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J.A.A. Purves

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

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Granted, there's a narcissistic component in viewing this as your own private pink, or whatever. But It might simply be a fumbling attempt on the part of your relative to describe something that is very real and profound. Revelation -- even general revelation, like the sight of pink flowers -- can only be experienced individually. And my guess is that that's what your relative is trying to express.

I'm going to go with good 'ol fashioned narcissism.

Look, we live in a world of over six billion people. We desperately want to know that we matter to someone, somewhere. We want anyone, in this endless ocean of humanity, to bear witness to our existence-- I get that. There are ways to do this and find validation without invoking the Almighty and playing pretend. To me, the very beginning of true worship is the acknowledgement that I am finite and ridiculously insignificant in the scheme of the cosmos. This doesn't mean I have no value-- I do-- it just means that I'm teeny, teeny tiny. That fact needs no footnote and or addendum, and attempts to do so are generally borne out of fear. People are scared to think they don't matter. This is vanity. And this current "personal relationship" fad is a cover up for a very weak and deceptive part of human nature.

We are special to God. I believe this. We are greatly beloved. I believe this too. (against some contrary evidence) But I don't need to name-drop God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit or refer to some private dialogue between the Godhead and myself to maintain those beliefs. It's just not necessary. God, the actual Being, is immense, to say the least. Based on scripture, all bets are that a personal, private meeting would be a little terrifying. I don't presume that He has anything burning to say to me directly at the moment, outside of the testimonies of Jesus of Nazareth. If he did want to tell me something today via special revelation, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be about colors and it would probably scare the living shit out of me. I'm open to such an encounter. But not necessarily anxious, ya know?

The "private dialogue" is the work of the Holy Spirit, Greg, given to individual Christians and working in individual Christian lives. And because of that, we are finite, but far from insignificant. The "working" is important. The Greek word here is "dunamis," from which we derive the English word "dynamite" -- and it means "power." It means that God can do what we cannot do ourselves. It means that we are not destined to remain the same people we have been, caught in an endless cycle of genetic tendencies and dispositions, repeatedly doing the same crap again and again and again. We can be changed.

These are fundamental Christian beliefs, Greg. And because some people misconstrue those beliefs -- your "private pink, just for me" flower-loving relative, for instance -- it doesn't mean that those beliefs are invalid.

The testimony of millions of people spread across the past two millenia seems to indicate that God is real, and active in individual lives. Without that belief, there is no hope. Look, I'm from a long and undistinguished line of addicts. I'm an addict myself. I don't know how far back the chain of addiction goes, but it extends as far back as I know. If that dunamis -- that power -- isn't real, then I'm doomed. I'll lose everything I love, and become precisely the person I do not want to be. The odds tell me that I've got no shot. I've watched hundreds of people fall back into a way of life that they can't escape, and lose everything. Roughly 2% of the addicts who are ACTIVELY involved in 12-step programs manage to maintain their sobriety. 2%. That's it. But here's the deal. God is working in me, and can do what I cannot do myself. How do I know? Because God has communicated that to me, in personal, intimate ways, the truth of which I couldn't possibly convince anyone looking for a nice, neat, rational explanation. And because it's happening, day by day, day after day, year after year. The chain is being broken.

This is not to say that God ONLY works this way (to address Christian's concern). God works through the sacraments, he works through the Word, and he most assuredly works through the Church, through the church leaders, pastors, and just plain normal folks who are on this journey with me. But my personal, private encounters with God -- infrequent, unpredictable, often utterly maddening in their inconsistency -- tell me that God is not a God of terrors, but a God of infinite love and hope. And I'd like to communicate that to other people.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Whoa, I posted the link over weekend, only to come back and find a passionate in-depth discussion. I'm going to have to spend some time tonight carefully reading through this thread.

FYI, I initially noticed and posted the link to Bergler's article to begin with because (1) I am in the middle of a discussion at my church about the extent to which we allow pop psychology into our teaching/preaching/evangelism, etc., and (2) because I am right in the middle of reading No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology by David F. Wells. I'd never read Wells before, but he is surprisingly thought provoking. His book is essentially exploring what he argues is a disappearance of theology from American Evangelicalism. According to Wells, most evangelicals have just gone along for the ride with whatever trendy philosophical movements have been hitting us in modern society - including anti-intellectualism and what he calls the "self-movement" which was a transfer from thinking about ourselves in terms of human nature to thinking about ourselves in terms of self-consciousness and Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs." I'm not yet convinced that we have all the psychological needs that modern consumerist society tells us that we have.

Our following Christ (or our "relationship" with Christ), no matter where precisely you lay emphasis upon heart and intellect, is going to be different that that of thousands of years of Christianity if Jesus is just another answer to sell to people in order to meet all our psychological needs (that we're now told we have) of self-esteem, self-worth, security, acceptance, significance, ad infinitum. Thus, all the church teaching and sermons how how you shouldn't try and find your security or your acceptance in your job or in your marriage or in your bank account, blah blah blah, but instead if you just find your acceptance and security and self-worth in Jesus, then everything will be just alright. This sort of teaching in the church automatically presupposes that the presuppositions of Abraham Maslow were correct (and Biblical) in the first place. And, it is a "kind" of teaching that is currently very popular.

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NBooth   

I think I would prefer the Juvenal-ization of American Christianity, but wev. tongue.png

Our following Christ (or our "relationship" with Christ), no matter where precisely you lay emphasis upon heart and intellect, is going to be different that that of thousands of years of Christianity if Jesus is just another answer to sell to people in order to meet all our psychological needs (that we're now told we have) of self-esteem, self-worth, security, acceptance, significance, ad infinitum. Thus, all the church teaching and sermons how how you shouldn't try and find your security or your acceptance in your job or in your marriage or in your bank account, blah blah blah, but instead if you just find your acceptance and security and self-worth in Jesus, then everything will be just alright. This sort of teaching in the church automatically presupposes that the presuppositions of Abraham Maslow were correct (and Biblical) in the first place. And, it is a "kind" of teaching that is currently very popular.

Just curious: where would you draw the line on Maslow's hierarchy [link because I had to refresh my own memory]?

