‘They Call Us Monsters’ Offers a More Compassionate Brand of Juvenile Justice

Ben Lear’s directorial debut humanizes the debate about adult prison sentences for juvenile offenders.

When children commit the most heinous of crimes, it challenges our sense of justice and probes the limits of our worldview. Ben Lear’s bold documentary They Call Us Monsters, now streaming on Netflix, suggests that how we respond to these young offenders may also be the ultimate test of our humanity—and a proving ground for the power of grace.

Like many films that deal with such fraught issues as incarceration, They Call Us Monsters begins with a history lesson. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, a perceived rise in youth violence and juvenile delinquency led many observers to blame a lax justice system for “losing control of” young offenders. By the early 1990s, ostensibly “tough on crime” policies gained broad political traction, and many states adopted laws that automatically transfer certain juvenile cases to the adult court system. There, children could face much harsher penalties than those allowed in juvenile court.

The film’s provocative opening newsreel includes a 1994 press interview in which then-Representative Newt Gingrich curtly expresses the prevailing attitude behind such laws: “There are no violent offenses that are juvenile,” he says. “You rape somebody, you’re an adult. You shoot somebody, you’re an adult.”

Such inflexible rhetoric resonated loudly in the late 1990s, and the movement to punish rather than rehabilitate juvenile offenders intensified during the early 2000s and persists even today in many states. But now the tides are beginning to turn. There’s a growing consensus that mass incarceration is a failed experiment, and new findings in developmental psychology have prompted some former “tough on crime” …

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How God Keeps it Together

When our life unravels, He holds the threads.

Nothing is simple about navigating our overlapping identities in contemporary life. In any given situation, we find ourselves torn between our public and private selves, our roles at home or at work, the different sides of our personalities. To be a responsible parent, we have to put our laissez-faire self to death. To be a good spouse, we may sacrifice some of our drive and ambition to succeed at work. As a responsible employee, we may not be the ever-present friend we once were.

The Crown, Netflix’s recent miniseries about Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, highlights this universal reality in the unique life of the royals. Upon receiving news of the death of King George VI, Elizabeth’s grandmother, the Queen Mother Mary, references the royal practice of exchanging one’s surname for the last name “Regina,” which simply means “queen.”

“While you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else, Elizabeth Mountbatten, for she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina,” the Queen Mother counsels her granddaughter. “The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another, but the crown must win. Must always win.”

Elizabeth learns what this means in the crisis surrounding Princess Margaret’s ill-fated love affair with the divorced Captain Peter Townsend. Initially, Elizabeth promises to help her sister get married no matter the scandal. She realizes only later that to do so would violate her royal duties as the head of the Church of England. In that agonizing moment, Elizabeth can be a promise-keeping sister or a faithful queen—not both. And the crown must always win.

But what of the infinite God who pictures …

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Interview: The ‘Prophets’ and ‘Apostles’ Leading the Quiet Revolution in American Religion

A Christian movement characterized by multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism.

A quiet revolution is taking place in America religion, say Brad Christerson and Richard Flory, authors of The Rise of Network Christianity: How Independent Leaders Are Changing the Religious Landscape.

Largely behind the scenes, a group of mostly self-proclaimed “apostles,” leading ministries from North Carolina to Southern California, has attracted millions of followers with promises of direct access to God through signs and wonders.

Their movement, which Christerson and Flory called “Independent Network Charismatic” or “INC” Christianity, has become one of the fastest-growing faith groups in the United States. Apostles like Bill Johnson, Mike Bickle, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, and Ché Ahn claim millions of followers. They’re also aided by an army of fellow ministers who fall under their “spiritual covering.”

Many of these apostles run megachurches, including Bethel Church in Redding California, HRock Church in Pasadena, and the International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City. But their real power lies in their innovative approach to selling faith. They’ve combined multi-level marketing, Pentecostal signs and wonders, and post-millennial optimism to connect directly with millions of spiritual customers. That allows them to reap millions in donations, conference fees, and book and DVD sales. And because these INC apostles claim to get direction straight from God, they operate with almost no oversight.

Nashville-based religion writer Bob Smietana spoke with Christerson (professor of sociology at Biola University) and Flory (senior director of research and evaluation at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California) about …

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The Freedom and Chaos of Sola Scriptura

Historian Mark Noll helps unravel the uses and misuses of ‘the Bible alone.’

It’s been a hallmark of Protestantism for 500 years, but what do we mean when we base our faith on “the Bible alone”? Is it even possible to read the Bible without being influenced by the social and theological contexts in which one is immersed? Hasn’t this doctrine, more than any other Reformation doctrine, been responsible for the fragmentation of the church?

