God’s Not Dead and the Myth of the Militant College Professor

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Let me qualify everything I’m about to say by first saying that I have not seen the movie God’s Not Dead yet. This is not a movie review nor is it meant to discourage anyone from going to see it. From talking to some friends who have seen it, I understand there are some redeeming things about the movie and the story it presents. Amongst them is the fact that the main character is willing to stand up for what he believes in and takes the time to research and find answers to difficult questions posed by the antagonistic philosophy professor. I find it interesting that Focus on the Family’s movie review website, Plugged In, had this to say as the negative elements of the movie “Pretty much everyone who’s not a Christian in this story is villainized for being mean, abusive, grouchy or narrow-minded. Several such sinners are condemned to either death or terminal illness, as if they’re being punished for their attitudes.” As much as that bothers me and could be topic in and of itself or a blog—the portrayal of non-Christians in Christian movies—that is not the issue I have with this movie.

Surely there are professors that are antagonistic towards Christianity and organized religion in general. Many of them have published works that provide their explanations of why they think faith in a deity is intellectual suicide. I don’t doubt that many of them don’t shy away from sharing their antagonistic attitude in class. That being said, they are still professional. In any philosophy class you are not tested and assessed the same way you are in a math or even a science class. The field of philosophy does not require that you subscribe to the worldview of your professor. It does however require you give a rational support and or explanation of the worldview you’ve chosen. Thus the premise presented in the movie of a professor demanding that students deny God or gods completely at the outset of the semester is extremely far-fetched. Still that is not what bothers me the most.

For a number of years we’ve been warned that philosophy and professors of the sciences pose a major threat to Christian college students. We’ve been told that these cunning men and women are the main ones responsible for the often quoted statistic of somewhere between sixty to seventy percent of young Christians leave the church by their second year of college, a third of which never return. Yet in all my years of doing youth ministry—as a student, volunteer, and a pastor—I’ve yet to know of anyone who walked away from following Jesus Christ because of what they learned in a college philosophy or science course. On the other hand, I know a multitude of persons who have walked away from Christianity, all of whom walked away for one of three reasons.

The first is that they went away to college and eventually the guilt and shame from having premarital sex and or getting involved in alcohol and drug abuse became too overwhelming and thus it was easier to abandon faith than deal with their junk. Many of them feared being left out of all the fun everyone else was having and wanted to belong with their peers. They had been handed a faith that was primarily about behavioral modification and proved to be shallow and without roots. Some quite simply can be described by John 3:19 in that they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”

The second reason is that they encountered some sort of tragedy or crisis, often the divorce of their parents or death of a loved one, and became either disillusioned with by God’s seeming disregard for their troubles or angry with him. It became easier to walk away than wrestle with what the Bible says about the present age and the age to come, namely the paradoxical reign of Christ on earth (the paradox of Jesus reigning on earth while there is still evil and suffering in the world) while yearning for the overflowing reign of Christ on earth where pain and suffering will be no more, and death will be defeated. Often times they’ve been handed a faith that says you suffer because you’ve been bad and God is punishing you. Ironically enough, this is where some adopt the Anosticism which says, “if there is a God who created the earth he or she is now totally uninvolved in the affairs of the earth”.

My point in bringing this to the table is this… Let’s stop blaming liberal college professors for the failures of the church, youth ministries, and parents. Nancy Pearcey in her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity summarizes the problem quite well, “it remains true that most churches are strong on teaching about conversion, but weak on teaching about how to live after conversion.” If anything college, or more to the point independence, is the testing ground of faith and the gospel message young people have been taught to believe. A gospel that primarily teaches you to modify your behavior is usually heavy on guilt and light on grace. A gospel that primarily teaches you that Jesus came to make your life better is light on hope for a world that is perishing and the cost of discipleship. A youth ministry primarily focused on having fun is going to yield young adults in search of more fun and entertainment. Sermons on how you’re blessed or claiming your blessing are light on telling the story of how God set out to bless the entire world and why it needed to be blessed in the first place. Parenting driven by fear of what could go wrong is light on talking about how the world went wrong and what God does about it in the past present and future.

We need to present our young people with a robust gospel that fosters disciples instead of converts and well-behaved kids. We need to own our failures instead of blaming them on people and institutions that weren’t around for the formational period of young adults lives. Otherwise, God’s Not Dead will be wholly accurate in their depiction of a young adult who has to go search for answers to tough questions in isolation, instead of in loving community, or abandon their faith all together.