I accept it as about as helpful as anything else, but I do agree with you on this: substituting "Jesus" for "wealth" isn't a very profound existential move. For reasons too complicated to mention, I've been unwillingly reading Robert McGee's The Search for Significance and find it oppressively banal. But the problem isn't that McGee accepts Maslow's hierarchy; the problem is that he accepts the idea that there's an easy way to meet the needs outlined there. And it isn't; you don't magically stop self-destructive behaviors because you believe that Jesus loves you. You don't stop needing the approval of other people because you believe God accepts you as you are.

Put another way: to be human is to be isolated and to crave connection. Connection to God, connection to other people--heck, even connection to one's own self. At its best, a relationship with God can help us grapple with these issues, but we still have to grapple. It ain't easy. And no amount of "just accept how much Jesus loves you" can change that fact.

Then again, neither will grumping about how folks these days are just adolescents. I'm inclined to think that popular religion has always offered easy answers to existential questions. It's not a recent thing, this "juvenilization;" one could argue that the revivalism of the nineteenth century followed a similar line of thought--focus on emotional highs, etc etc etc. I would suggest that this sort of thing is a necessary correlative to any religious belief gaining a following extended beyond a half-dozen or so persons.

EDIT: I also echo many of Andy's criticisms of the piece, even though I'm more of a Greg P. w/r/t much of the "personal relationship" stuff.

Edited by NBooth

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We saw "believers" who instead appeared to approach faith as a Sunday-only obligation, more of an afterthought than a way of life. These folks were mature, but mature in the faith? I didn't think so then and don't think so now, regardless of how those folks might have labeled themselves.

I'll take immature faith over cultural posing any day.

Sunday-only obligation believers are not believers interested in living out their Christianity and learning from the richness of orthodox Christian theology. Believers who are of the teenage mindset spiritually may be interested in living out their Christianity but they still ditch/ignore/or have simply never heard of real theology. I can understand how the relationship/self-fulfillment oriented youth movement in the church was reacting against a form of spiritual deadness, but I think the worry is that with orthodox Christianity being what it is, we don’t have to take things that far.

It seems that apologetics has surged in the past few decades (I'm 21 and this year's apologetics conference in Surrey was filled with mostly young people, despite it being only the second year it has been put on) and I think that has helped younger Christians sharpen their faith. I wonder if it would be possible for our theological understanding of Christian tenets develop as well ... but a lot of young people will read books that no doubt help their faith, but they won't delve into deeper material, such as St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas or J.I. Packer.

I’d suggest reading Rachel Held Evans’ description of the recent “apologetics movement” in Evolving in Monkey Town. Learning to defend the faith is a good thing, but apologetics training can often unfortunately include quite a bit of anti-intellectualism. And no, apologetics training of the Josh McDowell variety is not very heavy on theological depth or tradition.

The author appears to pine for the "good old days" where small groups didn't exist (?), where spiritual isolation and compartmentalization were the norms, and where one's Christian "maturity" could apparently be defined by a series of doctrinal statements. I have no interest in that kind of Christianity. None. That kind of Christianity is a supreme waste of time, and one would do better by staying home on Sunday mornings ...

I don’t think he’s quite arguing that things like small groups shouldn’t exist. I think he’s saying that the Christianity being viewed as self-fulfillment/self-actualization is what is being taught at those small groups.

But I’m always saddened when “Christianity = doctrinal statements” is objected to as a reason why relationship is much more important than theology. I understand that many have had bad experiences with all head, not heart churches. But this is a weak and thin view of what theology really is. Christian theology is not just abstract ideas - it is articulation of the knowledge of God and contains it’s power through community, active participation, reformation and action. Christianity theology is a bunch of ideas, yes, but they are a bunch of ideas to be lived and acted upon every single day. It is by getting these ideas right, and then by putting them into active practice, that is where, according to Christianity, true knowledge of God is to be found. But this is not the sort of teaching you get from the “Christianity as self-actualization” type of teaching that we all hear nonstop.

But, I think I'm finally turning a corner in my curmudgeonly spiritual outlook. I still think the idea of a personal relationship with a deity is mostly make-believe (and let me clarify: I mean this idea that I talk to Jesus, he talks back and tells me what to do in life, I talk back to HIm and he gives me a thumbs up, etc) but I don;t think it's necessarily unhealthy. And this goes back to a previous discussion we had about the role of the imagination and faith.People attach their own meaning to art, music, film, literature ... and relationships and religion. Most of the time the "reality" people attach is invented, hatched and given life inside the confines of their own mind... and I'm starting to think it's not such a bad thing. If it gives people hope and happiness in religion-- and apparently it does-- what's the problem with it? At this stage of my life I think the "relationship" they imagine rewires something in the brain that might just make them more balanced, compassionate human beings.

But there is something here entirely revolting to me and that is that this “personal relationship” is a fraud. It’s a lie. It’s made-up. It’s a fiction that helps people feel good, and therefore be “nice” to other people? Why would this illusion be a good thing if the real thing actually exists and can be found instead? It’s just that the real thing might be a little more objectively real than subjectively relational. It might involve “following” and “doing” more than “relating” and feeling good. I just don’t think Christianity guarantees that we always get to feel good. But it guarantees a methodology on how to know God. Do the things that He says. Love of God and love of others is a thing you can choose, no matter how you’re feeling. You show love with your actions. It’s amazing how much time can be spent talking about a personal loving relationship with Jesus without actually doing a single thing that Jesus actually says to do.

He cites disapprovingly such statements as "God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally," as if a hallmark of Christian maturity was judgmentalism and finger wagging. And he disparages the notion of "having a personal relationship with Jesus," as if that was yet another of those silly adolescent notions that one should abandon as a mature Christian.

I'll put it this way. If he's right, then I don't want to be a Christian. The world has enough boring, isolated assholes who think that Christianity is all about a mastery of a bunch of knowledge. I understand the appeal. I have been that boring, isolated, smart asshole who could expound on all manner of doctrines. But it's not about mastery, and it's not that hard, at least in theory. It's the doing of it that's hard; stuff like love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But that's what it's about. And none of that can happen without strong relationships with other Christians and an ongoing personal relationship with God. If that's the hallmark of juvenile Christianity, then I hope I remain an adolescent forever.

