Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Cultural Sniper

Few films have stormed the box office – and surprised the pundits in the process of doing so – more than Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” The movie is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal who did four tours in Iraq. He is credited for being the most lethal sniper in American history with 255 kills, of which 160 were documented (witnessed).

At the time of this writing, it has topped the box office for two straight weekends, bringing in $247 million worldwide. This is the largest opening for any movie in January on record, with the largest second-weekend take that wasn’t a comic book or sequel in movie history. It is already the second-highest grossing war film in North American history.

If you’ve seen it, you know it’s not an easy movie to watch. The violence is, well, war-like. Veterans of Iraq say it’s the most realistic they’ve seen. It deserves it’s “R” rating for violence.

Perhaps that’s what has us talking. And in case you haven’t picked up on it, we are talking about this movie.

Some say it glorifies war. 

Others say it simply reveals the disconnect between military and civilians. 

Some say the main character is disturbed as evidenced by both his methodical killing of “savages” (his words). 

Others say he was trained for just that type of mentality, and his post-traumatic stress syndrome is a reality for many who have been through war.

And yes, the divide seems to be a bit between liberals and conservatives, if not Democrats and Republicans. (Eastwood was supposedly snubbed for a directorial Oscar nomination, despite the film being nominated for best picture, due to his speech at the last Republican convention).

But why this movie, instead of earlier entries into modern war, such as “The Hurt Locker” or “Lone Survivor?”  Why has this “American” sniper become such a “cultural” one?

Personally, I think the reason we’re talking about it so much is because it’s tapped into something that conflicts us culturally. It has become fashionable of late, to celebrate the men and women of our armed forces. The terrible treatment of veterans from Vietnam left behind national guilt, and we seem intent on not repeating that mistake. 

Yet many remain firmly against war of almost any kind, and certainly the more recent ones flowing from 9/11. We support men and women in our military, yet deplore virtually every act of violence associated with war itself. This is the tension “American Sniper” has brought to the surface: the men and women in military we are unified in supporting are precisely the ones executing the brutality of war so many wish to repudiate. 

So what kind of constructive cultural conversation might we be served by having?

First, let’s make sure we do not misunderstand war and violence. Namely, that they are one and the same. It is nonsensical to separate the two. War is brutal, violent, bloody, messy…there is collateral damage, death to civilians, and yes, snipers. This is nothing new in the history of warfare. 

War is…war.

But that brings up a second conversation point: can it ever be just? Can we actually support the military beyond standing ovations stateside to the point of supporting them on a roof taking aim at an adversary?

It depends on whether a war can ever be “just.”

In essence, the idea of a “just” war takes the great commandment of Jesus in relation to peace, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, and applies it to the responsibilities of government. While owning the fact that Jesus taught that it would be wrong for an individual Christian to defend himself or herself against attack, based on such passages as Matthew 5 (in other words, there is no private right to kill), it is the duty – and responsibility – of Christians who have public responsibility (a magistrate, a soldier, a police officer, a king or president) to use discriminate and proportionate force to defend and protect their fellow human beings.

In other words, we are not to take the law into our own hands, but that does not mean that the law cannot be taken up. Indeed, law must be established. To love our neighbor personally, and to love our neighbor corporately, sometimes can involve the use of force, police action, courts, punishments, prisons, and even war.

There are great heroes of the Bible who were warriors, who had been commanded to go to war, by God; people such as Joshua, David, Samson, Deborah and Gideon. Going further, when you study the life of Jesus, you notice that he never called a soldier who came to him in faith out of his military duties. Never once did Jesus say to a Roman Centurion, “Leave the Army!” And in His own life, He was known to use force, such as when clearing the temple.

As a result, the idea of a just war has been with Christian thinking from the beginning, but with very specific conditions:

*There must be an urgent and imminent threat;

*It must be an act of defense against aggression – never simply for conquest or as an act of aggression – only a defensive war is defensible;

*It must be ordered by one who is in authority to do so;

*It must be for a just cause;

*It must have the right intention – it should not be based on revenge, but as an act of neighbor love and protection, with peace as its goal;

*It should be the last resort – peace and resolution should have been attempted;

*The force used must be proportionate to the desired ends – meaning that the evils caused by the war are less than the evils to be righted;

*It must seek to minimize non-combatant (civilian) casualties;

*It must have a reasonable chance of success.