Don’t Let Your Struggles Define You

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A friend of mine recently said to me, “I know life isn’t fair and struggle is indiscriminate. but it just seems to be picking on you and your wife.” I’d be lying if I didn’t say it would be nice to get an extended Sabbath from difficulty in life. In the nearly six years of being married, we have navigated unexplained infertility, the exhausting adoption process, and now breast cancer. Even during the period when things seemed to settle after Isla, our daughter, came into our lives two years ago, was highlighted by waiting for the legal process to be completed making us her legal parents, and the unusually difficult process of getting Isla’s birth certificate and social security number. It’s been quite a ride for about five years.

More than ever before, as Emma undergoes chemotherapy to hopefully decrease the likelihood of a recurrence, I am convinced that you can not allow for your circumstances in life to define you. I’ll never forget the conversation Emma and I had years ago when we made the conscious decision to not let infertility nor being a couple that had to adopt in order to grow their family beyond two people to define us. It was something that we were going to experience and would be chapter in our lives. It was not going to be the plotline by which every other moment, relationship, experience would be filtered through and then analyzed. It would not shape our choices and relationships. That resolve has carried over into navigating cancer as she has determined from the start to not allow her diagnosis define her, for which I am so proud of her. Her focus and determination has been to get to the other side of cancer and treatment.

Life is a struggle. There’s no way around it. Even the people who experience monumental success in life, especially if defined by their success, struggle to keep and maintain it. My advice to anyone who will listen is to not let your struggles define you. Struggles in the end are temporary, and there’s always a new one waiting. Christ and God on the other hand are eternal and everlasting, and there is only one. Ironically enough the first true struggle in life I experienced was shaped by the common adolescent experience of trying to figure out who I was and where I belonged. It was a difficult struggle, possibly more difficult than any other I have faced or ever will face, because it was the only one I have navigated without my identity being firmly fixed to Christ. The rest, although more heartbreaking, unwelcomed, and many totally out of my control, by a mile, do not carry the same hopeless and lost feeling that I felt in those days when I wasn’t defined by my savior I was just “saved”.

Does This Generation of Teens Have it Harder Than Predecessors?: A Different Take

It has frequently been said that this generation of young American teenage Christians has it tougher than any other generation before them. Between technology redefining what is considered the public arena, thus shrinking what is truly private, the pressure to perform in school, liberal media with more graphic content on TV, music and movies, there are many who have expressed deep concern of what will become of the present generation of teenage Christians. Earlier and earlier teenagers are being exposed and have access to the morally bankrupt aspects, pornography and drugs to name a few, of our culture and society than ever before.

Those of you who follow my blog know by now that I’m not into stirring the pot of fear (I don’t think it accomplishes much of anything productive or constructive). Allow me to offer you a slightly different take on what all the societal and cultural changes in America means for Christian teenagers.

Many of the same factors that make for culture being difficult for current generation also means that this generation has the greatest potential for creating and cultivating good things.

In his book Culture Making Andy Crouch describes how Christian cultural engagement in the United States has typically been relegated to one of four responses; condemn culture, critique culture, copy culture, or consume culture. The main point of his book is to encourage Christians to understand our cultural mandate from God to create and cultivate. The first two tasks that God gives Adam prior to the Fall, is to name the animals (create), and to work and keep the garden (cultivate). The focal point of the glimpse we get of the new heavens and new earth in Revelation is of a city filled with “the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21.26). After which it says that nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false. Unfortunately a disproportionate amount of teaching and guidance to churched teens is to avoid the unclean, detestable and false over and above aspiring to create and cultivate the glory and honor of the nations.

The advancements in technology in the last twenty years alone have yielded a tremendous amount of creative power into most households in America. If you have a smartphone you have more computing power in the palm of your hand than all of NASA had in 1969 when they launched a man to the moon and back. Just a few days ago I saw a news feature on a 13-year-old girl who attempted to send a Hello Kitty doll into space and back using a high-altitude balloon.

Teenagers can now create and conduct their own music and songs using programs like Garageband. They can create and publish short films and movies on Vimeo and YouTube. There are numerous programs for graphic design. They can take and edit professional quality photographs. They can write and publish poetry, prose, and books. Teenagers have greater access to the rest of the world and it’s problems, and they are being given more opportunities to be a part of the solution. And they still have all of the traditional age-old opportunities to create and cultivate, like drawing, painting, building, and gardening.