Andy, I love your passion about this topic. But I’ve got to insist that “Christianity as the mastery of a bunch of knowledge” and “Christianity as a personal loving relationship with Jesus” are not the only two options. You hit on another option here by insisting on “the doing” as where the rubber meets the road. The thing about theology is that it really powerfully affects “the doing.” Christians do some things in politics and the public square because they get their theology wrong and then turn others away from Christianity. Christians do other things to help people because they get their theology right and attract others to Christianity.

A legitimate concern is that all the focus on abstract theological ideas can result in a dead and actionless faith. But another concern is that the focus on using Jesus to meeting our are self-needs (meeting our needs for self-worth, self-significance, acceptance, security, etc.) also often resutls in an empty and actionless faith. The increasing theological illiteracy in the modern American church is not helping.

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Just curious: where would you draw the line on Maslow's hierarchy [link because I had to refresh my own memory]?

I think I'd draw the line philosophically at equating what the older Christian theologians and Enlightenment/Natural Law philosophers called "desires" with "needs" in the first place. The very idea of a "need" depends upon a purpose. We "need" food, clothing, shelter to physically survive. Anything beyond that used to be discussed in terms of human nature and desires. Some of our desires are good and some of them are bad. Some of our desires come from God and some of them come from our sin nature.

We may desire the love and acceptance of others, and that desire may be both good and natural - but to describe it as a need changes and refocuses the entire discussion. The idea of "needs" are very closely tied to the idea of "rights." If we have "psychological needs" instead of desires, then it logically follows that we have a right to a few things we didn't used to have a right to. It is no coincidence that natural law philosophers are very careful with their language. If what are called desires are suddenly labeled as needs, then being labeled as rights isn't far off and then further philosophical problems will ensue.

I accept it as about as helpful as anything else, but I do agree with you on this: substituting "Jesus" for "wealth" isn't a very profound existential move. For reasons too complicated to mention, I've been unwillingly reading Robert McGee's The Search for Significance and find it oppressively banal. But the problem isn't that McGee accepts Maslow's hierarchy; the problem is that he accepts the idea that there's an easy way to meet the needs outlined there. And it isn't; you don't magically stop self-destructive behaviors because you believe that Jesus loves you. You don't stop needing the approval of other people because you believe God accepts you as you are.

Put another way: to be human is to be isolated and to crave connection. Connection to God, connection to other people--heck, even connection to one's own self. At its best, a relationship with God can help us grapple with these issues, but we still have to grapple. It ain't easy. And no amount of "just accept how much Jesus loves you" can change that fact.

Then again, neither will grumping about how folks these days are just adolescents. I'm inclined to think that popular religion has always offered easy answers to existential questions. It's not a recent thing, this "juvenilization;" one could argue that the revivalism of the nineteenth century followed a similar line of thought--focus on emotional highs, etc etc etc. I would suggest that this sort of thing is a necessary correlative to any religious belief gaining a following extended beyond a half-dozen or so persons.

These are some very good points. But I guess I would question our need for approval or acceptance to begin with. I think the very idea that we need "acceptance" is fairly modern. I also don't think that Christianity teaches us that we get to necessarily feel "secure" or "accepted" here on earth. In fact, I kind have the opposite impression. There might even be some Scripture that tells us that we are not always going to be secure and accepted, and that if we are, then there may actually be something wrong with us.

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I don’t think he’s quite arguing that things like small groups shouldn’t exist. I think he’s saying that the Christianity being viewed as self-fulfillment/self-actualization is what is being taught at those small groups.

But I’m always saddened when “Christianity = doctrinal statements” is objected to as a reason why relationship is much more important than theology. I understand that many have had bad experiences with all head, not heart churches. But this is a weak and thin view of what theology really is. Christian theology is not just abstract ideas - it is articulation of the knowledge of God and contains it’s power through community, active participation, reformation and action. Christianity theology is a bunch of ideas, yes, but they are a bunch of ideas to be lived and acted upon every single day. It is by getting these ideas right, and then by putting them into active practice, that is where, according to Christianity, true knowledge of God is to be found. But this is not the sort of teaching you get from the “Christianity as self-actualization” type of teaching that we all hear nonstop.

(snip)

Andy, I love your passion about this topic. But I’ve got to insist that “Christianity as the mastery of a bunch of knowledge” and “Christianity as a personal loving relationship with Jesus” are not the only two options. You hit on another option here by insisting on “the doing” as where the rubber meets the road. The thing about theology is that it really powerfully affects “the doing.” Christians do some things in politics and the public square because they get their theology wrong and then turn others away from Christianity. Christians do other things to help people because they get their theology right and attract others to Christianity.

A legitimate concern is that all the focus on abstract theological ideas can result in a dead and actionless faith. But another concern is that the focus on using Jesus to meeting our are self-needs (meeting our needs for self-worth, self-significance, acceptance, security, etc.) also often resutls in an empty and actionless faith. The increasing theological illiteracy in the modern American church is not helping.

I'd put it another way. The theology that Christians truly need to understand is not difficult to grasp. A small child can grasp it, in fact. It is nothing more and nothing less than loving God with every fiber of your being, and loving other people as you already love yourself. But it is supremely difficult to do. The issue is not a lack of understanding, or a dearth of proper Christian doctrine. The issue is a lack of doing.

The question then becomes, I think, how to do it better. The sea change that is described above in that deceptively simple sentence -- moving from a way of life in which we seek our own needs and desires to one where we seek the desires of God and to strive to meet the needs of others -- is accomplished by love. It involves our wills, and it involves the supernatural work of God in our life. It can't and it doesn't happen naturally. It happens supernaturally. We align ourselves with God's purposes, and we commit our wills to His will, but we can't do it ourselves. And that's the dimension that seems to be sorely lacking in Bergler's article.

