Reader Mail - Dealing with Denominations & Relationships

I got a message from a reader who is struggling because he is a member of a non-denominational church and his girlfriend is Catholic. She's started attending his church and enjoys it, and now wants to be baptized. That caused him to research Catholicism, the Reformation, and the emerging church movement. Now, he's not sure what to believe thanks to the contradictory doctrines of Christianity's many denominations. Since I get asked variations of this question a lot, I'm posting my response to him here for anyone who may need it.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the important things. First, you obviously love your girlfriend–that’s great! Second, you care about spirituality and pleasing God–that’s great too! Take a moment and focus on the good in those things. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second greatest commandment is to love others. He said that all the scriptures rest on those two things. You are doing them. Be encouraged.

It seems to me that you are confused by the contradictory doctrines of different denominations and traditions in Christianity. That’s easy to do. For all the beauty of the teachings of Christ, there is tremendous division among Christ’s followers. How can we know which denomination is correct? Also, since denominations are made by people, we can assume they aren’t perfect. We have to assume that all denominations are wrong somewhere.

So, what do we do about Church? I’ve found that the most important thing is to find a church that is safe and challenging.

Safe churches are supportive and affirming. They aren’t threatened by questions or differences in opinion. A church that is safe accepts you and affirms you exactly as you are, without trying to control or change you. A safe church is a place of healing–but it’s not enough for a church to be safe.

Churches also need to be challenging. Jesus came to show us how to live a life full of God’s work, and a challenging church is full of people who are becoming more like Christ. Through their actions, attitudes, and words, the members of challenging churches are healing the world as they follow Jesus. The challenge, in this case, is just trying to keep up. I’m wary of any organization that spends more time talking about what should be done than actually doing what should be done.

Here’s the trick: we are the church. The best way to find a church that is safe and challenging is to be a Christian who is safe and challenging. How can you be safe and challenging to your girlfriend?

  • You love her exactly as she is. It is not your job to change her, or convince her of anything. It is your job to love her.
  • You work to be more like Christ and to be a part of a Christian community that will help you grow.

You’ll be much less stressed the day you realize that people are in God’s hands and not yours. You’ve been called to love your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Leave everything else to God, and you will experience more joy and less stress. Stop trying to control things–you can’t do it anyway.

An Atheist Explains Things Most Atheists Don't Understand About Christians

Although there are many devout Christians and many convinced atheists, there don't seem to be many people who have been both. I find remarkable kinship with the few people I know who have, regardless of the order in which those beliefs were held. Be they Christian or atheist, people who have held both viewpoints tend to hold very informed beliefs, and they tend to be empathetic toward both beliefs. They understand both why someone would cry out to God, and why someone would feel foolish doing so.

That's why I enjoy reading "Godless in Dixie." I am a Christian, but I understand and empathize with the views of former Christians like Neil Carter. I've never met Neil, but he's just as active in dispelling myths about Christians held by atheists as I am at dispelling myths about atheists held by Christians. His latest series What Too Many Atheists Don't Get About Christians is off to a really strong start. Go read it.

Even when I was an atheist, I couldn't help but roll my eyes when other atheists would say that Christians or other believers were stupid, ignorant, shallow, lazy, or fearful of conflicting viewpoints. I know too many brilliant, educated, deep, hardworking, and worldly Christians to accept any such remark. I'm not just talking about Progressives here, I know some seriously dialed-in conservative evangelical fundamentalists.

Likewise, I know too many secularists who accept secularism dogmatically. It is not an attribute of Christians to accept ideas that are convenient and held via social identity: it's a human attribute. We have more Christians than atheists in America, and that means we have more ignorant Christians than ignorant atheists in this country.

Like Neil, I want to challenge you to get to know informed people who hold different views than you do, but want to have dialog. Those are the most rewarding relationships you can have in life. I feel incredibly blessed to know so many people who don't agree with me on anything at all!

Christians Aren't Stupid

This post is a follow up to Atheists Aren't Evil.

How can anyone believe that the Earth was created in six days? Or that a boat carried all life on Earth during a global flood? Or that there was a guy who was born of a virgin, and rose from the dead, and that that guy was the son of God? Such a person would have to be stupid or crazy, right? How can any modern person believe this stuff? Christians must be stupid.