When this is carried out by those in civic authority, it can be considered just and should be supported. Even if preemptive – meaning striking first. If the threat is urgent and imminent, then striking first to prevent that threat is considered an act of neighborly love. To fail to engage in a just war, to fail to use force to aid our neighbor when force is the best way to render that aid, is to refuse the love of God to another person and thus a failure to love your neighbor as yourself.

For example, in the Old Testament, God told Joshua to go to war against the Midianites because they were being oppressive, and committing all kinds of atrocities, including throwing young children into huge, burning fires. In Numbers 32, God reveals His anger, and not just at the Midianites. He is also angry that two of the tribes of Israel wouldn’t go to war against them to prevent such atrocities.

So the question is not whether war can ever be justified – it can; or whether war can ever be just – it can. At least that is where Christians have landed for 2,000 years, with very few exceptions. The real question is whether you think a particular act meets the threshold of a just war. For example, the attacks on September 11th and preventing future attacks of that kind.

While the death of any human being is not to be celebrated in and of itself, we can celebrate the end of evil. And we can credit “American Sniper” for getting us to think about such things. You can take the life of Chris Kyle and find much to critique, but in terms of his role as a soldier, fellow soldiers would say he simply did his job. If you condemn him for that, you condemn all soldiers for doing their jobs. And if you do that, you condemn all aspects of just war.

But before you do, tell it to the survivors who remember a moment in history universally celebrated this week – the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Before Allied troops fighting their way through Hitler’s army liberated the largest mass murder site in human history, 1.1 million had been killed.

But it was war that kept that number from climbing even higher.

Tragic, sad, and sobering…but yes, it can be said: 

…just.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Elizabeth Blair, “'American Sniper' Exposes Unresolved Issues About The Iraq War,” National Public Radio, January 23, 2015, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Principles vs. Practices

One of the most glaring divides in the life of many churches is the divide between principles and practices.

A principle is an understanding about how to do things; a fundamental truth about the way things ought to be. A practice, of course, is what you actually do – and ideally, as a result of a guiding principle.

Here’s the breakdown: a leader will know a principle, espouse a principle, even believe they are following a principle, but in reality (practice) they are not.

For example, I’ll talk to a church leader who will say something like, “Our services are designed for people to invite their unchurched friends to attend.” That is a principle: weekend services should be designed to be a front-door to those who are relationally far from God. 

But that has teeth. It means opening the front door to someone who is spiritually illiterate, pluralistic and self-absorbed. They are simultaneously confused and dogmatic, open and closed, seeking and complacent. They have little if any background in worship (much less liturgy), religious buzz-words, theology or the Bible.

They are lost.

So when it comes to the “practice,” you would think the service they are forming around that principle would reflect who they are trying to reach. But too often it doesn’t. There may be a few cosmetic changes, but nothing substantive. There is no real sensitivity being shown toward, or cultural bridge being built to, the unchurched.

This is just one example of a breakdown.

A church might say, “We are all about children. We want to turn kids on to church, not turn them off. We want to make church and the Bible come alive and be fun!”

But five minutes into their children’s ministry, the kid wants to go home. It wasn’t kid-friendly, or particularly kid-informed, at all.

A church might say, “We are a friendly church. We are warm and welcoming.” 

But five minutes through the doors and it’s clear that they are friendly to people they know, friendly to people they like, or simply friendly to people like them. They are not friendly; they are a clique.

We throw around words like contemporary, relevant and practical but seem divorced from what that really means to the person needing it to be contemporary, relevant and practical. 

We talk of reaching a post-Christian culture, but seem only aware of the Christian sub-culture in which we inhabit.

We speak of mission and vision, strategy and DNA, but seem unaware of what ours actually embodies.

We talk of conversion growth when we functionally are focused on transfer growth; being contemporary when we are models of throwback Thursday; reaching the next generation when we are slowly aging out as a body.   

So why the seemingly clueless gap between principle and practice? I think there are at least four reasons:

1.        We have a natural default mode that we fall into. For example, when it comes to outreach, the default for most is to speak to the already convinced. The power of a principle is that it leads us away from how we might normally act. But if we are not intentional about the principle, we’ll go with our natural flow. And our natural flow is not to those outside of our doors, but those who are already inside.

