Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

True North and a New Map

In Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges, I proposed some introductory ways for those within the church to regain our sense of true north in the four arenas that once brought us together, but now threaten to drive us apart and leave us bereft of a sense of direction: 

  1. The nature of truth and orthodoxy
  2. Cultural engagement and evangelistic enterprise
  3. Christian community civility
  4. The identity and character of the church

Because it is precisely in these four arenas that the contest will be won or lost in regard to not simply having an evangelical presence in our world, but a unified Christian witness.

Together, they will determine whether we are renewing ourselves for a new generation or falling from great to good, or even worse.

Why these four?

Consider truth: Since Pilate’s retort to Jesus’ claim, the question of truth has been central to the Christian faith. Not simply in terms of whether Christianity itself is true, but in what sense is it true.

And the church: Jesus said that He came to establish His church, and that it would constitute and reflect His ongoing presence – His very body – on earth.

And culture? The Great Commission and the cultural commission inherent within it form our principle marching orders.

And of course the great high priestly prayer of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John made it clear that the truth - which has been revealed, embodied by the church and carried to the world - would be received only if there were an observable love between those who bear Christ’s name.

So pinpointing the nature of truth and orthodoxy, grasping the nature of the church, developing the deepest and most biblical sense of cultural engagement and mission, and fostering love within the Christian community are far more than unique to evangelical faith.

They are the faith.

The four dimensions of our conversation – truth, culture, unity and church – are like the four points of a compass.

Together if properly calibrated and coordinated, they give us a clear sense of direction.

Medieval cartographers sketched hic sunt dragones (translated “there be dragons”) on the edges of their maps. Yet maps of that era often held another image – Christ.

The Psalter map (c. 1250), so called because it accompanied a copy of the book of Psalms, featured dragons on the bottom, as well as Jesus and the angels at the top.

Such a map reminds us of the availability of “true north” as followers of Christ.

Yes, there be dragons.

But there is also Jesus and the angels.

And we can follow Him – and find our way.

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, which 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.

Is it Okay for a Christian to...

Ever googled “Is it okay for a Christian to…” and then filled in the blank with everything from watching Game of Thrones to cremation, attending a gay wedding to getting a tattoo, practicing yoga to drinking wine?

You’re not alone.

But don’t get the answer off the internet.

There’s a better way.

I sketched the following out on a whiteboard at the start of our most recent weekend series, and one of my faithful staffers polished it up a bit for better consumption. I used it as a schematic of sorts on how to walk through things that present themselves to us in our modern day.

Let me take you through it, and see what you think.

Finding out whether something is “okay” begins with the top left box, which reflects going to the Bible to see what it has to say. If you want to know whether something is okay for a Christian, then you need to start with the authoritative guide for Christ-following.

When you do, you’ll find that the Bible gives you one or more of three answers: permission, prohibition or principles.

If blanket permission is granted, your investigation is complete. You are free to partake or pursue. If there is a direct prohibition, then you are not.

But most of the time, particularly in regard to many of the issues puzzling Christians in our culture, there is neither a blanket permission or prohibition. More often than not, it’s thrown into the “freedom” box of life. 

But it’s not cut-loose freedom; it’s freedom within the confines of a set of biblical principles. These principles form the boundary lines for freedom in Christ.

So is that the end of it? You simply pursue the freedom you’ve been given in light of the principles of the Bible? 

No. 

There is another box, perhaps best labeled “wisdom.” While you and I may have joint freedom in Christ on a particular issue, it might be foolish for me to exercise it, but not for you. We all have backgrounds and dispositions, histories and inclinations, strengths and weaknesses.

Less sophisticated is just common-sense wisdom. Just because you’re free to do something doesn’t mean it’s smart.

(You may be free to get that tattoo, but having “I love Samantha” inked on your arm at 16 may not be smart when you might start dating Sarah at 17, or want to marry Sharon at 23.)

Finally, there is the consideration of living out our lives before a watching world. In this regard, the apostle Paul gives two primary guidelines: first, do not do anything that would lead the world to believe you have disavowed Christ and worship another god; and second, do not exercise your freedom in a manner that would lead a fellow believer in close proximity into sin themselves. 

Let’s call these ideas “witness” and “weakness.”

This is the gauntlet you run the questions of life through. 

Sounds simple enough, but knowing how to do so is one of the principle lessons of discipleship, and few invest the time and energy needed to engage its dynamics.

As mentioned, at Meck we just completed an eight-week journey through this very exercise. Here were the eight topics we explored:

Is it okay for a Christian to…

…watch Game of Thrones? (or anything rated “R”)
…drink wine or smoke marijuana?
…gamble?
…practice yoga?
…participate in, or even go to, a gay wedding?
…vote for _________? (many ways to fill in this blank)
…get a tattoo, be cremated or have cosmetic surgery?
not go to church?

