bits from bob....

Reflections on the 2004 OC Lectureship

by Robert J. Young
February 18, 2004
©, 2004, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
Note: To appreciate my point in this article, you may be helped by understanding the cultural circumstances surveyed by Steven Prothero in his recent book. I have included a brief section from a summary article I have written, but I encourage you to read my entire article at In the two paragraphs that follows, I mention only briefly some basics that provide background for this reflection.

In his new book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Steven Prothero, professor at Boston University and noted scholar of Asian religions, observes that "we have a culture that highly values religious toleration and even, I think it's fair to say, diversity. In such a culture, Jesus won't become a national figure unless he can move outside Christianity." Prothero argues that the position Jesus has historically had in the history of our nation has caused us to develop a uniquely American view of Jesus, and that we in the US have largely controlled the image of Jesus in our world in a kind of virtual monopoly. But as the Enlightenment with its value on rational human thought demolished the monopoly the Catholic church had maintained over the meaning of Scripture, post-modernity is loosening the grip the churches have had in explaining Jesus' identity and significance. While many Christians may decry such a shift, the presence of Jesus in our world, divorced from the public and political power of Christianity in our nation, may be the exact antidote needed to allow the simplicity of Christian faith apart from human trappings to permeate our world.

To the extent that we in churches of Christ bemoan such a move, we may be only reflecting our involvement with the status quo, the extent to which we have lost our emphasis on the ability of individuals to find faith based on the message of Jesus, and the extent to which we have developed a distinctive identity that the world will identify as denominational regardless of our disclaimers.

Against this background, I commend the efforts of Oklahoma Christian to raise our level of awareness concerning our general inability in effectively taking the message of the cross into the milieu of our diverse society. Some would argue against the possibility of a unity that calls people from their diversity into a common faith and purpose, but genuine unity demands precisely such a call. A unity built on narrower and narrower parameters which include only those in total agreement in every matter is not unity but sectarianism. Unity is not to be confused with uniformity. Sectarianism demands uniformity, and lines everyone up to become alike. Only unity is capable of bringing together Jew and Gentile, black and white, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, under the umbrella of allegiance to Jesus Christ.

I believe the lectureship study of Luke's message of inclusion in the midst of a first-century world that excluded the poor, oppressed, the infirm (including leprosy, a parallel to HIV?), and those possessed by evil is quite relevant in our world. Jesus' (and Luke's) insistence that the gospel is for women, children, families, tax-collectors, and outcasts was revolutionary in his day. Frankly, we have been slow to learn the lesson and to find the genuine unity God desires among all people, nations, ethnic groups, and cultures. Whatever problems one might identify, do not miss the significance of an engaging, dynamic study of the theology of Luke that challenges us to move from our comfort zone.

To a greater extent that we generally realize, we have a limited, culturally-derived view of Jesus, the Bible, and the church. Our concept of the church is white, North American, and generally middle-class. Seldom are we talking about our numerous African (I do not mean African-American--by) brothers in Christ when we refer to "the church." Many would not automatically include those brothers and sisters who live south of the Rio Grande in our own hemisphere, but speak a different language. The church must be called to awaken to the immense challenges that face us in taking the gospel into all the world. The church must be awakened to the challenge of inclusion. Each Christian must ask "how comfortable am I in the faith I share with my brothers and sisters in Christ from other countries?" (How comfortable are you in their presence? Have you ever been in their presence? Or alternately, how comfortable are you entering an assembly of black Christians in our own nation?)

Thus I pose a series of questions based on the challenge and necessity of accurately assessing and responding to our contemporary world.

Perhaps our churches can learn the answers to these questions through the careful study of our preachers in their own congregational settings, but I suggest that helping the church toward useful answers to questions such as these is one of the roles of the Christian college or university.

While I disagree with the conclusions some of the lectureship speakers have drawn and the practices they have employed in dealing with the issues of diversity and inclusion in our world, I am stretched in my understandings when I hear about the pitfalls they have encountered. I mention two examples that are for me are particularly challenging: Must the church accept instrumental music and Saturday communion to reach a world such as ours? Is there no other way we in churches of Christ can find a viable voice in our world?

I am sharpened when I have opportunity to listen to and question those who have tried to answer the challenge and have moved away from some of that which identifies those who share my faith. I am threatened only when I listen with my brain in neutral and my Bible closed. I do not believe everything I hear, and urge my weekly listeners to listen to what I say with their Bibles open. Sometimes I don't even agree with myself.

While we may convert some in our world with mantras about the objective nature of truth (with which I agree), even in our society those who are inclined to accept the plea for Restoration and simple New Testament Christianity (assuming that is still our clear plea) are fewer and fewer, precisely because of the shift in world view that is occurring. According to an Associated Press release the first week of February, 2004, we live in a world of cheats who justify cheating by refusing to apply an objective standard of truth, choosing rather a subjectivity that allows an exception in their particular case. There is a good chance our members sit next to such persons when we assemble for worship.

Some would say that addressing such issues as these is not the role of the Christian university, but few preachers in the pulpits are equipped with the skills to effectively interact with the plethora of ideas rampant in our world, nor do we have time in the demands of local ministry.

Some would say that the Christian university must choose its forums carefully to avoid exposing our youth to the challenges of our world, but I would tell you based on several years of experience in higher Christian education that our children already know more about this aspect of the world than you and I do. They have been called to interact with it almost daily from early school days--in classrooms, among fellow students, on TV, in the media, and in the general culture.

Some would accuse the Christian university of compromising pure doctrinal positions by giving a forum for discussion of such challenges. Of all of the accusations, I believe this one deserves the most caution. Generally my problem is not that the views are presented, at times without much formal response, but that an attitude that belittles former views often accompanies such.

In a world such as ours, we do well to proceed cautiously. We should not be too quick to cast off the old, yet we must dynamically engage the present. That some of us are proceeding a bit more slowly is not an indication that we are behind the times or antiquated, only that we are cautiously balancing the need to speak biblically and with relevance to a world such as ours.

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Last updated February 18, 2004.