The measuring stick is love. That's what matters. And I'm sorely tired of a faith that looks like judgment, like finger-wagging, like disapproval, like rejection, like the gathering of little like-minded tribes, like anything but love. I certainly fail in this as well. But as far as I can tell, the chief function of doctrine is to create little like-minded tribes. And it's just not that difficult to understand. Jesus spent time in prayer (apparently there was some relational component there, even for him), he spent time gathering a community of people who seemed to come around slowly to the sea change that he was inaugurating, and he spent time, primarily with the outcasts of society, in tangibly loving other people. That seems like doctrine enough to me. It is, of course, incredibly hard to live this way, and the changes come slowly, and mostly from without. The rest of it is tribal drum thumping.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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NBooth   

These are some very good points. But I guess I would question our need for approval or acceptance to begin with. I think the very idea that we need "acceptance" is fairly modern.

The idea might be, but the basic fact surely isn't, since humans have historically sought acceptance (we can see this in several ways: the very existence of society, for one thing--that is, the need to be in communication/participation with other human beings; the fact that some ancient religious groups took as their basis acceptance by a patron god (not excluding Israel); the fact that pride is a sin at least as old as any other--and pride has the positive aspect of overwrought self-evaluation and the negative aspect of needing that evaluation to be shared by others; etc). And it's hard to argue that, for instance, a feral child has had all his needs met, however well-fed or sheltered he might be. We don't just desire to be connected to people; we need it if we're to function at all.

Of course, I would argue that the language of "need" is misleading as well, though as I say Maslow's pyramid is as good a tool as any to talk about things. As you point out, a "need" can be fulfilled (as with hunger) while a "desire" cannot be fulfilled (and perhaps the drive toward affirmation can never be fulfilled, since we all bear an excess of meaning that doesn't quite fit into whatever socio-symbolic atmosphere surrounds us). This is pretty basic stuff. But just because a "desire" is different from a "need" doesn't make it less important or less viable as a focus of religious attention. If anything, it makes it more important, since our need for food can be satisfied in an instant, but our desire for wholeness cannot be. Instead, it endures.

Now, what this means is that the either/or between relationship and theology is a problematic one, but not because "relationship" is subjective and "theology" is objective. Rather, it is because the relationship with God (however it's constructed) stands in a dialectical position w/r/t theology; our understanding of what a relationship looks like depends on our understanding of what God looks like--but in the same way, our understanding of God, our reading of Scripture, and our general philotheological suppositions depend on how we relate to God. If the theology doesn't fit the experience it has to be altered; if the experience doesn't fit the theology, it has to be questioned. Any other approach runs the risk of frustrating the movement of desire--that is, of frustrating vitality itself.

FWIW, I find Andy's discussion of love here to be very important. Any Christian belief-set worth its salt has to have at its core love--of the human for God, of God for the human, and of the human for the Other. This gets worked out differently in different traditions (which should give a pause to talk of "objective" Theology, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish) but it's absolutely central. I would submit that it has an absolute and an emotional component; absolute in the sense of being a command of kindness, and emotional/existential in being a desire for wholeness and unity. Again, these two work as a dialectic.

Again, my biggest complaint about the excerpts above, though, is the implication that easy-answers Christianity is a new thing. Theological illiteracy isn't some new thing that suddenly came with our generation; I would even suggest that it's the norm, and the idea of hyper-theologically-aware believers is the anomaly (again: revivalism, folk religion, etc). I would venture to suggest that the vast majority of believers through all of history have been somewhere on the "easy answers" end of the spectrum. Sometimes they had to be, since attention to Theological Learning is a luxury, not a necessity; sometimes they just didn't find TL helpful or interesting. Whatever the reason, today's culture isn't to blame; asking "What is the chief end of man?" and expecting the answer to fill all the existential gaps in the confessing Christian is just as surely a retreat to easy answers (however fully footnoted they might be) as "Just believe Jesus loves you." Finding your place in the Great Chain of Being is just as certainly a quest for affirmation and acceptance, even though it's couched in different terms.

That said, if we take "self-help" in a deeper sense--that is, in addressing central needs of the human creature, in providing tools to combat despair and so on--then it seems that Christianity (whether conceived relationally, theologically, or as a dialectic between the two) is essentially concerned with these issues, precisely insofar as it refuses easy answers. Getting back to Maslow--we might need acceptance, but nothing at all guarantees we'll get it. That's not the point. The point is whether Christianity addresses that need, whether it provides tools for working through the myriad anxieties that beset us. I think it does, and that's nothing to sneeze at.

Edited by NBooth

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Andy Whitma wrote:

: The theology that Christians truly need to understand is not difficult to grasp. A small child can grasp it, in fact. It is nothing more and nothing less than loving God with every fiber of your being, and loving other people as you already love yourself.

Those might be the two greatest Jewish commandments, but I'm not sure there's anything distinctly Christian (or even necessarily theological) about them.

: Jesus spent time in prayer (apparently there was some relational component there, even for him), he spent time gathering a community of people who seemed to come around slowly to the sea change that he was inaugurating, and he spent time, primarily with the outcasts of society, in tangibly loving other people. That seems like doctrine enough to me.

I certainly agree that all that stuff is necessary. But sufficient? Roughly a third of the gospels is devoted to Jesus' death and resurrection, and so is much of the epistles. Can any theology that doesn't place similar emphasis on those things really be all that Christian?

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Greg P   
But there is something here entirely revolting to me and that is that this “personal relationship” is a fraud. It’s a lie. It’s made-up. It’s a fiction that helps people feel good, and therefore be “nice” to other people? Why would this illusion be a good thing if the real thing actually exists and can be found instead? It’s just that the real thing might be a little more objectively real than subjectively relational. It might involve “following” and “doing” more than “relating” and feeling good. I just don’t think Christianity guarantees that we always get to feel good. But it guarantees a methodology on how to know God. Do the things that He says. Love of God and love of others is a thing you can choose, no matter how you’re feeling. You show love with your actions. It’s amazing how much time can be spent talking about a personal loving relationship with Jesus without actually doing a single thing that Jesus actually says to do.
No real argument with me here. Much of this is experiential religion run amok, and in that I agree with the article.

Another thing that's worth noting is that evangelicals often feel they can't simply enjoy something for its own sake. Everything has to have a tie-in to the Relationship. At some point, I guess I just believe Christ redeemed us and set us free by His grace so that we could actually LIVE without hyper-vigilance over sin and perpetual guilt for micro-infractions of the commands.

