In a smoky pool hall in an undisclosed urban ghetto, Tom Cruise, playing a young billiards protégé in director Martin Scorsese’s 1986 film “The Color of Money,” bends over his cue and shoots impeccably, not only winning the admiration of his challengers but provoking their jealousy. Almost 20 years later, a young pastor takes a hammer to the walls of that same pool hall; blood, sweat, and prayers now at work transforming the once notorious pool hall at the corner of 64th and Cottage streets into a common ground — a haven for the downtrodden, the once-forgotten street kid, and the weary intellectual.
When Brad Beier Came to Town
On Sunday morning, July 15, 2012, the windows are flung open to let some breeze into a muggy library room at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall. Ivy creeps along the building’s exterior and sneaks through the windows, as a roomful of congregants cluster for prayer during a church meeting. A group of young people — two African-American men, an African-American woman, and a Caucasian man — share prayer requests. One, an incoming chemistry graduate student, asks for prayer for her studies. Twenty-year-old Pierre Carr, wearing braids down his neck, tells the others he is going to school in the fall to become a chef, a future he couldn’t have imagined five years prior.
Growing up without a father in Woodlawn, one of South Side Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods, Carr didn’t have a lot of direction. His mother feared that her adolescent son was destined for a life of gang activity, jail, even premature death — paths that many of his friends would take in years to come.
Beginning in the 1950s, Woodlawn — like many urban American neighborhoods at the time — began to decline economically as the white middle class fled to the suburbs. With them went many businesses, although through the 1960s, Woodlawn’s 63rd Street was known for its jazz clubs, many just down the road from a certain well-frequented pool establishment. The deterioration continued through the ’70s,’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, with the average household income hovering at just over $23,000.
In 2003 Brad Beier, a skinny, young, white pastor from Louisiana, showed up in Woodlawn with a basketball and words that offered hope to a few floundering teenage boys.
“At first, I thought he was a cop,” admits Tee Nimely, one of Carr’s close friends. But something about Beier eventually secured the boys’ trust. Maybe it was because he called them throughout the week to see how they were doing. Or because he didn’t give up on them. Or because he was the father figure they didn’t know they needed.
Louisiana-born Beier attended Louisiana Tech with the intention of becoming a doctor. But early in his college experience, he began serving as a youth minister at his college church, and by the time he graduated he was headed to Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Miss.) to prepare to go abroad as a missionary. His wife, Shannon, on the other hand, had a passion for working with the poor a bit closer to home.
“We put our heads together,” Brad recalled, “and eventually God gave us this unified desire to stay in a city in America and [to] make sure we were in a very big city where there was lots of diversity and lots of opportunities to reach unreached people.”
After an apprenticeship with an urban church in Baltimore, the Beiers moved to Bethel Christian Church (PCA), a multiethnic church in Chicago, with the mandate to plant a church among students at nearby University of Chicago. Not the type to plant a church by the book, Beier also began working part time as the chaplain at a county jail and facilitating an aftercare ministry to men being released from prison. While developing relationships with undergraduate and Ph.D. students in Hyde Park, Brad was also getting to know the families of the men he had met in county jail; many lived in Woodlawn, just five blocks south of the university.
In the world of academia, he found skeptics, atheists, and some genuine believers. Some of each began trickling into the Sunday morning worship at the new church — dubbed Living Hope Church — that met in a university library room. In the culture of gangs and poverty, he met fatherless children, confused young men, and single moms just trying to make it. Some of them came, too.
Crossing 61st Street
It took Carr and Nimely a year or two before they came to church, but in the meantime they were hearing the gospel as part of a basketball ministry — a team that Beier had put together as a way to meet youth in the neighborhood. Here was a white guy from a privileged background who willingly moved his wife and four young daughters to a majority African-American area that most middle-class folks had fled long ago.
“In my life, he’s an example of what a man looks like — not just a man, a godly man who knows how to take care of his family,” says Nimely.
As the young men went through high school, some of their friends from the basketball team started falling off, joining gangs, using guns. One ended up in jail. Another ended up dead.
“When I lost one of my friends, that’s when my whole view changed,” Nimely reveals. “Everybody’s thinking that when you die you just go to heaven and everything’s OK.”
But Nimely wasn’t so sure. This uncertainty led him to accept Christ and to start hanging around the Living Hope community more often. At first, he was skeptical that he would have anything in common with Ph.D. students, but he soon got over that.
