Commentary: On ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ After Another Mass Shooting

Prayer—and lament—is the proper first response to tragedy.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in response to the 2015 San Bernardino attack.

We can say with some confidence that all the following are true.

1.a. When news of a tragedy reaches us, almost all of us find our thoughts overwhelmed for minutes, hours, or days, depending on the scope, severity, and vividness of the loss. This is called empathy—our ability to put ourselves in the place of others and imagine their suffering and fear, as well as heroism and courage, and to wonder how we would react in their place.

1.b. Almost all human beings, whatever their formal religious affiliation, find themselves caught up in a further reaction to tragedy: reaching out to a personal reality beyond themselves, with grief, groaning, and petition for relief. Even those far from the church will find themselves, almost involuntarily, addressing God in these moments. This is, in a way, another and perhaps higher form of empathy. It reflects our instinct that our own experience of personhood, identification, and love must ultimately reflect something—or Someone—fundamental to the cosmos who is personal, who has identified with us, and who responds to us and all the world with love.

1.c. Unless the tragedy is literally at our door, this empathic response—call it “thoughts and prayers”—is all that is available to us in the moments after terrible news reaches us. If the tragedy is literally at our door and thus is happening to us rather than just being reported to us, we know that an astonishing number of human beings act with courage and resilience even in the face of the most terrible evil. They also, if given time to speak or otherwise communicate to others not facing their moment …

Continue reading…

NHCLC: Thousands of Puerto Rican Churches Wrecked by Maria

Caribbean Christians try to offer sanctuary while working to repair their own.

Just over a week after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, reports are beginning to reveal its impact on the island’s Christian community, including more than 1 million Protestants.

Approximately 3,000 churches were damaged or destroyed by the Category 4 hurricane, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) estimated. Wanda Rolón, an NHCLC board member and one of Puerto Rico’s best-known pastors, said that she was “not aware of a single church that escaped damage or harm.”

In addition to flooding, downed trees, and buildings ripped apart by 150 mph winds, the storm cut off electricity and communications networks. The Christian TV station, CDM Internacional, as well as several Christian radio stations went off the air. A Bible distribution ministry lost its inventory when its building was hit.

Of about 90 Southern Baptist churches in Puerto Rico, so far the North American Mission Board (NAMB) has heard from a dozen, all of which suffered limited damage, Baptist Press reported.

As relief efforts make their way out from San Juan, local churches serve as a crucial connection point for spiritual and physical support.

“We don’t have buildings right now to have meetings,” evangelist and doctor Luis Paz told CT in Puerto Rico last Sunday. “We are outside, bringing hope to people, the ones that need the most. We have brothers and sisters who don’t have homes right now, but the church is open to them.”

About half of Puerto Ricans go to church at least once a week, according to the Pew Research Center. (Most of the island’s 3.4 million residents are Catholic, and about a third are Protestant.) But some churches haven’t had power since …

Continue reading…

1 in 3 Protestant Churchgoers Personally Affected by Suicide

Survey also finds one-third of victims were attending church before their death, but few pastors knew of their struggle.

Suicide remains a taboo subject in many Protestant churches, despite the best efforts of pastors, according to a new study from LifeWay Research.

Eight in 10 Protestant senior pastors believe their church is equipped to intervene with someone who is threatening suicide.

Yet few people turn to the church for help before taking their own lives, according to their churchgoing friends and family. Only 4 percent of churchgoers who have lost a close friend or family member to suicide say church leaders were aware of their loved one’s struggles.

“Despite their best intentions, churches don’t always know how to help those facing mental health struggles,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

A common tragedy

Suicide remains a commonplace tragedy, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 44,000 Americans took their own lives in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 34, and the fourth leading cause of death for those 35 to 44.

LifeWay Research found suicide often affects churches. Researchers surveyed 1,000 Protestant senior pastors and 1,000 Protestant and nondenominational churchgoers who attend services at least once a month, in a study sponsored by the American Association of Christian Counselors, Liberty University Graduate Counseling program, the Liberty University School of Medicine, and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

LifeWay’s study found three-quarters (76 percent) of churchgoers say suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed in their community. About a third (32 percent) say a close acquaintance or family …

Continue reading…

Think Fake News Is Scary? Try False Teaching

We learn to spot a lie by studying the truth.

The headline hit my Facebook feed at the peak of lake season: “Freshwater Shark Caught in Lake Lewisville.” Purportedly, a shocked fisherman landed a shark in the lake adjacent to my town. By the time the local news debunked the story, it had been shared over 100,000 times.

It is a classic example of “fake news,” complete with a clickbait photo of a child next to a giant shark on a dock. In a sly stroke of comedy, the fisherman’s name was listed as “Ima Lion,” and his granddaughter’s as “Shebe Lion.”