With no real outlet for pleasure, evangelicals stake everything on this Relationship with God and seek avenues for joy, intoxication (yes, i said it) sexuality (that too!), exhilaration and fun in THAT relationship alone. You can hear the guilt in an evangelicals voice if they do something outside of the tight confines of the Personal Relationship that brings them pleasure. This is bondage.

Edited by Greg P

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But there is something here entirely revolting to me and that is that this “personal relationship” is a fraud. It’s a lie. It’s made-up. It’s a fiction that helps people feel good, and therefore be “nice” to other people? Why would this illusion be a good thing if the real thing actually exists and can be found instead? It’s just that the real thing might be a little more objectively real than subjectively relational. It might involve “following” and “doing” more than “relating” and feeling good. I just don’t think Christianity guarantees that we always get to feel good. But it guarantees a methodology on how to know God. Do the things that He says. Love of God and love of others is a thing you can choose, no matter how you’re feeling. You show love with your actions. It’s amazing how much time can be spent talking about a personal loving relationship with Jesus without actually doing a single thing that Jesus actually says to do.

No real argument with me here. Much of this is experiential religion run amok, and in that I agree with the article.

There seems to be an underlying assumption here that "relationship" = "feelings." Not so. What many evangelicals are reacting against (including those whom Bergler castigates) is that Christianity is merely assenting to a set of doctrinal propositions. These folks rightly reject such a view for the simple reason that you can't have a relationship with a grocery list, even if the grocery list contains exotic items like "limited atonement" or "transsubstantiation."

Having your doctrinal positions all neatly aligned doesn't mean squat. What does love mean? Remember love? What does that look like? How is that expressed? And if you're going to tell me that it involves far more than emotions I'm going to agree wih you. Of course it does. Who is arguing for such a view? But by the same token, if you tell me that love involves nothing more than agreeing to a set of propositions about the beloved, then I'm going to suspect that you don't have a clue.

I am arguing in favor of a member of the Godhead known as the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit who enables the "relationship." In my version of this story, the Holy Spirit doesn't tell you what to eat for lunch. The Holy Spirit doesn't dispense relational advise like Dr. Phil or Oprah. But the Holy Spirit does convict of sin and righteousness, provide real comfort, and allow us to know God -- imperfectly, but nevertheless in real ways. The Holy Spirit, in other words, lets you know that God is real, that you can be changed, that the person you are is not the person you are forever destined to be, and that you have signed up for something far deeper and more mysterious and alive than assenting to a doctrinal grocery list.

If this is a "feeling," then every Christian knows that it's a fleeting and maddening one. But it's real.

Another thing that's worth noting is that evangelicals often feel they can't simply enjoy something for its own sake. Everything has to have a tie-in to the Relationship. At some point, I guess I just believe Christ redeemed us and set us free by His grace so that we could actually LIVE without hyper-vigilance over sin and perpetual guilt for micro-infractions of the commands.

With no real outlet for pleasure, evangelicals stake everything on this Relationship with God and seek avenues for joy, intoxication (yes, i said it) sexuality (that too!), exhilaration and fun in THAT relationship alone. You can hear the guilt in an evangelicals voice if they do something outside of the tight confines of the Personal Relationship that brings them pleasure. This is bondage.

I'm not sure who these people are, Greg. Your experience is apparently very different from mine. I will point out that, only in those areas where our lives actually intersect, I'm not sure that I would characterize my life as one of bondage. If you peruse the couple thousand posts I've made in the music forum, I suspect you'll see that my musical tastes are not driven by guilt or lack of pleasure.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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A God who is silent. A God who often seems very distant. A God who disappoints and doesn't come through. A God who seemingly ignores the large degree of human suffering. No one wants this God. But despite my questions and issues with His performance on planet earth, I believe He is the real God. Somehow.

But, Greg: Isn't this just YOUR experience of God? Aren't you doing what you criticize Evangelicals for, but going in the opposite direction? You don't feel God or hear God, he seems distant, so God's not available for personal interaction.

When are we going to discuss transcendence vs. immanence? God can seem distant because, in some ways, His ways are not our ways. But Jesus uses family language all the time, as do the apostles. How is that not relational? He draws near. He dwells in you. That's immanence.

It's not either/or. It's both/and. That's part of the tension of the Christian life. But you have to hold these things in balance, as frustrating as that might be at times.

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Greg P   
I'm not sure who these people are, Greg. Your experience is apparently very different from mine. I will point out that, only in those areas where our lives actually intersect, I'm not sure that I would characterize my life as one of bondage. If you peruse the couple thousand posts I've made in the music forum, I suspect you'll see that my musical tastes are not driven by guilt or lack of pleasure.

Well, you're super cool Andy. And I mean that sincerely. FWIW, your musical and artistic sensibilities are far more erudite than mine and I always fancied myself a bit of a snob. When I talked about bondage, I absolutely was NOT referring to you.

I think we've discussed this before, but you and some others here (particularly those on the west coast) happen to belong to some very hip, forward-thinking churches. I'm jealous. But I don't think what you experience on Sunday morning is normative in the american evangelical universe. I could be very wrong about that. It certainly isn't normative in my universe, but I live in a unique, largely non-anglo part of America where some odd cultural phenomena is at play.

A God who is silent. A God who often seems very distant. A God who disappoints and doesn't come through. A God who seemingly ignores the large degree of human suffering. No one wants this God. But despite my questions and issues with His performance on planet earth, I believe He is the real God. Somehow.

But, Greg: Isn't this just YOUR experience of God? Aren't you doing what you criticize Evangelicals for, but going in the opposite direction? You don't feel God or hear God, he seems distant, so God's not available for personal interaction.