If you’re interested in the series, you can get it here. It has already proven to be one of the most popular series in the history of our church through various metrics we track. 

Why?

People want to know what’s “okay.”

They just don’t know how to find out.

James Emery White


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 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.

I recently spent a few minutes during a weekend talk speaking to the issue of immigration reform. It was part of a larger series on what is, or is not, “okay” for a Christian to do.

That particular weekend, we tackled what is “okay” in terms of the voting booth.

In addition to addressing the larger issues associated with Christians and politics and this current campaign, I also chose to highlight the issue of immigration reform.

My larger point in bringing up immigration was to highlight the importance of thinking Christianly about all cultural issues. I was alarmed to learn the results of a LifeWay Research study that found only one out of every ten evangelical Christians cared to look to the Bible to shape their views on those who cross our borders.

This, despite the biblical materials that give some very specific mandates and the fact that it is one of the “hotter” issues of the election cycle. If only one in ten evangelicals looked to the Bible on immigration reform, I could only imagine how low it went on less talked-about issues that were of equal importance.

Here is an abridged excerpt of what I said in my message:

I don’t care whether you consider yourself a Democrat or a Republican – if you are a follower of Christ, you are a Christian first and aligned with a party second.

And no party is the official Christian party.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, we are not the master of the state, or the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state.

The point is to think and vote Christianly.

And there are issues at hand in this election that are deeply important:

...whether it’s the definition of marriage or when a life can be taken;

...the care for the poor and the homeless, or the treatment of the foreigner in our land.

And if I can be so bold, the most important issue of all is how you think a candidate will make appointments to the Supreme Court. Almost everything that matters to a Christian worldview for our culture is ultimately determined by those nine justices.

So all of this, and more, are deeply spiritual matters.

And you must begin to think Christianly about them, and vote Christianly about them.

But that’s exactly what so many of us do NOT do.

What we tend to do is compartmentalize our thinking.

A compartmentalized mind is one that separates life into distinct categories, such as our faith, our job, family, Facebook, the stock market – all without integration. 

Our thinking about one area never informs our thinking about another. So one can be a Christian, but not reflect about, say, the immigration debate in light of our faith. Or even worse, never even have the thought of reflecting about immigration in light of our faith come to mind.  

A LifeWay Research study found that when it comes to immigration reform, Christians know that the issues are clear:

*border security

*whether there’s a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and what that path should be

*and how to handle the unity of immigrant families

But only one in ten of those Christians said the Bible shaped their views. The vast majority said that, instead, they were influenced by either friends or the media.

And it wasn’t because the Bible was silent.

Wherever you stand on the various dynamics of immigration policy and reform, the Bible calls us to some very specific ideas.

First, there’s the rich deposit of verses that speak to the people of Israel in the Old Testament when they were immigrants, and how they should, in turn, treat others in the same situation.

Here’s a sampling:

21 “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, NLT)

And then one chapter later:

“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9, NLT)

And that idea is all through the Bible. Mercy, compassion, empathy, concern. Foreigners, aliens, or as they were often called, “Strangers,” in the Bible were always to be treated deferentially because of their vulnerability.

In the New Testament, Jesus picked up on the same idea and said these very penetrating words:

31 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,  you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:31-40, NLT)

No matter how much people who follow Christ can differ on hammering out the specifics of immigration reform, or protecting our borders, caring for the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, is a deeply biblical idea.

It’s not about condoning everything they’ve done, but in truth, the Bible doesn’t seem interested in how they arrived. 

It’s about mercy. 

It’s about honoring families and children.

It’s about treating them with the love of God.

So while we can have policy differences on how to carry out those values as Christians, the biblical values we are trying to protect as Christians should be clear.

But only one in ten have bothered to find out what they are.

I’m certainly not alone in pointing out such things. A number of evangelical groups have promoted immigration reform, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. 

Why? Because the Bible is clear that it should matter to us.

But the response I got was fascinating.

“You sounded like a Democrat.”

“I didn’t know you were pulling for Hillary.”

“It sounded like a rebuke of Trump.”

That wasn’t my intent. I didn’t want it to sound like anything but the Bible, and then to have everyone – regardless of party – begin to think Christianly about it.

So after the Saturday night slate of services, I made a few tweaks to ensure that it wouldn’t be seen in any other way.

Feedback the next day?

Same thing.

Understand, none of the reaction was negative or critical. More of a, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s where you were politically.” There were also a few well-meaning politicos wanting to steer me toward the value of Trump’s ideas, but all in good sport.