No. Christians aren't stupid. First, Christian beliefs aren't homogeneous. Not all Christians are Young Earth Creationists, and many Christians take a non-literal interpretation of scripture. Any discussion about "Christianity" must start with its incredible diversity.

There's no question that developed societies are becoming less religious (although not necessarily less spiritual). To be clear, I use the term "religion" to refer to the organized practice of spirituality, while I use "spiritual" to reflect belief in higher powers, the afterlife, souls, and other immaterial concepts.

Skepticism is on the rise in our culture, and its roots in rationalism set skeptics up for natural opposition to faith. Widespread Atheism is a recent development in human history, and it requires some specific soil to grow. Large atheist movements are only seen in affluent countries with significant investments in science and higher education. People who live on the edge of poverty, it seems, don't have time to ponder the possible inexistence of God. They're too busy trying to find food. But among those lucky enough to live in societies that can support atheism, an animosity toward faith among skeptics is common.

Some skeptics see religious faith as something that is dangerous. Skeptics believe that it is only reasonable to believe what you can provide evidence of. They believe Christians believe without evidence. But is that true? I've certainly heard Christians say they believe on faith alone. A clarifying question can help. I'll ask "If you believe in Christ on faith, and a Muslim believes Muhammed on faith, how do you know who is correct?" Do you know what happens next?

The Christian will cite evidence! They will tell you about the Bible, and the vast scholarship behind it. They’ll point to the resurrection, and the eye witness accounts recorded in scripture, and the cultural continuity that validates those accounts. Most Christians can offer evidential support and rational argument in support of their faith. That is not faith alone.

It's simply not true that Christians believe without evidence. You can't reasonably debate the existence of evidence for Christian faith. A reasonable argument must focus on the quality of that evidence. For most people, weighing the claims of secular and sacred academics is an overwhelming prospect.

People of faith often quip that "Science takes faith." As a lover of science, this statement has always confounded me. After a lot of study and consideration, I think there is a kernel of truth in the idea that science take faith: everyone makes assumptions.

There's a whole field of study called epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we can know anything at all, so epistemology is a fundamental examination of everything. How do we know we exist? How can we know what is true? Most people just assume we're real and that truth is a thing, but people who study epistemology want to know more.

You've probably heard "I think therefore I am." That was Descartes, and he was thinking about how we can know anything. His idea is that if you can ask if you exist, you exist. Works for me. People of all backgrounds agree on this point. Christians, atheists, agnostics, and even football fans. No one is arguing we aren't real, at least not seriously. That's an assumption, but we all make it.

Next, we all assume that our senses are generally showing us reality. We know our senses aren't perfect because sometimes we see, hear, or feel things that aren't there. Who hasn’t panicked when they felt a bug crawling on their skin that turned out to be a strand of hair? But we all agree that our senses are showing us something real. Reality isn't a dream, or a video game. It's reality. That's also an assumption, and in a bit of delicious irony, we can only validate the usefulness of our senses with our senses. It's circular reasoning, like validating the Bible with the Bible.

Things diverge pretty quickly from there. Empiricists say that all knowledge has to be based on physical evidence, while rationalists say that some basic truths are self evident, and rational analysis allows us to deduce further truths. Most philosophies in Western culture contain elements of both rationalism and empiricism, including religions.

Which brings me back to "science takes faith." If faith is accepting an assumption, science does take faith. It just takes less faith than religions. I say this because there is one form of evidence that Christians rely on that scientists don't accept: personal spiritual experiences.

Christians assume that personal spiritual experiences and revelation are a way to know truth. Skeptics don't accept that. Religious faith makes additional assumptions beyond pure rationalism or empiricism. In both cases, we have to make some assumptions to operate in reality. Skeptics just believe you need to make as few assumptions as possible.

Is this additional assumption about personal experience stupid? A study at Oxford indicates that humans are inherently prone to dualism (the belief in unseen realms or forces). They showed that children automatically believe in supernatural powers like all-knowing or unseen beings. These beliefs often persist beyond childhood. Researchers also found that belief in the afterlife and a soul is common across all cultures–including secularized cultures in Europe and Asia. Finally, these researchers found that humans more readily accept purpose-based explanations for natural phenomena. These four tendencies create the soil for religious belief in humans.