Well, I would cite the Biblical model which shows God speaking audibly in history to a select few. Would you not admit that the notion of God communicating directly to everyone, every day, in minute matters of their life , is a fairly recent phenomena? Proponents of the Personal Relationship take verses like "He (the Holy Spirit) will guide you into all truth" and make a giant leap by interpreting that as "God will show you who to marry, where to go to school, which job to take, house to buy, etc..." I see no precedent for this thinking in scripture. And historically, those that have followed this reasoning have ended up in serious error-- if not theologically, then intellectually, socially, etc... Being conformed into the image of Christ by God's Spirit, or being comforted by God's Spirit in the midst of suffering, is far different from what is generally propagated in the evangelical church today, under the guise of the "Intimate Relationship with God".

My own experience with God is that I have experienced comfort, i have been faced with moral decisions that have changed my personality, I have experienced joy the most unlikely places and times-- a joy that often defies logic. I used to be a charismatic, and I still believe in God's ability and willingness to occasionally demonstrate Himself in the miraculous. But I believe for most Christians, as we get older, there are more questions, fewer answers and more silence. I know I'm not alone in this.

Banner of Truth has an excellent biography of Edward Irving and the charismatic gifts in the 19th century... It's been years since I've read it, and despite BoT being very conservative and neo-puritanical, the book is quite balanced in its observations of the movement under Irving's leadership. He was unquestionably bright, and sincere and there were some genuinely unexplainable phenomena surrounding his minsirty, but the errors the movement birthed are still with us today. Evan Roberts and the 1902 Welsh revival continued Irving's model of the Holy Spirit speaking in a detailed way to people (prophetically) and of course the Welsh Revival begat modern Pentecostalism, Latter Rain, Charismatic and Third Wave movements.

Edited by Greg P

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Andy Whitma wrote:

: The theology that Christians truly need to understand is not difficult to grasp. A small child can grasp it, in fact. It is nothing more and nothing less than loving God with every fiber of your being, and loving other people as you already love yourself.

Those might be the two greatest Jewish commandments, but I'm not sure there's anything distinctly Christian (or even necessarily theological) about them.

Since Jesus quoted them, and referred to one as "the greatest commandment" and the other as "like it," that would seem to give it a particular New Testament twist. At any rate, we might want to try it.

: Jesus spent time in prayer (apparently there was some relational component there, even for him), he spent time gathering a community of people who seemed to come around slowly to the sea change that he was inaugurating, and he spent time, primarily with the outcasts of society, in tangibly loving other people. That seems like doctrine enough to me.

I certainly agree that all that stuff is necessary. But sufficient? Roughly a third of the gospels is devoted to Jesus' death and resurrection, and so is much of the epistles. Can any theology that doesn't place similar emphasis on those things really be all that Christian?

It's obviously critical. But I'm thinking particularly about how non-Christians perceive Christianity. My neighbors are unchurched. If they've ever been a part of a church, it's been decades ago. And, since we're relatively recent residents of their neighborhood, and known Christians, they fairly regularly check in with my wife and me on the latest atrocity from across the theological spectrum: the YouTube video of the North Carolina pastor who advocates imprisoning homosexuals, the little kid who sings "God hates homos" in front of his congregation, another sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, the brawling monks who accost one another with broomsticks in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

This is what they see. This is almost their entire perception of Christianity. Now, it's possible to blame the media for much of this, and I fully understand and agree with the notion that this is a skewed perspective of Christianity. But I see it in my neighbors' unasked questions: these people are assholes, and you don't appear to be assholes. How do you explain that? Look, we're pretty open about our faith. We don't necessarily hold evangelical rallies in the back yard, but neither do we attempt to hide who we are. And frankly, I just want to be kind to these people and care about them as individuals. That's the best witness I can imagine, and it's precisely what they don't see in their other encounters with Christianity.

And that's all I'm really advocating here. Let's lead with love. Let's start with that. I don't always do it, and I know it. But let's set aside the doctrinal dissension and the god-forsaken assholishness that sometimes passes for standing for truth and attempt to care for and about other people.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Greg: I'm pretty much on board with what you wrote in response to my previous post, but not necessarily with some of what you've expressed in earlier posts, which go too far. Again, though, I didn't say either/or, I said both/and in terms of transcendence/immanence. Maybe I'm not making my point clearly. Your second paragraph is interesting. I think your suggestion that we might not "hear" God the same way we once did, and might (appropriately) question earlier experiences, is a byproduct of spiritual maturity. But don't you worry about spiritual deadness? NOT that you have to experience God the same way you did as a Charismatic, but that He knows you and can be known by you. Maybe there's a spectrum of how we "know" God -- J.I. Packer has a classic book on the subject, right? Not everyone will have the same experience, and some (like me) would argue that some experience might not hold up to scrutiny. But then, what's the basis for the scrutiny? The end results in a person's life? The brokenness we see in the lives of Christians who are disappointed by God? I'd say that the Bible is the basis for our evaluation of our experience. That's not as rigid a dogma as it might seem. There's a lot of flexibility in it. My own fear is that I go too far, put God in a box, but I like to think that as "conservative" as my theology is, I'm rather flexible on certain matters of how God might or might not "speak" to us. The way you've characterized it in earlier posts, the way you've seen it and heard it expressed in the lives of other Christians, is mostly wrongheaded in my book. But if pressed, I go to the Bible and start laying out a framework of how I understand Scripture -- and then we're into doctrine, and Andy has checked out.

Last, thanks for the Banner of Truth biography recommendation. Nothing has been more salutary to my spiritual health than reading books published by Banner -- including those that, as you mentioned, push against the Reformed's (that's me!) tendency to dismiss spiritual manifestations in history, or to try to at least explain them away to some degree. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is my favorite preacher, because he refuses to walk away from spiritual phenomena that might not fit neatly into my beliefs. He might be wrong. But as you noted, there are other "neo-Puritans" out there that push those boundaries, and I think it's healthy to have the boudaries pushed.

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Andy Whitman wrote:

: Since Jesus quoted them, and referred to one as "the greatest commandment" and the other as "like it," that would seem to give it a particular New Testament twist.

The "greatest commandment" that Jesus quotes there is the Shema, which is still regarded today as the most important part of the Jewish prayer service and is typically prayed a couple times every day by observant Jews (or so says Wikipedia).

So if there is anything distinctively Christian here, it would have to be in Jesus' singling out that bit about loving our neighbours (a passage from Leviticus that could easily be missed, given how it's surrounded by all the Levitical laws) as being on an almost equal footing with the Shema. But I don't know enough about the rabbinical debates of those days to say how unique Jesus was in this regard.

