The cult of agreeableness

Joel Osteen’s disturbing inability to say that Mormonism is something other than Christian reflects a particular affliction from which our culture suffers. I’m not sure what to call it other than the cult of agreeableness, a widespread tendency to avoid disagreement, conflict, and contradiction whenever possible, a disposition to never draw hard lines for fear that we’ll upset or make ourselves unattractive by the action. Continue reading

Love and bear it

Love and bear it

Love and bear it

(Zach Klein, Flickr)

To grin and bear something means to tolerate it, put on a happy face and ride out the discomfort. After all, it’ll be over soon enough. That’s a perfectly practical way to deal with half the difficulties in life. But what if you could manage to respond with love instead of mere tolerance or reluctant acquiescence? What areas of life might improve with the switch — work, family, everything maybe? Continue reading


Christians making a difference

How Christians can make a difference

(spDuchamp, Flickr)

Whether it’s the political activism of the eighties and nineties or the social activism of today, Christians want to make a difference in the world. But are we starting in the right place?

Often we see a crisis or a need and jump to fix it. We raise funds, join a movement, buy a T-shirt, send our tithe, blog, campaign, distribute voters guides, do all kinds of things — many of them good. But they’re not enough. All those things are externally focused, which is only half the picture.

“The strongest weapon in the world,” says Peter Kreeft in How to Win the Culture War, “is sanctity. Nothing can defeat it.”

For Christians to really make a difference, we need to join our desire to right wrongs in the world with a desire to right our own hearts. Holiness matters. And sanctification, the process of increasing in holiness, matters for more than ourselves. One of the ways we fight poverty is to become poor in spirit. One of the ways we reduce the power-hungry is to become meek. We cannot bring the kingdom to bear on the world if our hearts are not subject to the king.

Jesus’ warned about that in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth,” he said, “but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Holiness has real power. But if Christians are not holy — and are not striving to become more so — our efforts are empty and meaningless, salt with no savor.

So what’s stopping us?

What’s preventing us from being poor in spirit, from being meek and merciful, from being people who hunger and thirst for righteousness as well as people who mourn, from being peacemakers, from being pure in heart, from being people willing to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake? Kreeft answers the question by quoting from a book by William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life:

If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one and only on reason why you are not, even now, as saintly as the primitive Christians: you do not wholly want to be.

Wow. Kreeft calls the statement an indictment, and it is. Here’s what’s tricky. By focusing on the externals — what we’ve done for this cause or that — we can dodge the charge, ignore it, push it aside and behind us. Our good deeds serve as masks for bad lives. But masks eventually slip.

Do-good activity unmatched with holiness always peters out. Real change in our world comes with real change in our hearts. To make a lasting difference, we have to work on both.


Faith of the revolutionary generation

woodcut of Washington at prayer

Woodcut of Washington at prayer (Wikimedia Commons).

It may sound like a stretch, but you can learn a lot about contemporary faith and politics from colonial needlework.

American colonists struggled to make sense of the events leading up to the war with Britain. Escalating encroachments were resisted by the colonists, whose sometimes-violent actions provoked further crackdowns. The cycle intensified throughout the late 1760s and into the new decade, spawning boycotts, riots, and worse, including the Boston Massacre in March 1770.

If historians today have a hard time explaining those events with all the necessary nuance and care, despite the benefits of time, perspective, and access to reams of relevant facts and details, then imagine the impossibility of doing so in the thick of things, when presumption and fear and recrimination spread faster than truth or prudence could manage.

In this challenging time, colonists sought clarity through the lens of faith. As largely Christian people, they framed their struggles in terms of their religion, looking to the Bible for patterns, types, and stories that could explain their predicament.

To see this in action, you need only look at a woman’s needlework.

A stitch in time

Following the Boston Massacre, Faith Trumbull, wife of patriotic Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull and mother of famed portraitist John Trumbull, stitched an elaborate scene to explain the shocking event.

The faith of the revolutionary generation

'The Hanging of Absalom' by Faith Robinson Trumbull (Library of Congress).

The embroidery depicted the death of Absalom. As the story goes, King David of Israel is met with an insurrection led by his son, Absalom, who is killed by David’s rogue commander, Joab. In the needlework, Joab is wearing a red coat. The point was clear enough: The grievance may be legitimate — King David/George is depicted as aloof and playing a harp — but care is needed; rebellion may end up backfiring. How to communicate a deeply important truth about breaking events? With Bible stories, of course.

And it wasn’t just needlework. When Paul Revere wanted to explain the colonists’ cause, he reached for a biblical allusion as well — telling his British cousin that England wanted to make the Americans “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” a reference to the ninth chapter of Joshua.

Open the index of a collection like American Political Writing During the Founding Era, edited by Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz. “God” is referenced well over a hundred times, “Jesus” at least half as many times. Biblical figures and books like “Job,” “Isaiah,” “Ezra,” and “Judah” are all mentioned. “Peter” and “Paul” both score more than a dozen references apiece. And this is just one isolated sample; others abound.

Genuine belief

Scholars may say that the Revolutionary generation appealed to religion because they could justify their rebellion in terms of it, that they could find firm moral, even theological, footing while overthrowing the government. No doubt, that was certainly an outcome. But I think the more basic reason is that they simply believed it. They read, heard, prayed, and contemplated the words of the Bible. They identified with its stories and doctrines.

Trumbull stitched the scene with Absalom because she was familiar with the story — directly or indirectly — and found application with it. Revere went back to Joshua because he knew it. Ditto for the pamphleteers, orators, newspaper writers, and others of the time.

They brought the Bible to bear on the moment because they believed it, because it was part of their cultural inheritance, and because they found it relevant and applicable. It was the same during the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s the same today.

A more generous read

When Tea Partiers on the right or social-justice advocates on the left make shows of their faith and wax biblical about policies, the natural impulse of many seems to be to dismiss it as hypocritical or manipulative, somehow self-serving or false, and maybe — if you’re really cynical — all of the above.

Putting disagreements with the particular policies aside, a more generous and thoughtful read of the picture might lead observers to realize that these people bring the Bible to bear on the moment because they believe it, because it is part of their cultural inheritance, and because they find it relevant and applicable.

Given our long history — one in which every generation, from the Pilgrims to Palin, has characterized their times and struggles in such terms — it shouldn’t be so difficult to accept.

A slightly altered version of this article was published November 19, 2010, under the title “Tea, Politics, and Faith” at