Christians are part of large communities with rich, diverse scholarship. They have a book which documents the interactions of their God with people. Most powerfully, they have personal experience with this God in prayer and worship, and they have friends who have had similar experiences. Christians see prayers answered, and they see lives changed.

Skeptics argue that these beliefs are not justified, and they can point to copious secular scholarship to support their position. But let's talk about faith again.

I believe that the Big Bang Theory is the most accurate model we have for how the Universe was formed. I believe this because I have studied Young Earth Creationism and cosmology extensively for more than half of my life. However, I can reach a point in both fields where I am hopelessly over my head. In Young Earth Creationism, it's language. I can't read ancient Hebrew. In cosmology, it's math. The mathematics of astrophysics is beyond me. In the end, I have to go with the group that best convinces me, without the ability to independently verify their claims.

Most people don't spend half their lives studying the differences between Young Earth Creationism and the Big Bang Theory. I bet most people have invested quite a lot less time, including most skeptics.

We make the assumptions we need to make to operate in reality, spiritualist and skeptics alike. Social identity plays a huge role in how we accept beliefs–including skeptics. That’s what makes us human.

Christians aren’t stupid. Instead they are part of a multi-millennial tradition of exploring and defining mystical experiences.

I get by with a little help from my friends

Imagine for a moment that you appear in a film adaptation of one of your favorite books.  Imagine this book was deeply transformative in how you view life, and how you relate to God.  Now, imagine watching that move in a theater which was absolutely packed with your friends and family.  In one room were the people who raised you, and the people who grew up with you.  Those people are sitting next to your friends from church, and next to them are your coworkers and even your boss.  It sounds like a dream, doesn't it?


It happened to me last night.  I can't possibly explain the experience or the emotion.  If you've never seen yourself projected at 4K on a movie screen, you simply can't be prepared for how surreal an experience that is.  You also can't imagine what it's like to see a film about the intersection of Christ and culture surrounded by people from every part of your social sphere.

Or what is is like to hold your wife's hand as you watch a film that redeemed you.  It was this movie that drew me back to God after I had decided He was not real.  To share in that narrative after so many nights of tears and struggle and an attempt to find common ground between Faith and Doubt was profound to me.  Moving.


Of course, she looked cute on that big screen too.

I can't imagine what my friends of faith thought about some of the content in Blue Like Jazz.  I run with a pretty theologically conservative crowd, but they aren't a stereotype.  The people of the Immanuel Church in Tallahassee are absolutely obsessed with living out the Love of Jesus for All.  You've never met a group more open to people.  There may be a debate about gay marriage, but I can tell you exactly how Immanuel people relate to gay people: with a hug.

Still, I am sure Blue Like Jazz took paths many of my friends have never considered.  Here is a movie about faith and it is very real.  The language is profane.  The themes are sexual.  It is Mature with a capital "M."

And what of my friends who are spiritual, but not formally so?  What did they get from this film?  Did they see that there are many of us Christians who want to learn how to live out or faith in a way that doesn't make us a people who stand against things, but instead a people who stand for things?  Do they see that we want to stand for love, acceptance, equality, human rights and the reduction of suffering?  Do they see what Jesus means to us?

And all of my friends, do they see why I wanted them to be there?  So that I could show them, all at once, that I am sorry for every time I have failed to represent my God faithfully?  Every time my temper is too short, or my dogma to long?  Every time I have let the opportunity to speak a Word of Peace or Love to pass?  Do they see that the reason I love Blue Like Jazz so much is it makes a statement: we Christians are not God, and sometimes we act too much like we are.

Do they all see that I love them?  Every one of them?  That I wouldn't trade one of them for anything, or that they are always on my mind?  That God fills my heart with a profound concern for their well-being, happiness, and joy?

If they don't know it I need to watch this film again and again until I live out my love for them every moment of every day.  That, after all, is what Jesus does for me.

Blue Like Jazz

Blue Like Jazz The Movie Promo Banner

Did I ever tell you about the time I was in a movie?

