • The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius
  • 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, McKnight
  • The Apostles’ Creed: Together We Believe, Chandler
  • The Creed, Bauman [re-read]
  • Finding the Right Hills to Die On, Ortlund*
  • Surprised by Scripture, Wright*
  • Call Sign Chaos, Mattis
  • A Little Book for New Preachers, Kim
  • The Lean Startup, Ries
  • Friendship, Denworth
  • The Lost Art of Scripture, Armstrong
  • To Be a Christian, Approved Edition*
  • Dark Agenda, Horowitz
  • The MVP Machine, Lindbergh
  • 1, 2, 3 John (NAC), Akin
  • Old Testament Legends, James
  • The Great Bridge, McCulloch
  • A Brief History of Time, Hawking
  • United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, Newbell
  • 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus For Everyone, Wright
  • The First One Hundred Years of Christianity, Schnelle
  • Educated, Westover*
  • The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass
  • Waco: A Survivor Story, Thibodeau
  • The Splendid and the Vile, Larson*
  • Inspired, Held Evans
  • The Next Evangelism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity, Rah
  • Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger*
  • Jesus among Other Gods, Zacharias
  • The History Buff’s Guide to the Presidents, Flagel
  • Until Every Child Is Home, Chipman
  • You’ll Get Through This, Lucado
  • The Church of Mercy, Pope Francis
  • Gospel Allegiance, Bates*
  • Crossing the Ling: Culture, Race, and Kingdom, Burns
  • Just Mercy, Stevenson*
  • God is Not Great, Hitchens
  • The Drama of Scripture, Bartholomew and Goheen [re-read]*
  • Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett
  • The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, Comer*
  • The Screwtape Letters, Lewis [re-read]*
  • Compassion and Conviction, Giboney, Wear, and Butler*
  • Genesis: A Translation and Commentary, Alter
  • Happiness in This Life, Pope Francis
  • Genesis 1-15 (WBC), Wenham
  • The Shame and the Sacrifice: The Life and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robertson
  • The Soul of Science, Pearcey and Thaxton
  • An Unconventional God, Levison
  • Raising White Kids, Harvey
  • Boundaries for Leaders, Cloud
  • Recreatable, Scott [re-read]
  • Survive or Thrive, Dodd
  • The New Testament: A Translation, Hart
  • 3000 Questions about Me, Piccadilly
  • The Need for Creeds Today, Fesko
  • God Wins, Galli
  • Isaiah: Life Change, NavPress
  • Boomerang: The Power of Effective Guest Follow Up, Smith and Hofmeyer
  • Isaiah (TOTC), Motyer [re-read]
  • The Book of Isaiah, Young
  • Isaiah: NIVAC, Oswalt [re-read]
  • The History of the Ancient World, Wise Bauer
  • Letters to a Young Pastor, Peterson and Peterson*
  • Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, VanHoozer
  • The Maxwell Daily Reader, Maxwell
  • The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield*
  • The Forgotten God, Chan

Fiction

  • Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck
  • Dave Berry’s Greatest Hits, Barry
  • Thrawn: Alliance, Zahn
  • Lost Stars, Gray
  • Beowulf, trans. Gummere
  • Thrawn: Treason, Zahn
  • New Dawn, Miller
  • Tarkin, Luceno
  • Remembering, Berry*
  • Lords of the Sith, Kemp
  • Star Wars: Aftermath, Wendig
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling [re-read]
  • Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Rice
  • World War Z, Brooks
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling [re-read]
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Rowling [re-read]
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling [re-read]
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling [re-read]
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling [re-read]
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling [re-read]
  • The End of October, Wright
  • The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis [re-read]
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis [re-read]
  • Prince Caspian, Lewis [re-read]
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis [re-read]
  • The Horse and His Boy, Lewis [re-read]
  • The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Collins
  • The Silver Chair, Lewis [re-read]
  • The Last Battle, Lewis [re-read]
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: A Clash of Kings, Martin
  • Till We Have Faces, Lewis

Acts of Baptism

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

As anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows, various Christian denominations have different, specific approaches to baptism—that all important rite involving water and the Holy Spirit.

