The Faith of the ‘Killable People’

Why “prison Pentecostalism” is flourishing among criminals, gang members, and others on society’s margins.

Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.

We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”

But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”

To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.

For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, …

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500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified

Luther’s law/gospel insight is as brilliant as ever—especially in 21st century America.

Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.

In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a …

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Why Critics Are Wrong to Scold Evangelicals for Historical Rootlessness

A new book demonstrates the movement has been “a perennial and recurring feature of Christian history.”

About 20 years ago, theologian D. H. Williams wrote a book called Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. He focused on a certain sector of evangelicalism—the free church tradition, including many Baptists, independent Bible churches, nondenominational churches, and the like. These churches were admirably devoted to preaching and studying Scripture, but they were dangerously neglecting the rich legacy handed down to them from the church’s past. Williams worried that this disregard of the historical church’s wisdom would spell disaster, gradually resulting in shallow worship, superficial discipleship, and weak missional and social engagement, among other ills.

Accordingly, he issued a clear warning: “If the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church. . . . Tradition is not something evangelicals can take or leave.”

Since Williams’s dire warning, contemporary evangelicals have made significant strides in linking their theology and practice not only to the early church, but to the church of the past two millennia. But critical voices still scold evangelicalism for its historical rootlessness. Such criticism often comes from adherents of Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, especially those who were formerly evangelicals.

In 2002, observing the recent drift of evangelicals toward Roman Catholicism, theologian Scot McKnight speculated on the cause:

Many feel they are isolated in the faith, in a modern evangelical movement that has cut itself off from the history of the Church. …

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A Call to Faith in Action: Mass Incarceration & The Church’s Response

IPM, CACE, and FPE hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration

On Wednesday, the Institute for Prison Ministries (IPM) of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College hosted the GC2 Summit on Mass Incarceration. This event was co-sponsored by Wheaton College’s Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) and Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics (FPE).

The first session began with a presentation by Dr. Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, DC. Her topic was “What Is Mass Incarceration.” The second segment was an interview with Dr. Vince Bacote, Director of CACE. He addressed “Is This A Christian Obligation?” The next speaker was Joseph Williams, Executive Director of Correctional Ministries & Chaplains Association, who spoke on “Reintegration and Collateral Sanctions.”

Jon Kelly, a local pastor and Colson Scholar, shared his experience of incarceration and post-incarceration. He was followed by Dr. Dean Trulear, National Director of Healing Communities in Philadelphia, PA, who spoke on “The Role of the Church.” The first session ended with an interview with Pete Leonard, Founder and Roast Master of I Have a Bean, which employs formerly incarcerated individuals.

The second session began with Professor David Iglesias, Director of FPE. A former federal prosecutor, he spoke on “Politics and Mass Incarceration.” The next presenter was Dr. Karen Swanson, Director of IPM, who focused on a survey of Protestant pastors’ views on correctional ministry. The next segment was an interview with Miea Walker, Engagement Coordinator for the Second Chance Alliance of the North Carolina Justice Center. She encouraged attendees to develop a new mindset on the issues of mass incarceration …

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Saturday is for Seminars and Church Signs: Monterey, Manhattan, and around Illinois

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer!

November Speaking Engagements

November 1-2
Homiletical Lectureship at Moody Bible Institute
Chicago, Illinois

November 4
Life Answers
West Chicago, Illinois

November 7-8
Exponential Regional – Chicago
Naperville, Illinois

November 7-8
Illinois Baptist State Association Pastors’ Conference
Decatur, Illinois

November 9-11
Organic Outreach Conference
Monterey, California

November 15-16
Church Planting Leadership Fellowship
New York, New York

November 25
Highpoint Church
Naperville, Illinois

Church Signs

And here are church signs! Back by popular demand.

Thanks, @johnstonalanc!

Thanks, @gabebernal!

Please tweet your church signs to @EdStetzer(or email to stetzerblog[@]gmail[.]com).

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

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We Need to Take Jesus’ Metaphor of Being Born Again More Seriously

It’s easy to ignore the painful, messy, universal experience of birth that Jesus was referring to.

Sometimes I tell people I’m an E. K., an evangelist’s kid. I heard my father use the words born again all the time. By the time I was an adult, the term had lost any meaning beyond the idea of “coming to Jesus” or praying a prayer that led to spiritual change. Born again was a label for the moment of conversion, but I had never thought of it as related to the concept of birth itself.

That was until I was studying the Gospel of John for my PhD and became pregnant with my second child, my son, Atticus. I came upon that familiar story in John 3 where Nicodemus meets with Jesus to speak with him.

I was struck by how many times the words born or birth are repeated in John 3, in part because I was preparing for my own son’s birth. I was also surprised that scholars describe John as mixing his metaphors when talk of being born again (v. 7) turns into talk about the wind of the Spirit (v. 8). I had started rethinking how metaphors work and I wanted to know what was with all of this birth language, and were these actually mixed metaphors or were they something else?

The way we interpret metaphors has recently shifted. Where previously metaphors were understood as equivalent statements (for example, “the man is a wolf” could be made into “the man is aggressive”), metaphor scholars such as George Lakoff, Gilles Fauconnier, and Mark Turner now argue that it is as important to pay attention to how the metaphor speaks to us as what the metaphor means. In fact, the how often provides a deeper understanding of the what. If we say “the man is a wolf,” it matters that wolves are not only aggressive but also sly and known for trickery. Thus, it matters that the man is compared …

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Pence: US Will Bypass UN and Aid Persecuted Iraqi Christians Directly

Vice president reveals USAID will provide direct assistance to religious minorities targeted by ISIS.