Shared over 100,000 times. The fine residents of Lewisville, minds cuing the theme from Jaws, swore never again to enter the murky waters of Lake Lewisville. My neighbors laughed in hindsight, but the fake news provider laughed all the way to the bank.

Fake news is not always as benign as an improbable shark tale. It can influence elections, defame character, incite unrest, and propagate fear. It has always existed, but digital media has given it momentum and reach like never before.

Growing awareness of its prevalence and potential dangers has reminded us of the importance of gauging the credibility of a story’s source, fact-checking its content, and analyzing its message for bias. It has also renewed our appreciation for time-tested, reliable news sources that have consistently demonstrated journalistic integrity.

Think fake news is scary? Try false teaching. The Christian equivalent to journalistic misinformation commits the same kinds of deception with much more at stake. Like fake news, false teaching has enjoyed a long history. The original misinformer appears in the earliest moments of human history, whispering into Eden’s atmosphere, “Did God really …

Continue reading…

God Loves a Cheerful Itemizer

Experts assess how Trump tax plan to double the standard deduction would cost ministries bigly.

If you make between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, you’ll probably give less to charity under President Donald Trump’s proposed tax plan.

So says a study commissioned by Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs.

Back in May, researchers from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy ran the numbers on the Trump administration’s proposal to double the standard deduction from $6,300 to $12,600 for individuals, and from $12,600 to $24,000 for joint filers.

This week, key Republicans affirmed the plan, which also increases the child tax credit and eliminates most itemized deductions except for mortgage interest and charitable contributions.

The changes, which still have to get past Congress, would mean less money in the federal government’s pockets—and also mean less for ministries.

“The Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code is just that—a framework,” said Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). “The details”—many of which are left up to Congress to decide—“are what will tell the real story.”

Busby broke down for CT how Trump’s proposals would affect charitable giving:

  • Lowering corporate tax rates and the pass-through rates for small business are pro-growth elements, placing more dollars in the hands of those who support churches and ministries. That is good for ministries, but the impact will tend to be long-term.
  • The elimination of the personal deduction reduces available resources to make charitable deductions.
  • The repeal of the death tax removes the significant incentive for many to make charitable contributions to avoid this tax.

Continue reading…

Interview: Let’s Save the University from Secular Privilege

The academy has lost its pluralism. Here’s how the church can help find it.

This last school year saw a number of incendiary cases related to freedom of speech and freedom of association in the American university. Faculty have experienced what George Yancey calls Christianophobia and student groups, too, have had their fair share of fights on both private and public campuses. At Colorado State University, for example, a Christian organization called Students for Life (SFL) applied for a school grant to bring a pro-life speaker to campus and after their application was denied, filed a federal lawsuit (which they recently settled). SFL joins the growing numbers of Catholic and Protestant student groups struggling to maintain or regain a voice on campuses around the country.

Mary Poplin, who teaches at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, has spent most of her professional career studying education, worldviews, and most recently, the subject of “secular exclusivity,” which in her opinion has played a significant part in the SFL case and others like it. The author of Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews, Poplin, along with Barry Kanpol, recently edited a collection of essays titled Christianity and the Secular Border Patrol: The Loss of Judeo-Christian Knowledge.

She sat down with CT in Austin, Texas, to talk about the rising secularity in higher education—and what the church can do about it.

How would you define “secular privilege,” a term introduced by David Hodge in one of the essays in your book?

Here’s a great example. When [US Senator] Dianne Feinstein interviews a candidate, Amy Barrett, for a judgeship, she presumes that she herself is neutral and that this candidate is not neutral just because she’s …

Continue reading…

Alan Jacobs: Hating Your Neighbor Will Make You Dumb

How tribalism and culture-warring have ravaged our ability to think.

Alan Jacobs’s wonderful new book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds never mentions the concept of black magic. But it offers a lively antidote to magical thinking nonetheless.

As any wizard knows, to practice magic is to marshal the powers of the universe into a concentrated point. Spirits, forces of nature, and other humans are subjected to the magician’s wishes. If I practice magic, I am trying to bend reality to my will. Aleister Crowley, the magician dubbed the “wickedest man in the world,” famously summed up the occultist philosophy: “Do what thou will is the whole of the law.”

This might sound like the stuff of medieval fantasy, but a quick glance at our culture confirms that habits of magical thinking are stubbornly persistent. Wherever one finds groups and individuals intent on ramming an agenda through the system—perhaps by manipulating boardroom membership, stacking organizations with the “right” people, or enacting ideologically driven purges—one finds shades of black magic. We don’t call political lobbying the “dark arts” for nothing.