Depending on its theological commitments, a church may expect the person being baptized to be an adult (or, at least old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized), to be fully immersed in water (rather than sprinkled or poured upon), to be triple immersed (rather than once), to have undergone rigorous catechesis prior to baptism, to manifest miraculous spiritual gifts (before or after), or to fulfill any number of other practices. It really depends on the church. I once spoke to someone who seemed to believe that the only true way to be baptized was to be triple immersed while wearing a white gown in the cool running water of the river near their church.

In principle, Christians taking Jesus’ command to baptize seriously should be celebrated; in practice, however, our obsession with making sure that everyone is baptized our way—the right way—poses some problems.

Some Problems with Right Way Obsession

In the first place, there is the problem of rebaptism. Many people enter a new church having already been baptized. Or at least, under the impression that they were already baptized. That is, until someone convinces them their previous baptism was invalid and they should be baptized the right way. While there are probably some circumstances where a serious discussion about rebaptism may be permissible, making rebaptism commonplace seems to oppose the very unity that the Apostle Paul calls the Church to in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Emphasis added]

Second, a focus on making sure that everyone has been baptized the right way potentially corrupts what baptism is. Romans 6:1-4 closely identifies the effects of baptism with the salvific work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians of all denominations confess that salvation comes through this work of Jesus and is granted to humanity by God’s grace. To then turn around and assume, as certain denominations do, that baptism must be undertaken in a highly specific manner undercuts that message of grace. It’s like saying, “Yes, Jesus graciously offers you life, but only if you do the right (baptismal) works to get there.”

Finally, a focus on making sure everyone has been baptized the right way tends to be utterly confusing for congregants. This is particularly true for those who are new to faith, on the fringes of belief, or in the process of changing churches. In some contexts, the emphasis on being baptized the right way can even lead people to question their relationship with God—or to doubt someone else’s relationship with God. Beyond the differences in how different denominations baptize, such confusion can lead people to question the value of baptism itself.

Right Way versus Big Tent

Although nothing apart from the Second Coming is likely to get Christians on the same page when it comes to baptismal practice, I think there is an approach to baptism that is scriptural and can help cut through some of the problems fostered by a right way approach to baptism. I call this perspective the big tent approach to Christian baptism.

The big tent approach to baptism recognizes the internal diversity of baptismal practices recorded within scripture and recognizes as valid differing contemporary baptismal practices when they conform to the diversity of these scriptural models. This approach fits best in a big tent approach to Christianity more generally; but it is also tenable in ecclesiastical contexts that work with the diversity of contemporary Christian instruction and practice.1 Indeed, many denominations already practice this kind of big tent thinking when it comes to baptism.

Acts of Baptism

The book of Acts serves as the best example of the big tent approach. Luke records about ten distinct narratives of baptism in Acts2 and, although there are clear theological parameters governing these baptisms, no two are precisely alike. Consider that:

  • Some baptisms occur “in the name of Jesus Christ” (8.5-13; 10.44-48; 19.1-5), others appear to be “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (8.36-38), and still others are silent on the matter of “in whom” people are baptized.
  • At least one baptism narrative is preceded by repentance of sin (2.37-41), another seems to make confession of faith central (8.36-38), another baptismal narrative is preceded by speaking tongues (10.44-48), and still others focus on the importance of belief (8.5-13; 16.13-15; 16.27-34).
  • Some water baptisms precede the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19.1-5), other times the Holy Spirit is poured out before water (9.17-19; 10.44-48), and many times water baptism is not explicitly connected to the baptism of the Spirit.
  • Finally, some passages record individual baptisms (8.36-38) while others use household language (10.44-48; 16.13-15; 16.27-34; 18.5-8) that, if nothing else, set the stage for infant baptism.