During a speech to advocates for the persecuted church, Mike Pence unveiled plans for the United States to provide more direct aid to Christians and other minorities facing genocide in the Middle East.

The vice president reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to defending religious groups persecuted by ISIS, announcing plans to visit the region in December and a strategic shift away from funding “ineffective” United Nations programs. Instead, Pence said President Donald Trump has directed the State Department to send aid directly through USAID and faith-based partners.

“We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence told the crowd gathered in Washington, DC, for the annual summit of In Defense of Christians (IDC).

“The United States will work hand in hand from this day forward with faith-based groups and private organizations to help those who are persecuted for their faith. This is the moment, now is the time, and America will support these people in their hour of need.”

The Christian population in the region has dwindled significantly, with two-thirds of believers in Iraq and Syria fleeing since 2011. A 2014 CT cover story by Philip Jenkins assessed how Iraqi Christians were “on the edge of extinction.”

“This is good news and we want to thank President Trump, Vice President Pence, and all those who have been working diligently on this issue,” said Frank Wolf, distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. “This should impact humanitarian aid for those living as internally displaced persons and refugees …

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Our Silence Is Music to God’s Ears

The most joyful noise God desires from us may be none at all.

I visited a monastery in Kentucky for a quiet weekend earlier this year. The chapel and guest rooms perch on a wide, green hillside overlooking a small, peaceful lake. My room was simply furnished, with a chair by the window overlooking the trees. The sisters there live in prayerful silence as they eat and work and walk gracefully around the campus. Their silence is interrupted only by singing and prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. This visit was a respite for me.

In my real life, I live in the city with my two lively, elementary-age children. They also move through life with grace—grace made gritty by frequent childhood conflicts, questions, and requests. When I first entered motherhood, I was surprised by how distressing it was to hear my newborn baby’s cry. I don’t know if I was distressed by the cry itself or by the weight of responsibility it represented, but his cry broke the silence of my old life.

Even with the best efforts, I don’t think one can ever fully prepare for life’s sudden seasons of change: the first day of school, a new city or apartment, a wedding, a funeral, walking into a new job. A certain clamor always accompanies change.

These days, I crave more silence than ever. But stillness takes practice as the force of life pulls us along. It’s uncomfortable at first. When I’m quiet, things float up to the surface from the shadow places in my heart that I haven’t wanted to deal with. But after a time, I can tune my ears to hear the still, small whisper of God. In silence, prayer comes up as wordless petitions and attentive expectation. In this, we affirm that prayer is a two-way conversation. Silence is the waiting posture that helps us to be poised …

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Inside the Museum of the Bible

The new museum wants to ignite passion for the Word through high-tech wizardry and scholarly detachment. Can it do it all?

Two blocks south of the National Mall in Washington, DC, a stately brick building with a recessed entrance faces Fourth Street. On either side of the entrance, two bronze doors the height of upended school buses stand adorned with the text of the Gutenberg Bible. They are perhaps the largest-scale homage ever made to the printing plates that brought Scripture into the age of mechanical reproduction, and, as with the original plates, the text on them protrudes backward. It is as though the doors are waiting to come unhitched and fall through a perfect 90-degree arc onto the street, indelibly impressing the city with the Word of God in the Latin of the Vulgate.

Each stacked line of text weighs roughly 380 pounds and was individually affixed to the doors. They don’t close, however; their function is purely decorative, and the recessed entrance plaza remains open year round. Beyond these doors opens an enormous hall paved with marble tiles.

Looking up, a visitor might see a sprawling digital canopy of trees, one of five possible scenes playing on a ceiling-mounted 140-foot-long LED display. The light emitted by the false sky intensifies in surrounding glass walls and polished floors; bystanders are awash in illumination. At the end of the hall, a floating staircase winds up into the air without the aid of steel supports; docents clad in Ancient Near Eastern garb shuffle by to assume stations in the world of the distant past.

On November 17, Museum of the Bible (MOTB) will open its doors to the public for the first time, claiming to be the most cutting-edge museum in DC. Lavish exhibits, futuristic technology, and hitherto-unseen artifacts await visitors on the upper floors, as do lingering questions about the museum’s …

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Catholic but not Roman

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the ‘Reforming Catholic Confession’ calls Protestants to unity.

Five hundred years on, some observers are wondering whether the nail Luther used to post his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door was a harbinger of a final nail in the coffin of Protestantism. In light of the many divisions in the church in the wake of the Reformation, do we truly have cause to celebrate? Should we mourn? Should we shrug off our divisions as the price to pay for truth?

This anniversary year gives us the opportunity to honor the legacy of the Reformation. We do so best not by whitewashing its imperfections but by retrieving its unitive spirit—in particular, the Reformers’ original vision for catholic unity under biblical authority.

The rationale

Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, had something like this in mind when, in January, he sent an email to me and others who were using terms like “mere Protestant Christianity” and “Reformed catholicity.” Walls and Ken Collins had just written Roman but Not Catholic, arguing Protestants are catholic too by virtue of identifying with the one true church down through the centuries, as well as with its great tradition.

Evangelicals yearning for the ancient catholic faith need not cross the Tiber. Indeed, Roman-centricity falls short of true catholicity in suggesting that Protestant churches are defective, despite the Reformers’ affirmation of creedal Christianity. Protestant catholicity is bounded only by the supreme authority of Scripture: hence not Roman, but Reforming catholicity.

A Protestant is first and foremost “one who publicly professes” (from the Latin pro and testare). The solas are shouts of praise as well as protest. What protests the Reformers made served the positive purpose …

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