Yet,

…I am not a registered Democrat;

…my offered views on immigration never went into policy matters, just core biblical values;

…I went out of my way to make a point that, as Christians, we are to be above partisan politics, but often don’t let each other be;

Yet, my very attempt at saying so, and giving an example,

…proved the point.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Bob Smietna, “Bible Influences Only 1 in 10 Evangelicals on Immigration Reform,” Christianity Today, March 11, 2015, read online.

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.

Summer Reading List 2016

Every year, I offer ten titles as a suggested summer reading list. These are books that I have either read over the past year or plan to read myself over the summer. Most are brand new. A few, here and there, may be older works that I’m only now discovering myself. They are a blend of history, fiction, biography and more. Since we’re past Memorial Day, and many of you have already been asking when this annual offering will be, well, offered, here you go - in alphabetical order by author:

Anderson, Chris. Ted Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. If there is a true public university, it’s the online depository of TED talks. A good talk educates (and influences) more people than any other message currently offered in the public sphere. So what makes a good one? Anyone interested in communication should want to know. This book, written by TED’s president, breaks it down.

Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. I first ran across this book while browsing in a Waterstone’s off of Trafalgar Square in London. I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the best single-volume histories of Rome you’ll own that offers more than a few twists and turns. As the jacket invites: “Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand years later still shapes many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty.” (SPQR is the abbreviation for “The Senate and People of Rome”)

Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. I came to this novel a little late – as in, after it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It deserved them both. It doesn’t matter whether its subject doesn’t seem like your cup of tea (a blind French girl, a German boy, leading parallel lives in World War II). This is beautiful writing that can’t be put down. It’s said it took the author ten years to write it. I believe it. Every sentence is a jewel.

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. If you read Duhigg’s first book, the bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, and liked it, then add this to your reading list. It’s another good entry into the genre Malcolm Gladwell seemed to invent of late – a gathering of good data, studies, stories and ideas to chase a curious writer’s question. This journey will take you to a group of data scientists at Google, Saturday Night Live, the Marine Corps, and the filmmakers behind Disney’s Frozen. Duhigg suggests eight key concepts that explain why some people and companies get so much done. It’s an interesting read.

Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. I’ve not read Grant’s earlier bestselling book, Give and Take (at least not yet), but this one caught my eye. It’s about how we can “champion our best ideas – and how leaders can encourage others to think differently and speak up.” Though I’ve not finished this as yet, here’s the jacket blurb that caught my eye: “Using surprising studies and stories spanning the worlds of business, politics, sports, and entertainment, Grant debunks the common belief that successful non-conformists are born leaders who boldly embrace risk. Originals explains how anyone can spot opportunity for change.” Sounds like it might prove to be time well spent digging in.

Holmes, Kim R. The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left. This book first caught my eye through a review in the Wall Street Journal. The title of the review was “Progressivism’s Macroaggressions” with the following subline: “The goal of postmodern progressives isn’t universal truth, but power, which is presented in the guise of equality and social justice.” Now that’s a tweet. Holmes is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and currently a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The gist of the book is that liberalism is becoming its opposite – illiberalism; abandoning the precepts of open-mindedness and respect for individual rights, liberties, and the rule of law upon which the country was founded. Instead, “Liberalism is becoming an intolerant, rigidly dogmatic ideology that abhors dissent and stifles free speech.” The result is a “closing of the American liberal mind.” This is an important book, as it details a very disturbing ideology that is increasingly dominating our culture.

Iggulden, Conn. Wars of the Roses: Bloodline. It’s no secret that historical fiction is a weakness of mine, and Iggulden is one of its masters. He has already devoted a series to Genghis Khan, and then to Caesar (both series well worth devouring). This is his third installment to his series on the War of the Roses. Last summer, I recommended his second installment. I am ready for this, his third.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. When Breath Becomes Air is his story and chronicles his move toward faith in the process. A review in the New York Times said, “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.” He died in March 2015.

Taunton, Larry Alex. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Christopher Hitchens, called one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism, was a complex and fascinating figure. Taunton, a Christian and a friend, writes of his faith with some surprising insights and conclusions. 

Winkler, Heinrich August. The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914-1945. It would be difficult to pick a more nightmarish era in the history of the West than the period between 1914 and 1945. Winkler, a German scholar (here translated by Stewart Spencer), examines, “How and why Germany so radically broke with the normative project of the West and unleashed devastation across the world.” But this book is about far more than Germany. Winkler blends “historical narrative with political analysis and encompasses military strategy, national identity, class conflict, economic development and cultural change.” There are chapters on the United States, Japan, Russian, Britain and the other European powers. This is a compelling and important historical narrative.

Enjoy.

James Emery White


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 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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