2.        We’re not serious about the principle. We give lip service to principles because they sound good, make us look good, make us seem on a cutting edge, but it never translates into action (read, “change”). As a result, we are like a resounding gong or clanging cymbal (I Corinthians 13), or maybe more to the point, hearers of the word only (James 1).

3.        We have a terrible blind spot fed by pride. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard a leader say, “I don’t need to spend time on children’s ministry. We’ve got that one down. What I need to know is, ….” But (as mentioned above) five minutes exposure to their children’s ministry, and it’s clear they desperately need to spend time on it. Everyone has blind spots but if they are based on pride, they will stay blind spots for a very long time.

4.        We’ve been schooled on various principles, but not on the practices that should follow. This is key. Conferences and books are filled with principles, but you need to see working models, hear actual messages, to really “get” the practice side of things. You can talk about messages, music and atmospheres being oriented toward the “nones” all day long, but it takes seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it actually happen for a clear picture to form in your mind.

Shameless plug time: this last reason is perhaps the most easily “fixed,” and is one of the reasons for the upcoming Church and Culture Conference. But that’s not the point of the blog – the real point is more foundational.

Espousing a principle without fleshing it out in practice is no different than having no principles at all.

James Emery White

 

Sources

For information on the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference, go to churchandculture.org.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Does God Look Good On You?

I recently read a line that caught my attention. One person said of another, “God looks good on you.”

The context made it clear that it wasn’t meant to say that God looked on them in a favorable way, as in God’s attitude or spirit toward them, but that when people looked on their life, it made God look good.

I’m not sure I’ve heard it put quite that way.

But I like it.

God should look good on us to others. God looked good on Jesus. I’ve always marveled at how Jesus could proclaim absolute truth without compromise to those far from God, and then have those very people invite him to their parties.

But as I wrote in my latest book, The Rise of the Nones, we’re not quite pulling off the Jesus thing.

Many of those outside of the Christian faith think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind – that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be. We’re seen as hyper-political, out of touch, pushy in our beliefs, and arrogant. And the biggest perceptions of all are that we are homophobic, hypocritical and judgmental. Simply put, in the minds of many, modern-day Christianity no longer seems Christian.

In a video that’s been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube, songwriter and comedian Tim Minchin asks a Sydney, Australia audience, “Are you up for a...sing?”

Minchin begins to sing, “I love Jesus, I love Jesus.” Prompting the audience to join him, “Who do you love? Sing it!” Soon the whole crowd is involved, singing “I love Jesus, I love Jesus.” Then Minchin changes the lyrics: “I love Jesus, I hate faggots, I love Jesus, I hate faggots.”

The crowd stops singing along.

Minchin looks up from his guitar as if he doesn’t understand the nature of the problem. “What happened? I just lost you there,” he says. After a halfhearted attempt to get the group singing again, he gives up. “Ah, well,” he shrugs.  “Maybe these are ideas best shared in churches.”  

Much of that image has been earned. We’ve acted in ways, talked in ways, lived in ways, that have stolen from God’s reputation. All this, and more, has flowed from the research of Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman on how people view the Church and people in it. 

Here’s the heart of what they’ve found; among young American “outsiders,” the following words or phrases were offered as possible descriptors of Christianity, and the number who affirmed their accuracy:

  • Antihomosexual (91%)
  • Judgmental (87%)
  • Hypocritical (85%)
  • Old-fashioned (78%)
  • Too involved in politics (75%)
  • Out of touch with reality (72%)
  • Insensitive to others (70%)
  • Boring (68%)
  • Not accepting of other faiths (64%)
  • Confusing (61%)

I commissioned a similar study that went to those who were unchurched and asked them a simple question: How did the church and those inside it lose you? I first published the research, done in coordination with the Barna Research Group (which also conducted the research for UnChristian) in my book Rethinking the Church. Comparing the two studies is interesting. 

