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Does Christianity Grow or Just Move On?

BSOP

I have just returned from Manila this week, where I had the privilege of teaching on Christian spirituality to a wonderful cohort of eager Filipino-Chinese and Mainland Chinese students. The latter are the “tip of the iceberg” of a remarkable, grass-roots movement of vibrant Christianity emerging out of a country that has been officially (and sometimes repressively) atheistic and Communist since 1949. Most of these bright, passionate young adults are university-trained students, and many of them possess Mac computers and international cell phones. Yet they have come to accept the prospect of suffering, and have embraced radical consecration, to a degree only sometimes seen nowadays among their North American Christian counterparts. What’s going on? Is Christianity really dying out in the West while growing up in Asia and Africa? If so, it raises another, somewhat troubling question: Does the Christian faith actually expand, or does it just migrate elsewhere?

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Love Wins

Northern Ireland

The son of a prominent American judge, Rob Bell is a young (born in 1970, now 40 years old), media-savvy and very “cool” dressing graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary. He is a rock musician, and now an evangelical pastor who founded and leads a large, new church (Mars Hill Bible Church) in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan—the American Midwest home of numerous evangelical publishing houses.

 

Rob Bell is a captivating speaker who has attracted consistently large crowds to a number of well-organized national and international speaking tours. His innovative short video clips on spiritual themes circulate widely, and since 2005 he has written an impressive list of books that until just recently were almost all published by Zondervan, one of the larger evangelical presses right in Grand Rapids. He has a gift for arresting titles, which include Velvet Elvis and Sex God. But his most recent book, Love Wins (2011), published for a more mainstream market by HarperCollins, Zondervan’s big market parent company, is by far his most important and already his most controversial.

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Please, Help Me!

 Taoism


One of the near-universal functions of religion is to solicit help from the Higher Power to meet our needs. The main function of prayer, it seems, is petition—asking, begging, making promises and cutting deals, in order (we hope) to get stuff. I saw this dynamic alive and well at the White Cloud Taoist Temple I visited in a slightly scruffier part of Beijing. People kept arriving with gifts of fruit and flowers for the various deities (idols), and lighting incense sticks before kneeling before the images to ask for favors. It got me wondering how the prayers that Christians tend to ask are really much different.

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Religion as Therapy in China

Lama Temple Beijing

 

I have been in Beijing, China for about three weeks now as a visiting scholar at Renmin (the People’s) University, founded by Chairman Mao, and at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I am comfortably housed in the Foreign Expert Building on the University campus, and get to bike around the leafy campus alongside many of future leaders of the Communist Party and of China itself. Without denying the real differences between West and East, it’s surprising how much is the same, even in the sphere of religion.

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The Rest of the Story

This past week the Los Angeles Times ran a brief obituary of the distinguished English scholar Antony Flew (1923-2010). Flew was a high-profile academic philosopher noted, even among impressive peers, as an exceptional intellect. After service in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he studied at Oxford and there participated in weekly meetings originally organized by C. S. Lewis. The author or co-author of more than thirty books, he is best known for his rigorously logical arguments against the existence of God.

However, this champion of atheism began to waver in his convictions later in life. The possibility that the planet’s delicate ecosystem might be the product of mere chance seemed increasingly improbable to him, and in the end, and without any intellectual slippage, he had crossed over to the other side of the divide over God.

His brief obituary also mentioned that he was the son of a Methodist minister, and as a teenager had abandoned belief in God after wrestling with the problem of evil. Flew’s father died years before his son saw the light, and never lived to see the unlikely turnaround in his brilliant sons’ heart and mind. It’s a reminder that everyone is on a lifelong journey, and it’s never over ’til it’s over. Sometimes waiting fathers and mothers, and other loved ones, may even dare, like Abraham and Moses and a host of other saints, to die in hope. We may not always get to see the rest of the story.

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Woody Allen and the Terror of the Void

Woody Allen, the famous Jewish comedian and film-maker, was featured in a recent issue of Newsweek (August 18/25, 2008). Allen has always been fall-down funny, but this article reveals a hidden and more intimate side of this celebrity. We discover that he is haunted by the terror of the void, and the apparently meaninglessness and futility of life. You might not pick it up from a lot of our church programming, but this is where Christianity really has something significant to celebrate.

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