1. Fresh on the heels of hosting a truly, er, glorious theology-of-the-cross-themed conference last weekend in San Diego, our friends at 1517 Legacy posted a brilliantly contrarian reflection from Joel Hess, responding to a critique that’s fairly common among confessional Christians in this country. I’m referring to the criticism that the church, especially in its more Mega iterations, has become overly consumer-driven, more concerned with “user experience” than a living God, more American than Christian. You know, Starbucks in the foyer, a gazillion service times from which to choose, Sunday School rooms that look like Pixar offices, etc. Popular author/pastor Francis Chan apparently just stepped down from his church for this reason and wrote a book about it. And you can hardly blame him, I suppose–the cognitive dissonance wears on a person. Yet instead of doubling down and using the opening to advertise the more vertical style of worship you find churches like the Lutheran one where Hess serves, he takes a surprising turn, claiming that, whether we like it or not, “The Gospel Is Only For Consumers.”

Chan, like many of us, often complain about American Christians shirking the cost of discipleship… People want to be consumers of God’s grace, but they don’t want to put anything into it. People want forgiveness but they don’t want to repent or change their ways. Chan points to the many third world churches that grow without any of the fancy accoutrements getting in the way. Members of such churches are invested participants…. They gladly and willingly pay the cost of being a Christian. They are not simply consumers.

It is very tempting to run with this criticism, to get angry at ‘lukewarm’ Christians, and to attempt to separate real Christians from the fake ones. In such cases, we are tempted to put a ‘but’ after the Gospel… Certainly, a church can be full of people with weak faith, no faith, or even a consumerist faith. What pastor hasn’t been frustrated with his own faith let alone the life of his church.

Yet the antidote to a lukewarm church is not more law, more demands, or more fear. St. Paul says in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, “for what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.” He also writes in the same letter, “This is why I am so anxious to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:15-16). Paul believed that the preaching of the Gospel – that Jesus has paid it all for free – actually brings salvation. Perhaps the answer to creating a healthier church and a more invested people is found in preaching more clearly the full freeing Gospel. It seems counterintuitive, but the Church actually is for consumers and only consumers. Grace is only for people who have absolutely nothing to give, who can not pay a dime toward their discipleship, let alone for their sins… Jesus died and rose for people who can give nothing but only consume what is given.

2. Boom. Next up, writing for The Atlantic, Deborah Copaken cataloged “What I Learned about Life at My 30th College Reunion”, and I confess I wasn’t expecting something so searing. While the nature of the college in question (the big-H) probably means we should take this all with a grain, still, a few of her takeaways are worth highlighting. Sorry, lawyers:

  • No one’s life turned out exactly as anticipated, not even for the most ardent planner.
  • Many classmates who are in long-lasting marriages said they experienced a turning point, when their early marriage suddenly transformed into a mature relationship. “I’m doing the best I can!” one classmate told me she said to her husband in the middle of a particularly stressful couples’-therapy session. From that moment on, she said, he understood: Her imperfections were not an insult to him, and her actions were not an extension of him. She was her own person, and her imperfections were what made her her. Sometimes people forget this, in the thick of marriage. [Sound familiar?]
  • Nearly all the alumni said they were embarrassed by their younger selves, particularly by how judgmental they used to be.
  • Those who’d lost a child had learned a kind of resilience and gratitude that was instructive to all of us.

One more worth mentioning would be the observation: “They say money can’t buy happiness, but in an online survey of our class just prior to the reunion, those of us with more of it self-reported a higher level of happiness than those with less.” If that’s true, don’t tell Jack Whittaker, the guy who won the $314 million Powerball lottery in 2002. Long read of the week has got to be The Washington Post’s epic account of how that money has ruined both his life and that of pretty much everyone around him. The proportions are positively Greek.

3. One of our favorite atheists/curmudgeons, John Gray, has a new book out entitled Seven Types of Atheism, which the ever-incisive Casey Cep reviewed for The New Yorker. A couple paragraphs:

Gray’s larger complaint is that the new atheists fail to offer a more coherent moral vision than the one they want to replace. The strategy they champion, scientific ethics, has been tried before, with a notable lack of success. Auguste Comte and his fellow nineteenth-century positivists envisioned a Grand Pontiff of Humanity who would preside alongside scientist-priests; unfortunately, scientists at the time were practicing phrenology. Later on, evolutionary humanists and monists replaced God’s order with “scientific” anthropologies, then constructed racial hierarchies and put white Europeans on top. Today, the voguish version of science as religion is transhumanism, which claims that technology will overcome human limitations both physical and mental, perhaps through bioengineering or artificial intelligence or cyborgs that can carry around the contents of our brains. Gray is not sanguine about such developments, should they ever occur, because we already have a model of the mayhem that takes place when some mortals are granted godlike powers: “Anyone who wants a glimpse of what a post-human future might be like should read Homer.”