To help unravel such questions, editor in chief Mark Galli interviewed a scholar who has given much thought to the place of Scripture in the church’s life: Mark Noll, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, as well as an essay in Protestantism After 500 Years entitled, “Chaotic Coherence: Sola Scriptura and the Twentieth-Century Spread of Christianity.”

Though the idea of sola scriptura predates Martin Luther, when did the idea surface in his life?

It came in controversies with people defending indulgences and unquestioned obedience to the pope. In these disputes he appealed directly to the Bible—as with his dramatic statement to the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms in 1521: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He took his stand on Scripture alone.

The tension came when other Protestants asserted, “Well, the Bible alone clearly teaches that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, this is a symbolic supper.” That’s when Luther said, “No, that’s not right. You have to read the passages about the Lord’s Supper in connection with all the other passages and the best interpretations of past theologians.”

And so hermeneutical debates (controversies over interpretation) …

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Man Shall Not Live on the New Testament Alone

No less than Jesus in the wilderness, we need every word that comes from the mouth of God.

What do Christians do with the Old Testament, with its weird laws, brutal violence, and unpredictable God? Some are confused by it, some are afraid of it, and some simply ignore it. Our confusion, fear, and avoidance of the Old Testament has led to a severe problem. Like a doctor examining a patient, Brent Strawn examines our Old Testament habits and makes a dire diagnosis that supplies the title of his new book: The Old Testament is Dying.

Strawn’s analysis is divided into three sections. The first two focus on the problem (Part 1: “The Old Testament as a Dying Language” and Part 2: “Signs of Morbidity”), while the final section offers a solution (Part 3: “Path to Recovery”). Strawn’s grave assessment should cause great concern to any who believe, along with Paul the apostle, that all Scripture is divinely inspired and profitable for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16). But his suggested treatment should be a source of great hope.

A Disappearing Language

Strawn bases his diagnosis on empirical data from a 2010 Pew Forum survey (inspired by Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t). In addition, he draws on patterns of Old Testament usage in popular sermons, hymns, and songs, and in the Revised Common Lectionary (a daily Bible-reading plan used by certain Protestant denominations). Despite widespread claims of religiosity among the US population, Strawn’s evidence strongly suggests that most American Christians are relatively ignorant of basic truths about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament—and that trends in sermons and worship are contributing to the problem. For the most part, the Old Testament is …

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Why Christians Are Abandoning the Orphanage

A new focus on the family is changing how Christians care for abandoned and neglected children.

One night in 2001, a prostitute in eastern Ukraine propositioned a preacher.

Peter Dudnik turned her down and told her he worked at Good News Church. She asked him to take her 11-year-old son, Sergey, to the church’s orphanage.

Good News’ ministry to orphans was well known; two years earlier, Dudnik had found four street children sniffing glue at a train station. Good News began serving them meals, and the number of children grew from 40 to 60, and on into the hundreds.

One rainy evening, several of the children begged to stay the night. Church workers decided to let them sleep on the tables where they had eaten. And from that grew the You Shall Be Found Orphanage.

Over time, however, children who left the orphanage at age 18 weren’t faring well. Without the support of a family, they fell into drugs, prostitution, and suicide. The church asked God what to do, and he gave them Malachi 4:6: “He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

Good News began efforts to strengthen biological families, accepting children only as a last resort. It also worked to remove any parental rights over abandoned children, enabling them to be moved into foster care or adopted. With the church’s encouragement, families from churches in and around their city have adopted more than 100 children. (Dudnik and his wife, Tamara, adopted Sergey.)

What happened at Good News is a microcosm of the worldwide shift in orphan care.

After horrifying reports of neglect and abuse in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and ’90s, governments in the West began to veer away from institutional housing.

“I was running a large orphanage in Dallas in the early ’90s,” …

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Missions Sunday: The Missing Key to the Refugee Crisis: Christian Hospitality towards Muslims (Part One)

A biblical view of hospitality can offer a corrective to the current view of refugees.

We live in a rapidly changing world in which massive amounts of people move from one place to the next. Many people who have come from other places live on the margins of society as socially excluded international refugees or immigrants.

One out of every 122 people worldwide has left their home (Johnstone and Merrill 2016, Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 195). Globally, this movement of migrants makes up 3.2% of the world’s population (Jackson 2016, 13). These refugees are often seen as marginal strangers and off limits to normal interaction within society.

More than one million refugees poured into Europe in 2015. According to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), “1,005,504 migrants… entered Europe during the year—more than quadruple the number of the year before” (Johnstone and Merrill, Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 174-175). The panic and confusion caused many Europeans to lose sight of important political, social, and religious issues that come with this expansive migration (Legrain 2007, 298).

Unfortunately, this has also affected the attitude of many Christians who, due to fear and distrust, refuse to share their lives in any meaningful way with these refugees. The current reality means that “some people—including some Christians—have allowed fear to dominate the refugee conversation” (Bauman 2016, 179).