“You come to church with people who have degrees and resources. … [And you think] ‘OK, I don’t got that stuff; I don’t got that background. Will they think of me as just some street kid?’ But at Living Hope it don’t seem like that. You see people trying to build their relationship with Christ. You see their love for other people.”
Ph.D. biochemistry student Kathryn Scherpelz likes Nimely. She likes the hard questions he asks about faith. Before coming to Living Hope, the only place Scherpelz could have imagined meeting someone like him would have been at the hospital where she worked during medical school.
“In medical school, you come to regard Woodlawn as patients, like they’re an ‘other,’ and you treat them, and they get sick and get in gun fights,” she explains. Now they’ve become people and not just patients.
Both Kathryn and her husband, Peter, a graduate student in physics, have felt challenged and changed by the perspective they’ve discovered at Living Hope. Peter recently overheard someone at the university tell a newcomer never to go south of 61st Street — the line that separates Hyde Park from Woodlawn. He felt compelled to intervene. “I told [the man] it wasn’t that dangerous,” Scherpelz said. “There are a lot of worthwhile things and worthwhile people to get to know.”
And for that matter, the Scherpelzes have discovered there are just as many needs — albeit of a different sort — in the university culture. Spiritual apathy is primary among them. With dozens of traditional church buildings scattered across the historic campus, faith would appear to be booming. But, as Kathryn explains, many of these buildings house a smorgasbord of spiritual offerings — New Age religion and Christianity sprinkled together. “At its best [the university] is very open [to all spiritual things]. At its worst, it considers traditional Christianity as passé,” says Kathryn.
But every year a few atheists and agnostics join the Living Hope community, soon finding life truth and new life.
The Future of an Old Pool Hall
Several years ago, Beier began to feel the drain of not having a permanent building for the growing church. A tutoring and discipleship program Living Hope had built for children in Woodlawn was at the mercy of whatever local church would rent it space. A few times, they even got locked out of the library before church on Sunday mornings.
So Beier began poking around, looking for a place that Living Hope could call its own. He first noticed the empty storefront at 64th and Cottage in 2010. A big “Cash Loans” sign was painted along the side of the building, which had stood empty for several years. Beier didn’t know why the property was selling for $570,000. It seemed steep for a place that had once been “Chicago’s Finest Billiards,” a notorious local hangout that offered gambling on the first floor and prostitutes on the second. Maybe it was because “The Color of Money” had given it a reputation. Beier didn’t know. He just knew that it was the spot he wanted.
Through a providential turn of real estate fortune, the price plummeted, and in February 2011, Living Hope was able to purchase the property for just under $100,000.
During the past year, volunteers from churches and RUF campus ministries have poured in from across the country, donating time and effort to transform the pool hall into a church with a sanctuary, office space, plenty of room to run the children’s ministry, and four second-floor apartments that Living Hope plans to rent out for additional income.
Just nine years into Living Hope’s story, Beier is hopeful. He likes that when he looks out at his small congregation every Sunday, he sees black and white, young and old, seekers and growers. He sometimes grows weary of the transience that comes with college-student and low-income populations, but he’s seen a few folks stick around for the long haul and hopes more will follow suit.
Sometimes people advise him to find an easier calling in a safer neighborhood with a less transitory group. But for Beier, you don’t argue with a calling.
“We don’t disparage anybody who says they’d rather be a part of a more homogenous group, ’cause that’s fine. We do try to challenge people and say this is really the vision of God’s kingdom. … We’re all gonna be one family in heaven, so let’s get a taste of it!”
Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the controversial Supreme Court ruling that progressives want to enshrine and conservatives want to overturn. Few rulings have been more consequential. According to Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute, 22% of all pregnancies now end in abortion, with 3 in 10 women terminating their pregnancy by the age of 45. There have been approximately 57 million legally induced abortions in the U.S. since 1973—nearly the current population of California and Texas combined.
Yet a recent Pew study found that 4 in 10 “Millennials” don’t even know that Roe v. Wade has to do with abortion. And even fewer today know the true story of the woman who started it all, the pseudonymous plaintiff “Jane Roe.” Here are five things you may not know about her, culled from interviews and profiles along with her sworn congressional testimony and memoirs.
(1) The name “Jane Roe” was created over beer and pizza.