Well, that movie is coming to Tallahassee and I want you to go see it with me.  I believe this film can change your life, and if you'll read this rather long blog post I will tell you why.  You can get all the information about this single showing and buy tickets on this page:

Many years ago I read a book at the recommendation of a friend/mentor.  That book was Blue Like Jazz, and it is a series of essays that tell a story about Donald Miller's journey in faith.  Donald had a lot of trouble squaring up what the Bible says about Christ with the way he was raised in a conventional church tradition.  It was the right book for the right time for me.

If you know me, then you also know I'm a nerd.  I value data, and empirical evidence for claims.  I tend to favor reason over emotion.  That's not to say I'm not a deeply emotional person, but rather I tend to view even my own feelings through the lens of my analytic mind.  I deconstruct everything, including my need to deconstruct everything.  This constant deconstruction when combined with intense personal Bible study left me floundering and confused about God.  I had questions common to our era.  Questions about the age of our universe, the origin of human life, and a lot of the events chronicled in the Old Testament.  Blue Like Jazz helped me be more comfortable with my questions.  I learned to accept God without completely understanding him.

It was good.

Then I learned that they were trying to make a film out of this book.  I also learned they didn't have the backing of a studio to make it happen.  A couple fans of the book organized a campaign on Kickstarter to save the film, and a record number of people donated money to make Blue Like Jazz The Movie happen.  I was one of them.  Everyone who donated became a credited Associate Producer, and a few of us had the change to appear in the film.

So, Jenny and I flew to Nashville.  We spent a very long, very fun day shooting a scene as extras.  For the first time, I saw why movies are so hard to make.  We shot for hours and hours for something that is a few short minutes on screen.

That was it.  Now we had to wait for the film to be released.  When it was released, it didn't come to Tallahassee.

By some Divine Appointment, I did get to see the film on a trip to LA, and once again the timing was fortunate.  I was so afraid the film would be trite or shallow, or that the narrative would be too hard to follow.  If you've read Blue Like Jazz, it's not exactly a story that lends itself to a linear, visual telling.  As it turns out the film is good.  Really Good.

And that was important because this film, like it's book was instrumental in my faith.  Very, very few people know this but even as I was on the set of Blue Like Jazz I was struggling.  By the time I flew to California I was a closet atheist.  My faith in God was completely gone.  I wasn't angry at God.  I just didn't believe in Him.

That was a tough thing because I'm sort of active in church.  I teach Sunday School.  I play in the worship band.  I'm a deacon.  My wife and children are Christians.  So are many of my friends.

So I pretended.  I played the part of a believer, because it seemed to me that for many people Belief is this really powerful thing that keeps them going day-to-day.  I privately grieved the loss of God in my life, and tried to figure out how to keep being a blessing to other people, believers and unbelievers alike.

Two good friends of mine went with me to see Blue Like Jazz in California.  It was a middle-of-the day showing and we were the only three people in the theater.  The movie was funny all the way until I saw Jenny and I on screen.  That was surreal.  And then God smacked me in the face through the screen.  I don't want to spoil the film, but I began to see my journey with God play out.  I weeped openly for the rest of the movie as a spark of faith was renewed in my life.  And that film was the start of a couple of weeks where God came back into my life.  He did so in a way that was more profound than anything I'd ever known.  This sounds very strange, but I feel the Spirit of God with me all the time now.

Why do I tell you all this?  Well, I know so many people who are secure in their Faith–people who God is using in amazing ways to redeem our world.  But I also have to wonder how many people out there are struggling as I struggled.  If you are in a confusing or painful place with God today I want to tell you that you are not alone.  You are not weird.  You are not evil.

You are growing.  For some reason, many of us have to doubt to get closer to God.  I believe perhaps God has to destroy our preconceptions of Him in order to be truly real to us.  I had to trust God enough to tell him why I didn't believe before I could come back to Him.  That's not easy.

I still don't have answers to the Big Questions.  What I do have is a peace that never leaves me, and that is enough for now.

So for all of you misfits, you rebels, you hurting and confused: I invite you to see Blue Like Jazz with me.  If you ever need an ear to listen that will not judge, call me.