On the whole, Gray is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and what others regard as novel or promising he often sees as derivative or just plain dumb. He argues, for instance, that secular humanism is really monotheism in disguise, where humankind is God and salvation can be achieved through our own efforts rather than through divine intervention. Unlike the linguist—and new atheist—Steven Pinker, Gray regards the idea that the world is getting better as self-evidently silly. “The cumulative increase of knowledge in science has no parallel in ethics or politics,” he points out. Religions are still thriving, as are wars between them, and secular regimes have wrought as much, if not more, havoc under the auspices of Jacobinism, Bolshevism, Nazism, and Maoism.

Gray is especially interested in those atheists who, in addition to having no faith in the divine, have none in humanity… Gray is equally interested in, and especially drawn to, those who practice what he calls “the atheism of silence.” These atheists, like those who reject the notion of human progress, don’t often attract large followings. Instead of seeking surrogates for God, they try to acquiesce in something that transcends human understanding.

4. Hmmm…. Well, speaking of divisions, does hearing out the other side make us less polarized, or more? asks Ezra Klein over at Vox. The answer he gives may surprise you–initially. According to researchers, when confronted with opposing views, especially those that challenge the narrative with which we’ve become identified (#seculosity), our internal lawyer doesn’t lay down her arms so much as go into overdrive, or what Jonathan Haidt calls ‘combat mode’. We may even feel momentarily virtuous for submitting ourselves to our adversaries point of view in the first place. It’s self-justification 101, and it’s not pretty.

Neither group [Republicans or Democrats] responded to exposure to the other side by moderating their own views. In both cases, hearing contrary opinions drove partisans to more polarized positions — Republicans became more conservative rather than more liberal, and Democrats, if anything happened at all, became more liberal rather than more conservative.

If you’re a liberal browsing Twitter and you’re suddenly confronted with a Mitch McConnell tweet touting the benefits of tax cuts and the harms of Obamacare, your mental response isn’t to think, “Hmm, that McConnell makes some good points.” It’s to instantly come up with an argument for why he’s wrong.

No one is better at convincing us of a position than, well, us, and so as we see and instantly reject the arguments made by our political opponents, we become more convinced in the rightness of what we initially believed, and we come up with more reasons to believe it.

“Republican” is an identity. “Democrat” is an identity. When you log on to Twitter and read someone attacking the people you admire, the people you ally with, the people you see as your group, you become defensive of your side and angry at the critics.

My obvious addendum here would be that the exposure to which they refer is all virtual–to the arguments of “the other side” rather than the people making those arguments. Any hope we have for bridging ideological tribes–barring the invention of a common enemy–entails people speaking to rather than typing at each other. In other words, inconvenient as it may be, the softening of edges requires flesh.

5. Ah, what a world it would be if we could take ourselves a little less seriously! Kind of like the coach of the Nashville Predators hockey, who went viral after donning a bull mask for post-game interviews after losing a bet, ht SD. You can watch this touching little example of grace and playfulness in the midst of a high-pressure profession below or by clicking here.  One of the players is quoted as saying, “I think professional sports sometimes can be a little too serious, so it’s always nice when you can have some fun like that with your coach.”

6. Would you like “a splash of guilt” with your coffee? The WSJ explores the awkwardness of iPad tipping, and if ever there was a window to justifiably drop the detestable title of Ian Brown’s funky new single, this is probably it. Still, a few lines in there made me chuckle:

“You can certainly walk away without tipping, but it’s hard to do, especially if you’re Canadian,” says Keir Vallance, who is 46 and teaches law in Saskatchewan, referring to the country’s reputation for politeness.

“Why can’t Square have a tip option that says `it’s nothing personal, but I just can’t give you 20% for handing me a pre-made sandwich.’”

7. In humor, The Hard Times gave us “Boyfriend Not Even Close to Providing Instagrammable Lifestyle Desired by Partner” while The Onion produced a painfully great headline in “Area Friendship Just a Series of Missed Calls”. And as a seasonal follow-up to yesterday’s post, McSweeneys produced a list of “Curses from a Millennial Witch”, e.g. “May you be forced to attend every improv show you’re invited to”, “May your online shopping look not at all like the picture from the website”, “May all your automatic payments occur on the same random day of the month”. But the richest bit of humor this week may be the following: