Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Becoming a Player

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Many years ago, when my oldest daughter Rebecca was only four, she informed my wife that when she grew up, she was going to be a farmer.

My wife replied, “That’s nice, dear.”

“Yep,” Rebecca continued, “when I grow up, I’m gonna be a farmer, and I’m gonna marry Daddy!”

Then Susan asked, “But if you grow up and become a farmer and marry Daddy, what will Mommy do?”

Rebecca pondered that seriously for a moment or two, then she brightened up and said, “You can be our cow!”

All of us have different dreams, different ideas of what we want our lives to be like. And for most of us, there is a common denominator:

We want to make a difference.

We want our lives to stand out and to count for something. We know we are players in a game, and we don’t want to be sitting on the bench.

Making a difference matters – not just in terms of personal fulfillment, but also with regard to spiritual development. And the heart of difference-making is the giving away of yourself, the investing of yourself. According to the math of spirituality, the more you give, the more you receive.

This is why Jesus was simultaneously the most influential figure in all of human history and the ultimate model of spiritual living. For He “did not come to be served, but to serve,” and to give His life away (Mark 10:45).

So how does this actually work? In four ways:

1. Serving Others Gets You into Spiritual Shape

It’s how you get a spiritual workout. When you serve, you build up your faith. Think about how it works with your body: when you lift weights, you increase the levels of contractile proteins and connective tissue in the muscles you exercise, making those muscles bigger than they were before.

Your spiritual life works that way when it comes to serving, because it is through serving that you give your faith the necessary workout it needs to grow strong. If you’re not serving, your spiritual life will be weak, flabby and undeveloped.

2. Serving Others Gets You into the Game

It’s the way you become a player and get involved in what God is doing in the world. This is one of our chief purposes in life, for the Bible says: “God made us what we are. He has created us in Christ Jesus to live lives filled with good works that He has prepared for us to do” (Eph. 2:10 GW).

You were created to take who God made you to be and put yourself into play. And following that purpose will put more gas into your spiritual tank than you could possibly imagine. Think about it:

Are you more passionate about something you’re involved in or something you just watch from a distance? When you get off the sidelines and become a player for God, what God is doing becomes a lot more important to you.

3. Serving Others Lets You Make a Difference

Serving others enables you to make a difference in this world: to do something more than just making money, or putting together a business deal, or buying a dream home, or taking a vacation.

We want our lives to count. We want to do something with our lives that will matter. And there’s only one way for that to happen:

To make the investment of service.

And once you do, make no mistake, you will taste what making a difference is all about. All you have to do is see one changed life, hear one “thank you”, see one brief glimpse of impact from some act of service that you’ve done, and your life will never be the same.

Then you’ll see things from a different vantage point – a little higher, a little more eternal. And you’ll say, “Most of the stuff I’ve done with my life won’t add up to much, but this, this will live on. This mattered. This made a difference.” And it doesn’t get much better than that.

4. Serving Others Amplifies Your Impact

Throughout his presidency of the United States, Ronald Reagan kept a sign on his desk that said, “It’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Making a difference does not always mean taking center stage. Serving enables something to take place because you supported it and helped make it happen.

During one of his television performances, the famous orchestra conductor Leonard Bernstein was asked by an admirer, “Mr. Bernstein, what is the most difficult instrument to play?”

He responded quickly: “Second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.”

True servanthood is what allows you to make a strategic difference.

And this life of service to others is a high calling.

James Emery White


Sources

Story about Leonard Bernstein was adapted from Charles Swindoll, Improving Your Serve.

Adapted from James Emery White, You Can Experience a Spiritual Life (Word Publishing). Available on Amazon.

About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Take the Test

Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department of Boston University, wrote a book titled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. Prothero has often administered a fifteen-question quiz to his undergraduate students - one which they consistently fail.

Game to give it a try?

Here’s the test (answers below):

Directions: Tally your points and multiply by two to get your score out of 100.

1 point each:
Name the Four Gospels.

1 point:
Name a sacred text of Hinduism.

1 point:
What is the name of the holy book of Islam?

1 point:
Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

1 point:
President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?

1 point each:
What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?

1 point:
What is the Golden Rule?

2 points:
“God helps those who help themselves.” Is this in the Bible? If so, where?

2 points:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” Does this appear in the Bible?

10 points:
Name the Ten Commandments.

4 points:
Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

7 points:
What are the Seven Sacraments of Catholicism?

1 point each:
The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own “clause.” What are its two religion clauses?

2 points:
What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?

7 points:
Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa.
CharactersAdam and Eve, Noah, Paul, Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Serpent.
Stories: Exodus, Binding of Isaac, Olive Branch, Garden of Eden, Parting of the Red Sea, Road to Damascus, Garden of Gethsemane.

Prothero argues, and rightly so, that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths. In a commentary for the Los Angeles Times, titled “We live in the land of biblical idiots,” Prothero (who grew up Episcopalian and now calls himself a spiritually “confused Christian”) maintains that biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. “How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible?… An entire generation of Americans is growing up almost entirely ignorant of the most influential book in world history, unable to understand the 1,300 biblical allusions in Shakespeare, [or] the scriptural oratory of President Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Such admonishments are hardly new. In the late 1980s, E.D. Hirsch burst onto the scene with his idea of “cultural literacy,” which detailed the importance of having a core of background knowledge for functional literacy and effective national communication, much of it including religion. In my own A Mind for God, I argue for the importance of foundational biblical, historical, and theological literacy, and the importance of churches serving the pursuit of such literacy.

As Winston Churchill presciently stated in his address to Harvard University in 1943, “The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.” Alister McGrath, reflecting on Churchill’s address, notes that Churchill’s point was that a great transition was taking place in Western culture with immense implications for all who live in it. The powers of the new world would not be nation-states, as with empires past, but ideologies. It would now be ideas, not nations, which would captivate and conquer in the future. The starting point for the conquest of the world would now be the human mind. Adds John Stott, “We may talk of ‘conquering’ the world for Christ. But what sort of ‘conquest’ do we mean? Not a victory by force of arms...This is a battle of ideas.” 

Prothero’s challenge is a call to learn about those ideas.

So how did you score?

James Emery White


Sources

Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

Stephen Prothero, “Reading, writing and Revelation,” Stephen Prothero, March 14, 2007, Los Angeles Times, read online.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion,” March 7, 2007, USA Today, read online.

E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know.

Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. xi.

John R.W. Stott, Your Mind Matters (IVP).

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2007.

Answers to the Test:

*Matthew, Mark, Luke, John

*Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, or Kama Sutra

*Quran

*Bethlehem

*Good Samaritan

*Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

*”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mt. 7:12) Or a similar statement from Rabbi Hillel or Confucius. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not the Golden Rule.

*No, this is not in the Bible. In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs 28:26. “He who trusts in himself is a fool.” The words are Ben Franklin’s.

*Yes, in the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:3).

*No other gods before me; you shall not make yourself a graven image; you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain; remember the Sabbath and keep it holy; honor your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor; you shall not covet.

*Life is suffering; suffering has an origin; suffering can be overcome (nirvana); the path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

*Baptism, Eucharist/mass, reconciliation/confession/penance, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick/last rites.

*“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; the words before the comma are the Establishment Clause, the words that follow are the Free Exercise Clause.

*Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting.

*Adam and Eve + Garden of Eden; Serpent + Garden of Eden; Abraham + Binding of Isaac; Moses + Exodus/Parting of the Red Sea; Noah + Olive Branch; Jesus + Garden of Gethsemane; Paul + Road to Damascus.

About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Second-Degree Murder

There are two principle categories of sin – those of the flesh and those of the spirit.

We have tended to pinpoint the glutton, drunkard, and adulterer far more quickly than we have the prideful, arrogant, divisive, slanderous, and mean-spirited.

Even more, we have turned a blind eye to – if not celebrated – caustic, mean-spirited words, actions and attitudes as if they are not reprehensive.

In truth, they are second-degree murder.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

You’re familiar with the command… “Do not murder.” I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother “idiot!” and you might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell “stupid!” at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill. (Matthew 5:21-22 The Message)

I find Jesus’ words very uncomfortable.

I am more at ease with the musing of the Louisiana minister: “I don’t hate anybody. ’Cause the Bible says it’s a sin to hate.  But there are some folks I hope die of cancer of the tonsils.”

Yet Jesus reminds me that my biting words, my character assassinations, my slander, innuendo, gossip and snide remarks are every bit as hateful to the heart of God as the knife dripping with blood or a smoking gun.

When we go on the warpath against others, becoming active in ruining their reputations, spreading accusations, uncharitably criticizing their behavior or taking verbal shots, we are emptying the contents of a gun in their direction.

It’s an assault with the intent to kill.

The Bible is very clear on this:

A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything – or destroy it!... By our speech we can… throw mud on a reputation… This is scary… The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer… With our tongues we...curse the very men and women [God] made in His image… My friends, this can’t go on. (James 3:5-10 The Message)

The villagers of the Solomon Islands practice a unique form of logging. If a tree is too large to be felled with an ax, the natives cut it down by yelling at it.

Woodsmen credited with special powers creep up on a tree at dawn and then scream at the tree at the top of their lungs.

They continue this for thirty days.

The tree, it is told, then dies and falls over.

The villagers base their practice on the belief that hollering kills the spirit of the tree. According to the villagers, it always works.

I don’t know if their practice works on trees.

I do know that it works on people.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Excerpt from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges (InterVarsity Press). Available on Amazon

About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

A Fractured Shibboleth

It stretched 548 feet across the vast, open space of Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, the national gallery of international modern and contemporary art. Titled “Shibboleth,” the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo had created a jagged, open crack down the length of the museum’s massive concrete floor. It began small at the top of the slope as a hairline crack, and then widened as it progressed, gaining depth and creating additional, smaller fissures.

The meaning? 

From the museum: “A ‘Shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.” Or from the Oxford English Dictionary, shibboleth is “a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or a sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.”

Delving further into the title’s origins, the museum explained the biblical incident recorded in the book of Judges, “which describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the river Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. As their dialect did not include a ‘sh’ sound, those who could not say the word ‘shibboleth’ were captured and executed. A shibboleth is therefore a token of power: the power to judge, reject and kill… [Salcedo] invites us to look down into it and confront discomforting truths about our world.”

Museum placards proclaimed the “‘Shibboleth’ asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built… In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world.”

The idea is that such fractures will, in the end, undermine everything which may attempt to rest upon it.

Upon seeing it myself, I resonated with the reviewer in the London Telegraph who wrote, “After I left the hall, ‘Shibboleth’ rattled around in my head all day, and it haunts me still. When I ask myself why, I realize it is because it looks like a wound, a gash that can’t heal. It offers no hope, leaving you feeling as empty as the abyss it opens up beneath your feet.”

As I stood over the gaping split, I realized this was not simply a testament to a colonial past, but was reflective of our present world which is increasingly divided by all kinds of shibboleths – words that only those of a particular tribe can pronounce, and those who would be included must

This is particularly striking when it occurs within the Christian faith through those who seem intent on setting up ever-increasing proofs of who truly belongs, who is authentic, who is friend and who is foe. Rather than C.S. Lewis’ “mere” Christianity, we are growing increasingly fragmented and divided by an ever-narrowing explosion of sub-orthodoxies built on divides such as traditional vs. contemporary, Calvin vs. Arminius, emergent vs. seeker-targeted – and then elevating such conversations to the level of the Nicene Creed. We can, and should, have robust conversations about such matters, but with a sense of humility that within orthodox Christianity there can be authentic disagreements of opinion. As Augustine notes, in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity. And much more falls into the “non-essential” camp than many would seem willing to attest.

There are some shibboleths that must be erected. This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching of the narrow road and the narrow gate (Matthew 7). But we should be reminded to stand against a pharisaical circle of “new” orthodoxy being erected around the historic creeds, often built in the name of personal taste or opinion. 

Salcedo offers a difficult reminder. We are marked by divides between North and South, rich and poor, black and white. There is hope, of course, in Christ – the one who can bridge divides, heal all wounds, and fill the deepest emptiness. But when His people are the ones erecting such shibboleths, one wonders how deep and wide the fracture may grow before we can bring the unifying news of Christ to bear on a deeply fractured world.

James Emery White


Sources

For the Tate Modern exhibit, including visual pictures and a video interview with the artist, click here.

Adapted from James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges (InterVarsity Press). Available on Amazon.

About the Author

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, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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