It would be a shame if a whole generation of Christian teenagers ended up being behind the curve of everyone else because this generation of parents and youth workers were too busy trying to keep them safe instead of encouraging them to create. Imagine all the good and beautiful things they could produce if we spent more time encouraging and participating in their creative endeavors? We should be encouraging them to create and cultivate things that will one day be considered amongst the glory and honor of the nations. The dangers and pitfalls our culture offers to teenagers are not to be overlooked. However, neither is the plethora of creative opportunities it offers them, the likes of which no generation before them has ever seen.

Life Isn’t Fair: Stuff My Mom Said

Over time my sisters and I figured out that it was pretty much pointless to complain about something being unfair to our mother. Rest assured her response was always the same, “Well, life isn’t fair.” We used to hate it when she said that but I’m glad she did, because she is right.

Scripture testifies to the unfairness of life we just so often miss it or are not taught it. This is why I believe so many Christians struggle to understand and live with difficult circumstances in our lives without experiencing a crisis of faith, doubt, or resentment towards God.

Mistakenly we often attribute difficulty in life to God and his will, instead of attributing difficulty in life to where scripture places the blame; the Fall. The Fall is the reason we experience pain, death, sickness, and loss. The Fall has turned a good world and good existence for all of creation into a not so good existence. From a Biblical perspective good isn’t simply pleasure and happiness, good is flourishing. As it pertains to creation flourishing as God intends is meant to be universal. The result of Adam and Eve eating from the tree so that they (so they were led to believe) could be on par with God cannot be overstated. Flourishing totally depends on all of creation being in proper relationship with God and one another. The curses given in Genesis 3 in a way is God allowing for parts, not all, of flourishing to depend on creation being in proper relationship with us, as though we are gods.

The first problem is that there is too many of us (Thus the importance of our Trinitarian theology emphasizing three in one. One only need look to Roman and Greek mythology to see the chaos that ensues from there being more than one God, each of whom has different desires and view of the world than the others). The second problem is that none of us are God nor possess his power to create something out of nothing, to bring life from death, to bring about and maintain complete order from complete chaos.

In other words, bad things aren’t simply brought into our lives by God so that he can teach us something or bring about some good that does little more than maintain a ying and yang balance to the world. Bad things simply happen! They happen because the world is fallen, broken, and things don’t go the way they ought to go. Our cries of life not being fair is little more than us crying out to anyone who will lend us ear that a piece of our life isn’t happening the way it ought, that instead of experiencing flourishing we are experiencing suffering.

Make no mistake, it is not God’s fault, it is our fault. Not in the sense that there was something very specific that we did that directly resulted in this bit of suffering. Rather it is in the sense that humanity was to blame, is to blame, and will be to blame for life not being fair until… Christ returns to put everything right, to judge and to rule, and to make everything new. Furthermore he is not obligated to step in and end our suffering, any part of it, before Christ returns. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, but he is not obligated to. Nor can we some how earn the right for God to end our momentary suffering. Yes, even physical death for the redeemed is only a momentary suffering. We can pray to God and ask, but he can always say no like he did to Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane/Mount of Olives (Matthew 26.39, and Like 22.39-46).

Speaking of Jesus praying that God remove the cup of his wrath for the sins of mankind, and not pour it out on him, to the point that he was in such agony that even the appearance and strengthening from an angel of God didn’t divert him from praying more earnestly to the point that he was sweating blood. Thank God and praise his name that he wasn’t concerned with being fair in that moment. Cause if God were about what is fair he would have surely answered Jesus’ request with a resounding yes, and we would all be doomed to suffer forever beyond any suffering we will experience her on earth.

God is not obligated to fix every situation, to heal every sickness, to make sure we flourish or prosper every moment of every day of our lives. His goodness doesn’t depend on him stepping in every time, or even some of the time, because Jesus already stepped in when it mattered most. God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven where he is able to be present to us amidst flourishing and suffering and all the in between, and present us before God unstained (Hebrews 8.4 and 9.24)

For me this has meant learning to live with suffering, with life not being fair. I understand that suffering is simply a part of life until Christ makes all things new (Revelation 21.4-5).  That suffering difficulty and trials are not an indictment declaring that I have become unjustified, because Christ is my justification. I cannot undo Christ’s justification for me to my detriment or to my benefit. I simply use my faith to embrace a life that says he is my justification (Romans 5.1). Suffering is simply a reminder that Genesis 3 is true and is real.

Someone will surely say, “What about Romans 5.3 that says, ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’?” To which I would say Paul never says that God brings about or produces suffering to produce all those things in us. For Paul suffering is just a part of life, but God in his sovereignty and great power is stronger than suffering, and can accomplish what he wills even in suffering. Even in life not being fair.

Do you struggle with life not being fair?