In our ministry in Spain, as we embrace refugees in our home and ministry, our lives daily become enriched by them. For example, on May 11, 2016, I had a knee replacement in Madrid. When I went into surgery, my wife sat alone in the hospital waiting room. Suddenly, some of the refugees we work with showed up to wait with her. When …

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Dealing with Rejection: How to Move Past the “No, Thanks” to Continue Sharing the Gospel

God tends to our hurting hearts.

I was recently on a long car ride with my husband and two kids from Illinois to the northern woods of Minnesota. Anyone who has traveled that kind of distance with younger children before knows it can be rather challenging to find fun ways to break up the ride, without extending the road time.

I had recently learned an idea from another mom that I was eager to try. I had wrapped some coloring books, crayons, sticker books, toys, and foam airplane kits, and handed them out to my two boys along the way. They quickly became newfound treasures.

As my 4-year-old graciously shared one of these treasures with his 2-year-old brother, I unfortunately (or not) had the opportunity to teach them about Ephesians 4:26 (“Be angry and do not sin”) and Ephesians 4:32 (“Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”) as his younger brother tore his treasured foam airplane in half right before his eyes.

Of course, my 2-year-old did not do this maliciously—it was an accident—but nevertheless, the tears welled up and overflowed as my eldest son took in the sight of his treasure being destroyed. My mommy heart broke for him. He had entrusted something he treasured with someone he loved, and instead of this treasured gift (and trust) returning to him in the same condition he had shared it in, it was destroyed.

I can’t help but think that God feels the same way when believers share our “treasured” truth of Jesus’ love with others, and sometimes it doesn’t return to us in the same way.

Sometimes it is accepted, and sometimes it is ripped up—like that foam airplane—with rejection from that person’s past hurts or broken trust. And just as my heart broke with my son’s, …

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Interview: After 50 Years in a Wheelchair, I Still Walk With Jesus

On the anniversary of her accident, Joni Eareckson Tada reflects on God’s faithfulness.

On July 30, 1967, a teenage girl went with her sister to a beach on the Chesapeake Bay and suffered a diving accident that rendered her quadriplegic. Today, Joni Eareckson Tada leads an international ministry, advocates for those with disabilities, and is a sought-after speaker, best-selling author, and radio host. This weekend marks the 50-year anniversary of the accident, and CT connected with Tada to discuss how God has worked in and through her life over the past five decades.

At the time of your diving accident, you were just 17 years old. If you could speak to the young woman you were at that age, what would you most want to say?

As a young girl I was so distracted, enamored, fascinated, infatuated. The world was before me and I had so many options. If I could go back, I’d take myself by the shoulders and shake them and say, “Look at me, Joni, listen: Love Jesus more, obey him more. Follow him more closely—not at a distance. Don’t second guess the Holy Spirit’s whispers and convictions in your heart. Don’t make your own decisions without checking in with God—follow him much more closely.”

How do you feel as you reflect back over the past 50 years?

Just the other day I was reading 1 Peter 5:10 [ESV], where Peter says, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace … will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” Honestly, I’m amazed that the last 50 years feel like only “a little while.” Maybe God does that when we finally do love Jesus more, when we finally do follow him more closely. Maybe he erases all the horror, all the despair, all the depression of the past when we learn how to trust God. He pushes …

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What’s Under the Microscope Can Lead to Worship

Finding beauty in the mundane: from our morning coffee to a nematode worm.

This year’s Wellcome Image Awards are truly awe-inspiring, and a reminder for me to look for moments of wonder and worship in my everyday routine. The online winners’ gallery includes a stunning map-like image of a mouse’s retina, a close-up of a human lens implant, and a teardrop-shaped bundle of DNA being pulled into a brand new cell. A non-scientist might not understand exactly what is being shown in these pictures, but with their bold colors, shapes, and textures, anyone can appreciate their beauty.

My field of biology has always been a very visual subject, and today that visual element can be expressed in stunning high-resolution color photographs. Wafer-thin sections of tissue can be stained with specialist dyes, showing where cell division might be going out of control in the first stages of cancer. Living cells are labeled with fluorescent tags, highlighting where a certain type of molecule is needed. Even in whole organisms, these natural fluorescent dyes can be used to track the development of a specific organ.

For some scientists, these experiences of awe and wonder point to something beyond science. The cell biologist Ursula Goodenough has written, “the remarkable beauty of the cell, of everything that is … continues to draw me to spiritual issues.”

Jeff Hardin, chair of the zoology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is a distinguished scholar who is humble enough to let the experience of beauty in the tiny worms he studies direct his attention to the God who is ultimately responsible for them. Hardin sees this beauty as “a pointer to God himself, the author of things that are beautiful and true.” He is fond of quoting C. S. Lewis, calling these …

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