In 1969 Norma was 21 years old, divorced, and pregnant for the third time. (The first two children were placed for adoption.) After seeking an abortion but finding out it was illegal, and then driving to an illegal clinic only to find it closed, adoption attorney Henry McCluskey referred her to two young lawyers in Dallas, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. Weddington (who had traveled to Mexico a couple of years earlier to have an abortion) was seeking a class-action lawsuit against the state of Texas in order to legalize abortion. It was an unlikely party at the corner booth of Columbo’s pizza parlor in Dallas: two recent law-school grads in business suits sitting across the table from a rough and uneducated homeless woman. The lawyers needed a representative for all women seeking abortions—one who was young, poor, and white. They just didn’t want her to cross state lines to get a legal abortion, or the case would be considered moot and dismissed. Without money and five months pregnant, Norma was the ideal candidate. After downing several pitchers of beer, they agreed on using the pseudonym “Jane Roe.” (“Wade” referred to Henry B. Wade, the attorney general of Dallas.)
(2) Jane Roe didn’t know the meaning of “abortion.”
Weddington and Coffee told Norma that abortion just dealt with a piece of tissue, and that it was like passing a period rather than the termination of a distinct,living, and whole humanorganism. Abortion was a taboo topic in 1970, and Norma had dropped out of school at the age of 14. She knew that John Wayne movies talked about “aborting the mission,” so she thought it meant to “go back”—as in, going back to not being pregnant. She honestly believed “abortion” meant a child was prevented from coming into existence.
(3) Jane Roe never appeared in court.
Her lawyers drafted a one-page legal affidavit, which she signed but did not read. (Even today, she has not read it.) This was only the second time she would meet with her lawyers—and it turned out to be the last. She would not be called to testify and attended none of the trial. She found out about the Supreme Court ruling from the newspaper on January 23, 1973, just like the rest of the nation. Few on that day understood the implications of Justice Blackmun’s instruction that Roev. Wade was to be read in conjunction with its companion case Doe v. Bolton, which effectively made abortion legal at any stage of pregnancy for any reason. As a result, the United States (with Canada) became the only Western country offering no legal protection for the unborn at any stage of the pregnancy.
(4) Jane Roe never had an abortion.
Norma had already given birth and placed the baby for adoption before the three-judge Texas panel ruled against her in May of 1970, long before the Supreme Court decision in January of 1973. She was in a committed lesbian relationship and would not become pregnant again. Abortion continued to be a part of her life, however. She went on to work in abortion clinics, holding the hands of women and offering reassurance as they terminated their pregnancies, and making appearances on the Roe anniversaries.
(5) Jane Roe became pro-life.
In 1995, while working at the clinic, Norma became haunted by the sight and sound of empty playgrounds in her neighborhood. Once teeming with kids, they now seemed deserted. And she began to see it was the result of what she once called “my law.” But the decisive change happened when she met Emily Mackey, a seven-year-old girl whose parents were protesting at the clinic where “Miss Norma” worked. Emily, who had almost been aborted herself, befriended Norma, showing genuine interest and love, giving her hugs and inviting her to church. Through the influence this young girl’s combination of truth and grace, along with those who shared the gospel of Jesus with her, Norma not only became convinced of the pro-life position but also converted to Christianity.
Norma McCorvey now says that “Jane Roe has been laid to rest.” Both sides in America’s most contentious debate have claimed her at one point, and both have had reason to be disappointed. But for evangelicals—the demographic most committed to overturningRoe—the case for protecting the smallest and most defenseless members of the human race does not rest with the testimony of a single individual. It does not even rest on biblical revelation; moral philosophers have pointed out that the differences between a fetus in utero and an infant outside the womb—size, location, degree of dependency, and level of development—are morally irrelevant when determining a person’s right to life.
On this fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, evangelicals would do well to remember that we must not only labor to protect the unborn, but to continue reaching out with assistance and love and the good news of grace to the Norma McCorveys of the world—broken women who feel they have no other place to turn.
A great song from Matt Redman that came out last year. I love the verses to this song:
The sun comes up, it's a new day dawning It's time to sing Your song again Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me Let me be singing when the evening comes
You're rich in love, and You're slow to anger Your name is great, and Your heart is kind For all Your goodness I will keep on singing Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find
And on that day when my strength is failing The end draws near and my time has come Still my soul will sing Your praise unending Ten thousand years and then forevermore
Some powerful lines:
"Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me, Let me be singing when the evening comes"
"And on that day, when my strength is failing, The end draws near and my time has come, Still my soul will sing Your praise unending"
That's the prayer of my heart. That each day, whatever comes to pass, whether suffering, trials, loss, hardships, joy, lonliness, that my heart would still rejoice in God's goodness. And that on my last day, my legacy would be one of faith in God's promises that result in praise.