Clearly Acts records significant diversity of baptismal practice in the early church. Why then are contemporary Christians so committed to picking-and-choosing a handful of these examples (or other New Testament references to baptism) and interpreting them as the right way to baptize? A big tent approach better reflects the diversity of practice within the New Testament itself—as well as Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers.

Conclusion

The New Testament consistently portrays baptism as an essential3 part of what it means to follow Jesus—as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28.18-20), as a sign of entrance into God’s new covenantal family (Gal. 3.27; Col. 2.12; 1 Cor. 12.13), and as a seemingly salvific act of God’s grace (1 Pet. 3.21; see also Mark 16.16). What the New Testament does not portray as essential is the precise method of baptism; to the contrary, a variety of specific practices seem to be affirmed. Accordingly, Christians should baptize new believers in a manner consistent with New Testament models and recognize as valid baptisms by other Christians that fit these big tent parameters.

God’s work through baptism is a gracious gift, one we should continue to celebrate, practice, and reflect upon. In the spirit of Christian unity, however, we should adopt a big tent approach to recognizing the validity of baptism at the hands of others. For scripture itself suggests that we make our acts of baptism a little less about us and a little more about the God who is at work in His people.


Notes

1 For instance, the increasingly common practice by many denominations to recognize the seminary degrees, communion practices, or theological perspectives of other denominations.

2 Depending on how you subdivide narratives.

3 Here, of course, we must draw the distinction between essential and required. If we take Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross seriously, then we cannot expect that no one who has not been baptized belongs to the family of God. Still, exceptional theology should not undermine normative theology. Accordingly, it’s appropriate to confirm the long-standing practice that every person who is able who follows Jesus should be baptized.

On Beginning

Everyone experiences new things. By nature of who we are and the world in which we live, no one lives a completely sedentary life. From new jobs to new cars, from getting married to buying a house, from having kids to moving across town, we all encounter newness.

While many new experiences are joyful occasions, not all are. Sometimes new things are sad, uncomfortable, or even depressing. A new job, for instance, could indicate a step forward in a person’s career; it could also represent a changing career field that is now fraught with uncertainty. Likewise, a woman who has been married for fifty years experiences many new things after the death of her husband, few of which will bring her any joy.

Even when an experience is new and exciting, it can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and loss. My first semester of college, for example, was a wonderful time, full of adventure, excitement, and opportunity. But it was still difficult to transition from the comfortability of home and the routines of high school that I knew so well. Yet even in their discomfort, new things can stretch us, helping us grow and learn not only about them but also about ourselves. Continue reading

Orthodoxy and Relevance

Christians have long talked about life as a journey, whether as runners or pilgrims or travelers or something else. Journeys tend to involve forks in the road, decisions to make, and obstacles to overcome. Sometimes, the decisions of this journey are between light and darkness, holiness and sin, redemption and backsliding. In these instances, the follower of Christ is called to choose the path of faithfulness. Other times, however, the decisions we make along the way do not seem to be inherently good or bad—it’s not immediately clear whether one path is better than the other.

Such an image of journey has been on my mind lately as I’ve wrestled with what seems to be an increasingly common trope for contemporary Christians: the ongoing debate between orthodoxy and relevance.

Per Merriam-Webster, orthodoxy means “right belief, sound doctrine” and relevance means “the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.” Based on those definitions, you wouldn’t expect contemporary Christians to believe that orthodoxy and relevance are at odds with one another. But if you talk to many Christians, you’d be wrong. Let me explain. Continue reading

Recommended Readings: February 2

Happy weekend, dear readers. As I attempt to get back into the swing of posting more regularly, I’m going to revisit the practice of sharing some recommended online readings. Below are this week’s selections, though I hasten to note that they were not all published this week (or even this year). They are, however, articles that I’ve found interesting, informative, and intellectually stimulating; I hope you find them to suit you similarly. Enjoy! Continue reading