But even if Jesus *was* unique in saying that these are the two greatest commandments, I'd still hesitate to say that the theology Christians need is "nothing more" than these two commandments.

(Side note: I just double-checked the second commandment in its original Levitical context, and there, the full command is: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself." That's interesting, in light of Jesus' commands elsewhere to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, etc., etc.)

: But I'm thinking particularly about how non-Christians perceive Christianity.

I honestly don't know how relevant a concern that is, really. I mean, I think most of us here who have written for the religious media have spent a fair chunk of our time correcting misperceptions in *both* directions, so obviously we do care about how people perceive one another. But how are non-Christian ideas about Christianity (especially those formed by prejudice and sensationalism with no input at all from actual encounters with actual Christians) relevant to a discussion *within* the Church about what the Church is all about?

: And that's all I'm really advocating here. Let's lead with love. Let's start with that.

For what it's worth, I'm beginning to flashback to an old issue of The Door -- from the early '90s, I think -- in which someone said there was just enough truth to the liberal emphasis on love to make it "float", but without theology of *some* sort, we don't necessarily even know what love *is*. (This was in "The Liberal Issue", I think. Don't know the exact month or issue number.)

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These are some very good points. But I guess I would question our need for approval or acceptance to begin with. I think the very idea that we need "acceptance" is fairly modern.

The idea might be, but the basic fact surely isn't, since humans have historically sought acceptance (we can see this in several ways: the very existence of society, for one thing--that is, the need to be in communication/participation with other human beings; the fact that some ancient religious groups took as their basis acceptance by a patron god (not excluding Israel); the fact that pride is a sin at least as old as any other--and pride has the positive aspect of overwrought self-evaluation and the negative aspect of needing that evaluation to be shared by others; etc). And it's hard to argue that, for instance, a feral child has had all his needs met, however well-fed or sheltered he might be. We don't just desire to be connected to people; we need it if we're to function at all.

Isn't Paul's recommendation for those who refuse to acknowledge their sin even after being confronted about it be sent out from the church? Doesn't he say it is for their own good? Sounds an awful lot like suggesting people need a connection with other people...and sometimes severing said connection can result in repentance.

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Andy Whitman wrote:

: And that's all I'm really advocating here. Let's lead with love. Let's start with that.

For what it's worth, I'm beginning to flashback to an old issue of The Door -- from the early '90s, I think -- in which someone said there was just enough truth to the liberal emphasis on love to make it "float", but without theology of *some* sort, we don't necessarily even know what love *is*. (This was in "The Liberal Issue", I think. Don't know the exact month or issue number.)

Okay, let's not lead with love. I guess. What was I thinking?

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Greg P   
I think your suggestion that we might not "hear" God the same way we once did, and might (appropriately) question earlier experiences, is a byproduct of spiritual maturity. But don't you worry about spiritual deadness? NOT that you have to experience God the same way you did as a Charismatic, but that He knows you and can be known by you. Maybe there's a spectrum of how we "know" God -- J.I. Packer has a classic book on the subject, right?

Yeah. In another thread I brought up M. Scott Peck's Four Phases of Spiritual Growth, which outlines some things for me that I find very much mirror my own life. I had many dramatic "spiritual experiences" (at least I think they were) in my teens and early 20's, working on the streets with drug addicts and homeless in the inner city. I needed that kind of interaction with God at that age-- frankly I was very socially retarded and it was all I had going for me. I was also incredibly legalistic and dogmatic.I honestly think I needed God to reveal Himself to me in demonstrative fashion, at that point in my life, because i was a babe. This phase gave way in my late 20's to a decade long period of questioning, agnosticism and very liberal thinking. I've mellowed considerably over the past few years. I'm slightly more middle of the road. And while I will always be distinctly "christian" in my spirituality, I am definitely much more open these days to different ideas and constructs about God. I see Beauty and Meaning in things I long ago mocked or ignored.

Back to the relationship thing:

I called a coworker an asshole last week to his face in a private, candid moment. I did this because he was actually being an anus. I don't question whether Jesus would've said that because clearly he would not-- just like he wouldn't have had sex last week... and I had that too -- but I also don't question whether venting at my associate for his taunting passive-aggressive behavior in any way shape or form blocked my "relationship" with God. God is with me. I am His child. His Grace is sufficient.

I later went and talked to the individual and joked with him so that he knew I held absolutely no grudge against him and acknowledged the need to work amicably (to some degree) with him on a daily basis. He got it. I also reminded him to cut the shit. Situation done. No baggage. I don't believe or feel compelled to have a talk with God about this. He knows my heart-- I was being honest and human. And I don't for a minute believe I am on spiritual probation. It is still well with my soul. This may seem callous to people or "hardened", but I can no longer live my life in a constant state of introspection and self-analysis about my "standing" with God in some relational sense. My impression of the New Testament was that our union with Christ was not so fragile. And isn't that-- at least partly-- one of the great joys of the Gospel?

Edited by Greg P

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NBooth   

Scott McKnight has mixed feelings about this book:

In particular, Bergler makes the interesting proposal that the 1960s was an apocalypse, the revelation of trends that preceded and came to light in the 1960s. And yet the evangelicals have been most successful of the church branches he studies.

Which leads me to this oddity: “juvenilization,” as I read this book, is the result of a form of communication. It the adaptation of the Christian message — and he could have examined the history of how “gospel” changed over this time and seen much of what he was saying — to be attractive (think music, think fun, think games, think entertaining) to the next generation. Part of this is evangelistic — reaching the unreached — and part of it is catechism — reaching the church kids. Adaptation to the audience is part of good Christian communication, so elements of the whole juvenilization theory are not only unavoidable but desirable. Read the New Testament in roughly chronological (not canonical order) sometime — and the take the Synoptics first and then read Paul and Peter and John etc. Notice what happens: the gospel substance shifts in its orientation and linguistic games (kingdom, soteriology, ecclesiology, eternal life, temple priesthood, etc). Audiences led to adaptation. Judaism notoriously was an accommodating faith.