Here is a recent article from NPR about the increasing number of people who no longer affiliate themselves with any religion. There have been several articles written about this Pew Research study regarding the increasing 'none' population, and thought I would finally post one here.
I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts regarding the article and this steady trend in America.
Personally, I do not think this is a bad thing. For one, I think this trend allows for a deeper distinction between mere 'religion' and authentic Christianity. As the article points out, I believe one of the main reasons for this trend away from religion is that people (especially younger) are tired of the cold, irrelevant 'religion' pushed by older generations. It is a rebellion of sorts. For many, it is a rebellion against a religion that stifles humans by imposing moral agendas and political platforms. In this sense, those rebelling often see organized religion as nothing more than a man-made obstacle to progress. I would agree with some aspects of this rebellion, specifically, that it is not a good thing when Christianity primarily becomes a moral movement or a political platform. Sadly, many people see Christianity as nothing more than moral conservatives, and for that reason, many people do not want to associate with Christianity.
The problem here is that what most people think Christianity is (mostly through the media), is not authentic Christianity. I don't think this rebellion is that bad because it really does open up a door to show people, in word and deed, what the Gospel actually is. It is so much more than a moral system. It is so much more than organized religion. Rather, it is the story of all humanity that addresses our deepest problem; namely our human condition. It takes the reality of our brokenness, pain, insatiable lives, and it puts it into the only context of life that makes sense. It confronts the fact that life is not what it is supposed to be. It confronts this fact, not with a political agenda, or a technique for improving our behavior. No. God confronts this fact by getting to the heart of the problem. He sent his Son to give us completely new life. He came to give us life as it was originally intended. He came that we could fulfill our innate human purpose; to know Him and be known by Him for eternity.
All I have for now are those random thoughts, but I'd love to hear what other people think about the article, or other ones like it.
"What act could be more one-sidedly free and non-negotiated than one person raising another from the dead! This is the meaning of grace." -John Piper
"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the bodyand the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved and raised up with him..."
What is the purpose of suffering? If God is a good God, why do bad things happen to good people? For an honest man, these are fair and common questions. I've been reading through the book of Job recently (part of a chronological Bible reading plan for the new year), and was struck by Elihu's (one of Job's friends) response to Job's suffering and subsequent questioning of God's justice in it all. Elihu is realistic about the pain, brokenness and suffering that is present in all of our lives. Yet, he offers us a hopeful response as to why a sovereign God allows such brokenness and pain. Please read:
"Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones,
so that his life loathes bread, and his appetite the choicest food.
His flesh is so wasted away that is cannot be seen, and his bones that were not seen stick out.
His soul draws near the pit, and his life to those who bring death.
If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him,
and he is merciful to him, and says,
'Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom;
let his flesh become flesh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor'
then man prays to God, and he accepts him; he sees his face with a shout of joy,
and he restores to man his righteousness.
He sings before men and says:
'I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me.
He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit,
and my life shall look upon light.'"
A couple things stick out to me as I read this.
First, God allows brokenness, pain, and suffering to happen, even to those pursuing Him, because it allows us to experience his salvation. As this passage points out, we can't experience redemption from the pit, unless we ourselves are in the pit. We can't experience the joy of a ransom, unless we are first held captive. In other words, we can not rightly taste and experience the salvation of the Lord, unless we first know, understand, and experience the plight of sin in the world. Healing is sweet when we know we are broken.
Second, God allows brokenness, pain, and suffering to happen because it serves as a testimony to the Lord. Notice in this passage, the man who is restored and ransomed from the pit "sings before men and says.....He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit."God's redemptive grace amidst our brokenness and pain serves to glorify God and point to his Sovereign goodness.
Lastly, reading this passage, it is clear that all of these things are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the one who redeemed our lives when we were in the pit. He is our ransom. He is the merciful one. Let us turn to, and accept this God.