Petitions, protests, and popular rallies reveal our deeply ingrained belief that voices shouting loudly in unison can shape reality. In today’s climate, many of us crave clear battle lines between good and evil and abhor anyone who dares admit that complex problems don’t have simple answers. And heaven help any poor public figures foolish enough to sincerely change their minds.

Repugnant Cultural Others

All these trends have hampered our ability to think carefully, judiciously, and generously. As a professor and public intellectual, Jacobs is well aware of the difficulties posed …

Continue reading…

Does Your Pastor Need a Friend?

A study reveals why relational ministry can leave our inner circle empty.

My pastor recently asked me, “Why is it so hard for people to see pastors as friends and not just pastors?” In one respect, the question caught me by surprise. He is part of a large pastoral staff of a big and vibrant church with a reputation for being highly relational. How can someone whose life revolves around forming caring relationships have a lack of friendship?

It turns out my pastor is far from alone. In a recent study, my team discovered that most relational-style pastors and missionaries average fewer personal relationships than the typical adult, and an alarming number have too few close confidants to support them in their life and calling.

Though it may be tempting to simply encourage ministers to seek more relationships, many ministers are faced with a trade-off between quality and quantity. Those with a large number of very intimate relationships have a smaller overall social network, and those who form lots of relationships have impoverished inner circles. Failing to get the right balance corresponds with burnout and ministry ineffectiveness.

Quantifying an Inner Circle

Our research is rooted in the idea that humans naturally have a certain number of personal relationships to which they gravitate. Known as “Dunbar’s Number” because it was first discovered by British evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the number of genuinely personal relationships that we can actively maintain averages around 150 people but varies broadly. Some people can handle more and some less, but 150 seems to be the human norm.

Interestingly, Dunbar and colleagues note that 150 people is both the approximate size of typical small-scale human villages and about the number of people who can live or work together …

Continue reading…

Kaepernick, Speech, and a Job: The Cleat May Soon be on the Other Foot

Free speech is important, but is it always helpful, and how does it relate to employment?

Free speech can be quite controversial.

But this shouldn’t be surprising. If we all agreed on everything, we wouldn’t need the First Amendment. Unpopular speech is why we have the First Amendment. And, let me be clear, Colin Kaepernick was exercising his First Amendment right when he kneeled during the national anthem.

Yesterday, President Trump exercised his right to speak out when he called on NFL owners to release players who took a knee during the anthem. And when the president called on fans to boycott NFL football, that was still about citizens exercising a right.

So, none of these things is illegal. But the question is, Are they helpful?

To be honest, I don’t know much about football. Google only recently told me that Kaepernick is a quarterback. He has been protesting what he sees as racial injustice in America by kneeling during the national anthem.

Now, let me say, I’m not a big fan of “totalizing” protests—the national anthem is a symbol of many things and so much of that is good. Furthermore, the flag and the anthem represent the sacrifice of many who have fought and died for freedoms, including the freedom of speech we are discussing today. As such, I do find such protests disrespectful.

However, I do not have to be a fan of the protest to reflect on the president’s comments and how Christians might react. So here are a few ways we might respond to what is now a national conversation surrounding Kaepernick and President Trump.

First, the response of many African Americans (including fellow Christians) should give us pause to reflect on their response.

Sure, I get it. Like me, many of you are offended by people who dishonor the flag and the anthem. Patriotism is important …

Continue reading…

Fake Apocalypse News Shouldn’t Eclipse Real Tragedy News

There are real issues that deserve full coverage, not another fake story about the end of the world.

The need for good journalism has never been more pressing. Time and time again I have written about fake news. And over and over we find more of it, and more people believing it.

Rohingya Muslims are fleeing Myanmar for their lives. Puerto Rico is picking up the pieces after a devastating hurricane. One of the most divisive pieces of legislation in American history is being debated. North Korea and the U.S. are dancing around rhetoric last heard in the Cold War. It appears that no journalist is facing a shortage of issues and controversies worthy of their time—real issues that deserve full coverage and our attention.

In light of all of these significant and worthy issues that should deserve coverage, my question to the media is, why instead have you chosen to dedicate significant time and resources to the ravings of a poorly-credentialed conspiracy theorist like David Meade?

The “expert” of a profession that has been called ‘Christian Numerology,’ Meade has been the subject of article after article, bolstering his claims and linking his views to mainstream Christian theology. While some may see the unfounded discoveries of men like Meade as urgent news, I feel compelled to point something out: there is a lot going on in the world right now.

As I said in the Washington Post, Meade is a “made-up expert in a made-up field talking about a made-up event.” So, why is he in so many news reports today?

Taking Our Eyes Off the Good

In giving people like Meade a platform, media outlets have unwittingly legitimized his illegitimate findings. They’ve given (yet another) ill-informed Christian a megaphone by which he (and others before him) can make Christians look foolish and distract us from …

Continue reading…