He concludes:

For all of Bergler’s fine history and analysis and critique there’s not much proposal for solution: he suggests intergenerational ministry and emphasizing the necessity of maturity in the Christian faith. Many conservative Christians, I suspect, will like this book; it strikes me as a book that wants to get back to basics, which I applaud, but it may be read as a plea to go back to the way things were at the turn of the 20th Century. The book is short on solutions and proposals. It is, however, a fascinating study of how teenage culture has influenced American Christianity, and I see Bergler’s major thesis being the accommodation of evangelical church and its methods to youth culture.

(For obvious reasons, I really dig this part: "the juvenilization of the church is about immaturity, which is the same problem the writer of Hebrews faced, Martin Luther faced, Jonathan Edwards faced, and … well … almost all have faced this. Bonhoeffer complained about this as well." Exactly.)

Edited by NBooth

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Pierrot   

As bad as it is, we have to count that this type of narcissist thinking is normal at that age (mid twenties), its a developmentally appropriate trait. What we should be asking is how the 40 year olds got this way, and why it's happening to the society as a whole, not just Christianity.

It is completely useless to talk about the narcissism of kids without first yelling about why they have whatever level of narcissism they do have: adults. You made them this way. Honestly, I doubt if you (an individual parent) could have done anything differently, the entire structure was built for that purpose-- kids have disposable income so let's build a giant marketing network around that, along with TV and movies and people you want to be like, and probably adults will want to be part of the youth crowd because being an adult blows so you know what to do for them: create a show called Friends, then replace with Sex and The City, then Cashmere Mafia, which are all the same show but less funny but either way they will buy shoes.

[...]

But here's an alternative response: really? do they have to grow up? Haven't you constructed a society where you can credit your way to a simulacra of branded prosperity for the next few decades? Healthcare, social security, unemployment and extremely cheap food? I know, I heard it to, the Dutch have it better in Sweden.

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As bad as it is, we have to count that this type of narcissist thinking is normal at that age (mid twenties), its a developmentally appropriate trait.

I'd have to disagree there. Historically, 20-somethings have exhibited far more maturity, education and leadership ability than they do today. Sociology professor, Robert A. Nisbett discussed this as a historical problem in light of a modern day youth dominated pop culture. For one example, he wrote: "The age of some of the most distinguished members in the long history of Parliament in England is a case in point, and we may suppose that the brilliant young Pitt would find it far more difficult today to lead the House of Representatives in supposedly youth-dominated America than he did Parliament in eighteenth-century England." We may have a youth dominated culture now, but the end result is a degradation of the abilities and maturity of young men and women - a maturity that used to exist but is now being put off until later and later. This isn't to say that there aren't exceptions, but I don't see how anyone could deny that it's a problem.

What we should be asking is how the 40 year olds got this way, and why it's happening to the society as a whole, not just Christianity.

Both are important questions that are, for the most part, simply ignored. The Christianity question is still important, however. The church is supposed to be an example that contrasts with the problems of any society. That the church has not resisted this, but instead catered and even appealed to it, is a profound theological problem of it's own that is going to have to be addressed within the church.

Scott McKnight has mixed feelings about this book ... For obvious reasons, I really dig this part: "the juvenilization of the church is about immaturity, which is the same problem the writer of Hebrews faced, Martin Luther faced, Jonathan Edwards faced, and … well … almost all have faced this. Bonhoeffer complained about this as well." Exactly.)

Well, no, it's not "exactly the same problem." Luther faced a society where education, including obviously theological education, was denied to the majority of people. The educated classes in Luther's day knew exactly what they were doing when they were exploiting the superstitions and weaknesses of everyone else. Edwards faced the first mounting secularism in the colonies and Bonhoeffer faced a broken society of people who were bitter and dissatisfied with their mistreatment after the Great War. All of them faced the problem of sin, but every age has it's unique problems.

Our age has a powerful pop culture that dominates the time and activity of people to an extent that is historically unheard of. 20-somethings of our time have a whole wealth of educational riches at their digital fingertips (that is also unheard of in any other period of history) and ... most of them simply refuse to avail themselves of it.

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Kinch   

(WARNING: I touch on what may be sensitive to some from the perspective of a agnostic (which I'm just labeling myself as for the sake of simplicity), with no intention to 'flame', 'troll', or commit any other act of malicious provocation. I just hope that my words warrant discussion, and apologize if they don't. (There's a reason I call myself the Accidental Threadkiller.)

 

In my experience, what's happening is more than just juvenilization.

This topic has a special relevancy to me, attending a high school with a large Young Life presence. (DISCLAIMER: My criticisms aren't nearly as extensive as those great articles linked here) Pretty much all of the student body's Übermenschen (personal shorthand for 'elite', student council, varsity athlete, everything I am not, etc.) are involved in this organization that love-bombs them enough for them to overlook its non-negotiables (if I read out the Statement of Faith to them and made the unfair but effective 'Gandhi's in hell" one-liner, they'd be appalled - if they listened at all to me or YL lessons) and to make the whole ministry resemble an advertising firm to yours truly. It may just be me, but there seems to be a wince-worthy irony to seeing these peers of mine buy into the 'hip' hashtag campaigning of a para-church ministry who aren't even theologically caught up with Barth. (Not saying he's right, but still, Young Life may be backtracking, but not in an even remotely hip fashion.)

 

And then the Young Life frequenters are busted at a popular senior's alcohol-and-as-I've-been-informed-worse-toting 18th. There's juvenilization, and then there's just selective hearing. Or it's a response to the 'total depravity' bit, but that's getting too psychoanalytic for my tastes.

 

My stock one-liner for whenever I'm invited: "Why don't I change my name to Locutus while I'm at it?"

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mrmando   

One needn't be an agnostic to observe that Young Life has shallow theology. 

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Kinch   

^ I'm sorry if that's how it came across. I flirt with no notions of enlightenment. I'm just jittery (and depressed) from being around people who sing YL's praises.

Edited by Kinch

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mrmando   

My impression of the YL meetings I attended is that they target unchurched youth. If you know who Barth is, you are probably not the sort of person YL is trying to engage. 

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