In my own earlier research, the unchurched gave the following reasons for abandoning the church:

  • There is no value in attending (74%)
  • Churches have too many problems (61%)
  • I do not have the time (48%)
  • I am simply not interested (42%)
  • Churches ask for money too frequently (40%)
  • Church services are usually boring (36%)
  • Christian churches hold no relevance for the way I live (34%)
  • I do not believe in God, or I am unsure that God exists (12%)

Such findings pointed to a culture that was saying, “God, yes; Church, no.” Now, research shows the deepening crisis, for it points to a culture that says “God, perhaps; Christianity and Christians, no.” The idea of even considering church is seemingly off the table.

It’s easy to get discouraged by such results. But perhaps the answer is simpler than we imagine. Maybe all it takes,

…is having God start to look good on us again.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker).

James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Revised and Expanded Edition (Baker).

Click here to watch the Minchin video. See also Dan Savage, “What God Wants,” The New York Times Book Review, April 14, 2013. 

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). See also, “Christianity’s Image Problem” by David Van Biema, Time, Tuesday, October 2, 2007, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

As the nation celebrates what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 86th birthday Sharon Shahid wonders whether his famed essay, Letter from Birmingham Jail, “would have made such a lasting impression or had as powerful an impact if today’s instant communication devices existed, and if someone smuggled a BlackBerry or a mobile phone into his cell. What would have happened if he texted the famous letter or used Twitter – in 140 characters or fewer?”

“Instead of a legacy,” she suggests, “he most likely would have started a conversation.”

And that’s all. 

“King’s voice – so poignant and crystal-clear in print – simply would lose its resonance in cyber ink…A tweet would have faded into ether minutes after it was released, drowned out by a thousand other disparate musings.”

But that is the least of the challenges our current context would bring to King’s words making an impact in our day. Why? It was based on a thoroughgoing Christian worldview.

The term itself, from the German Weltanschauung (literally “world perception”), suggests more than a set of ideas by which you judge other ideas. It is, as Gene Edward Veith has written, “a way to engage constructively the whole range of human expression from a Christian perspective.” Or as Jonathan Edwards once contended, arguably the greatest intellect America has ever produced, the basic goal of any intellect is to work toward “the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.” 

Consider the worldview questions posed by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, based on creation, the fall, and redemption: Where did we come from and who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? What can we do to fix it? How now shall we live?

Reflect on the response to the first and most foundational of these questions – where did we come from? There are a limited number of answers at our disposal: We came about by chance (the naturalist contention), we don’t really exist (the Hindu response), or we were spoken into existence by God. 

Even if one makes more obscure suggestions, such as Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking (that we were seeded here by another race of beings from another planet), one would then have to account for their existence. 

So for the Christian, the answer to “Where did we come from and who are we?” gives a foundation for thinking that no other answer gives. Because we were created, there is value in each person. There is meaning and purpose to every life. There is Someone above and outside of our existence who stands over it as authority.

Because of this answer, Martin Luther King, Jr., could write the immortal words found in his jailhouse correspondence:

“...there are two types of law: just and unjust...A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out harmony with the moral law...Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.”

King’s argument was based on the worth of a human being bestowed by God regardless of what other humans might have to say; King laid claim to a law above man’s law. No other worldview would have given King the basis for such a claim.

And from such a worldview, the world was changed.

But would such a worldview get a hearing today?

Hardly.

And there lies the irony; as a culture, we celebrate a man’s Christian convictions that were used to change our culture in the past, while simultaneously rejecting those values as a part of shaping our culture for the future.

Which means the next young leader with passion and conviction may have a dream, but if it’s based on King’s worldview, it will never be heard. Or if heard, would never spark the cultural revolution it did before.

Not because it was tweeted instead of written.

But because it was based on something not of this world that the world no longer recognizes.
 

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

 

Sources     

Sharon Shahid, “If MLK had tweeted from jail,” USA Today, Wednesday, January 12, 2011, p. 11a., read online.

Gene Edward Veith, “Reading and Writing Worldviews,” in The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, ed. by Leland Ryken, Revised and Expanded edition (Colorado Springs: Shaw, 2002).

Jonathan Edwards, “Notes on the Mind,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings, edited by Wallace E. Anderson (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).

Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1999).

Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (Letter from a Birmingham Jail) (New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1963, 1964).

*Editorial Note: This blog was originally published in 2011. We wanted to share it with you again as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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