If you can't tell by the amount of quotes I'm posting from Zack Eswine's, Sensing Jesus, I love this book and recommend it to everyone. The last couple posts have been about the cycles of everyday life; the seasons of a day, including the morning, noon day, evening, and the night watch. Zack does an amazing job at describing the mundane ways in which these daily cycles are really ways in which we, as finite human beings, are to relate and experience God. Regarding the evening, Zack writes:
"'The day is over now.' The teacher and teaching come to a close. It is time for good and a bit of rest in the company of others who are also at rest and could likewise use a bite to eat. The limits of our food do not prevent but only remind us that our true portion is Jesus and that he will prove sufficient to rest us and nourish us amid the company of the evening. We needn't take our work with us. Workless in the evening matters. In order to learn how to rest in life, we need the spiritual grace to set down our work and to rest when an ordinary evening arrives. An inability to do this where we are in our ordinary place on a given and routine evening will render it nearly impossible to cultivate a life of stability 'out there' amid the chatter and frenzy. By 'hospitality,' I have in mind extending the kindness and protection of a peaceable presence to our neighbors. It is kind because it takes our neighbors bodily and soul needs into account and provides them a room-giving acceptance and practical sustenance. Hospitality is also protective because remaining hospitable toward another means that we do not transgress, misuse, or consume them. We allow them to take up company in our presence in such a way that they know that we will not use them to satisfy our lust, mandate that they act as if they are not tired or in need of nourishment, or require them to take the heat for the afternoon moods that we are carrying with us and misplacing on them. Grace and wisdom, are of course, necessary evening friends. But hospitality seems to take a front seat in the evening. Blessing, rest, good food, friendship, acceptance, honesty, freedom from misuse, reclining at rest at the table prepared for us-the welcomed reward from a long day of solid work. The prayers of thanksgiving rise from our lips, and we raise our hands in gratitude to God for his faithfulness through the day. The morning teaches us to sing. The afternoon teaches us to preserve. The evening teaches us to enjoy the blessing of ordinary goodnesses and to give thanks to God for the sacred boredom of mundane blessings that we can count."
Something to consider this evening.
Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013), 78-79.
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning."
"In the morning, songs of praise and thanksgiving can rise because God's strength has gotten us through the night. The night didn't win. We awake and see once again that God's love hasn't quit on us, and we ask that he will go with us and guide us into what awaits us. The morning stirs us to pray, therefore, and to watch how God will answer these prayers through the day.
The new dawn also calls out to us that the help of God has come. Morning is meant as a poem or sermon to console the downcast. Their soul cry is given new invitation to ask again to have hope that the dawn of God will soon come to answer. The morning enables us to think again of God's goodness and to ask him why he waits to reveal that goodness to us (Psalm 88:13-14). The ending of night also rouses us to a renewed conviction to use the day as a means of opposing what is wretched in the world and protecting what is good and beautiful and right.
Because God gives this meaning to the morning, he poetically pictures the sun as a bridegroom love-struck and happily longing to see his bride. The sun is no melancholy like me, tired of shining again unnoticed, traveling the same old path everyday and bored with it all. No! The sun is like that running in the story 'Chariots of Fire', who, when he ran, lifted his head as one who joyfully feels the pleasure of God (Psalm 19:5)....
One of mistaken uses of the morning, therefore, is to look at the circumstances and appointments awaiting us on our calendar without attending them with an awareness of their service or surrender to God and what God may wish to reveal to us with them or in spite of them." Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013), 74.
"Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent." (Psalm 4:4) "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety." (Psalm 4:8) From Zack Eswine's 'Sensing Jesus': "One purpose for our bed in the night is to ponder in our hearts what troubles us and to speak such things to God. We entrust to him now what we pray the morning will relieve with fresh hope. Sleep results. Sleep is a Sabbath-like act. We rest from it all and leave it all for God's keeping while we lie motionless in the world for a while. If we hope to enact such trust out there on the horizon of another place, the practice this very night affords to us is our best hope." Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013), 80.
"But I commend to you that God has been about nothing but seeking to restore and recover what was lost in Eden."
In other words, grace restores nature. What was corrupt and lost in the fall, is now being regained in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.'"
John the Baptist
Zack Eswine commenting on these verses in his book, Sensing Jesus:
"It seems to me that while it is true that we can dangerously make too little of God by drawing improper attention to ourselves, it is equally true that we cannot fully magnify God without confessing that we are not him...Each of us is not God and is only human (I am not the Christ). The absence of such a confession is making us a ragged bunch."
Zack Eswine, Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry As a Human Being (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013), 20.
On December 30, 2012 at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Dr. Jono Linebaugh, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Knox Theological Seminary and Director of Content at LIBERATE, offered a sermon on Matthew 1: 18-25. Entitled “What’s in a Name?” Dr. Linebaugh asks, What does the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1 have to say to the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem under Herod in Matthew 2? Linebaugh opens up space through Hugo’s Les Misérables andDostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov in order to speak one name to the world’s suffering and pain.
Check out this interview with Zach Eswine, author of Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being. A few months back, I had the privilege to hear Zach speak at Covenant Theological Seminary. Zach is one of those rare people who you hear or meet, and they just ooze with gospel grace.
"A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God."
Commenting on these verses, Tyler Wigg Stevenson, author of Brand Jesus, asks, "...why are so many self-proclaimed Christians buying into the religious lifestyle, image, and identity, but not making the radical spiritual-ethical commitment to discipleship? How is it that there is so much Christian hypocrisy?"
The heart of these verses is that being part of God's family (Jew in the Old Testament, Christian in the New Testament) is not primarily an external matter, but is rather an internal matter with external fruit. In these verses, the Apostle Paul is critiquing the Jews of his day who claimed God, but did so only externally. They were good Jews because they were circumcised. Paul counters by saying that the external act of circumcision is ultimately meant to be an external mark of an inward reality, namely a life that has been transformed by the Spirit of God.
Stevenson applies these verses to the contemporary Church by pointing out our tendency, much like the Jews in Paul's day, to rely on external marks as the evidence of our faith. For example, we might believe ourselves to be Christians merely because we belong to a church, or were baptized, or align with the religious right politically. We have external badges of honor, but our hearts are far from God.
The problem, according to Stevenson, is that the Jesus we claim to believe in, is in fact, not Jesus as all:
"The startling question is, then, is Jesus Christ actually the one whom many self-proclaimed Christians have accepted? Or, as seems to be the case, have consumer-minded Christians been led from the narrow road, drawn by the promises of an impotent spiritual commodity masquerading as the power of God? Welcome to the church of Brand Jesus." pg. 101
Stevenson's point: External badges of religion are insufficient. As Paul stated in Romans 2, the mark of a true believer is a circumcision of the heart, or, a transformed life. External badges (church membership, political affiliation, occasional acts of charity) are insufficient because they don't have any power. They give the mere appearance of Godliness, but are just as Stevenson describes 'impotent spiritual commodity masquerading as the power of God." These badges are not the result of a radical internal transformation. They are not the result of totally new, born again life in Christ. No, they are the rather feeble attempts to construct our self-justification.
The only solution to this problem is the true gospel of Jesus Christ; namely, that our attempts to build our own kingdom, wherein we attempt to build our own identity, our justification, and our very sense of life before God is completely insufficient. But, in his great mercy and love, Christ came to give us life. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has come to free us from this death sentence of self-sufficiency.
But herein lies the problem. Stevenson's point is that if you look at the life of the American Christianity, it is clear that we are not living or preaching this true gospel, wherein lives are truly transformed. Rather, we are preaching and living a different faith; the faith of Brand Jesus.
And this Brand Jesus fits in perfectly with our consumer mindsets in that it gives us exactly what our sinful selves want, all the while wearing a mask of true spirituality:
"Brand Jesus takes the promise of the Kingdom of God and offers another pseudo-Christian vision instead...Brand Jesus takes the tragedy of sinful life and without asking us to change our behavior in the plot, promises a happy ending. Brand Jesus takes everything our species' depraved imagination wants to believe is true about the world and feeds it back to us." pg. 104
"We are in fact, wholly conformed to the pattern of this world. So, while Christians should be radically different from everybody else, we find that Christians are no more different from practitioners of other lifestyles than those folk are from each other. We've made discipleship into one option among many, when it ought to stand separate, as different from other ways of living as Christ was from the world." pg. 103
In short, the American Church has submitted to a form of Christianity (Brand Jesus), wherein they are allowed to continue in their current desired lifestyle without any real transformation. Although they may have external badges, there is no power behind it. There is no real knowledge of the God. There is no real experience of God's grace. It is a pseudo-Christianity, giving the people enough religion to soothe their spiritual conscious, but denying the very nature of Jesus Christ.
The only answer is to run to the gospel of God's grace.
Tyler Wigg Stevenson, Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (Seabury Books, New York, 2007).
With many people having new year resolutions to read more Scripture, here is some great wisdom from N.T. Wright. In it, he gives wonderful perspective on what the Bible is all about, and how we are to go about reading it.