A Shelf Called Remember: How Frederick Buechner Built Up My Faith

The late writer’s books upended the way I think about almost everything.

After I heard the news of the death of Frederick Buechner this week, I walked over to a bookcase in my study that I visit more than any other.

These shelves are filled with what seems too small to say are my “favorite” authors. These are the ones who kept me Christian, who upended the way I think or feel about everything. The Buechner section of that bookcase seems like a disorganized chaos. There’s no coherent genre. Here’s a novel, there’s a Bible study, here’s a dictionary, there’s not just one but several autobiographies.

And there’s no coherent chronology, either. They are stacked not in the order they were written but in the order that I found them. That’s because, when I look at each one, I am retelling myself a story—of when I discovered each one of them, and what it was like to read each for the first time.

When I stand in front of those shelves, I’m doing what Buechner asked us all to do. I am listening to his life, and to my own.

The first book on the shelf is an old copy of A Room Called Remember, a collection of essays that I discovered as a teenager while rifling through the discard table of a public library. When I started reading, what caught my attention was a serious Christian who seemed to see what I could feel but couldn’t really articulate: that life is a mystery, a mystery that’s a plotline, a plotline that connects us with the story of Jesus.

These stories, he wrote, “meet as well as diverge, our stories and his, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that even by his absence as well as by is presence in our lives, we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.”

A …

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Chinese Christians Survived Discrimination in Indonesia. Now the Church Is Growing Spiritually.

Q&A with pastor Samuel Fu on the evangelical challenges in the nation of a thousand islands.

When Christians around the world today think of Indonesia, the first thing that may come to mind is “the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.” However, Indonesia is a culturally and religiously diverse country. Christians are an estimated 10 percent of Indonesia’s population of 210 million, putting Indonesia in the upper third of countries with the largest numbers of Christians.

Today, millions of the Chinese diaspora community live in Indonesia (estimated numbers range from more than 2 million to more than 7 million, depending on the statistical method). There are Chinese churches with different traditions and compositions throughout Indonesia.

Historically, Chinese in Indonesia were discriminated against and marginalized at various times. How did the Chinese church in Indonesia survive and develop in the difficult past? In today’s Indonesia, there are also some unique regulations on religious practices. What impact would that have on Chinese church growth? What evangelical challenges and opportunities do Chinese churches in Indonesia face serving the younger generation in today’s multicultural environment?

The following is part of a transcript of an interview of pastor Samuel Fu of Pontianak Congregation of West Kalimantan Christian Church by David Doong, general secretary of the Chinese Coordination Center for World Evangelism (CCCOWE) in February 2022.

Multiculturalism in the nation of a thousand islands

Doong: If you were to introduce Indonesia to people who didn’t know much about it, what would you say? What is the situation of the Chinese immigrants in Indonesia?

Fu: Indonesia is a country of a thousand islands, or nusantara in Indonesian. It is a country composed …

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The Gospel According to Dungeons & Dragons

The fantasy role-playing game’s theological dimensions can be spiritually formative.

In my four years of teaching theology at Wheaton College, one of my most memorable meetings was with a student wanting to know how best to defend Dungeons & Dragons to skeptical relatives.

Students ask me all kinds of things during my office-hours appointments, but this was a first. I was aware of D&D’s role in the satanic panic of the 1980s, but I assumed most suspicion toward the game had disappeared now that cooler heads and more informed minds had prevailed.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Dungeons & Dragons is the oldest commercially available fantasy role-playing game. Now in its fifth edition, D&D has been around since 1974 when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published their first set of rules.

Though it’s been played for almost half a century, we’ve witnessed something of a revival in recent years, spurred by the success of Stranger Things, D&D web series like Critical Role, and the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also a whole field of interdisciplinary scholarly research on role-playing games (RPGs) of all kinds.

I started playing D&D a few years ago, motivated largely by a desire to connect with my adolescent son. Eventually, our whole family joined in the fun.

The first lockdown of the pandemic soon turned our family’s occasional dabbling into a weekly commitment. As I’ve written elsewhere, my family has survived the pandemic by both praying together and playing together—D&D has become for us what soccer or tae kwon do might be for others.

I’ve spent most of the past couple years serving as the game’s facilitator or narrator—referred to as a dungeon master—but I have also played in a few short-lived campaigns as one of …

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Justice Department Investigates Southern Baptist Convention Over Abuse

SBC has commited to cooperating with the federal investigation, which spans multiple entities.

A federal investigation will look into the largest Protestant denomination’s response to abuse, following a bombshell report commissioned and released by the Southern Baptist Commission (SBC) in May.

The SBC Executive Committee confirmed on Friday that the Justice Department “has initiated an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, and that the investigation will include multiple SBC entities.”

The general counsel for the Executive Committee (EC)—which oversees day-to-day business for the convention and was the subject of the SBC’s own abuse investigation—said the EC has received a subpoena, but no individuals have been subpoenaed at this point.

The SBC and its entities have committed to cooperating with the investigation.

A statement signed by the presidents of each SBC entity and seminary referred to their involvement as part of their ongoing commitment to transparency and abuse reform.

“While we continue to grieve and lament past mistakes related to sexual abuse, current leaders across the SBC have demonstrated a firm conviction to address those issues of the past and are implementing measures to ensure they are never repeated in the future,” it read.

An independent investigation by Guidepost Solutions into the EC, released in May 2022, found that over the past 20 years, its leaders had compiled a secret list of more than 700 abusive pastors, mishandled allegations, and mistreated the victims who asked for help.

The investigation, which cost over $2 million, spanned 330 interviews and five terabytes of documents collected over eight months.

Hours before the EC confirmed the Justice Department …

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Why We Preach for Proper Names

The local church is small and placed for a reason.

The first time a pastor ever made me cry out of frustration was when I was 18 years old and working as an intern at a megachurch. I proposed that I spend the summer focusing on about 10 middle school girls, intentionally developing relationships with them.

“Just 10?” the pastor responded, berating me for wasting his time on a small vision. He wanted to be wowed by numbers and metrics. He wanted not just a small group of girls to know Jesus more deeply but a revival where hundreds would be baptized.

This pastor, while I disagree with him, isn’t uniquely evil. He was simply influenced by ill-formed impulses in evangelicalism to grandiosity and efficiency. But we as a church need to rediscover the goodness of smallness and particularity. If we do not, we are in danger of trading depth for shallowness and discipleship for spectacle.

Arguably the most important institution in America today is the local church. And one of its most important and prophetic callings in our moment is to remain, characteristically, local—that is, committed to a particular people in a particular place.

Wendell Berry said that the things we “love tend to have proper names.” We cannot love the church or the world abstractly. Instead, when we preach and minister to others, we must learn to do so for people with proper names in a place with a proper name.

Jesus’ ministry is the ultimate example of embracing smallness and particularity. “The glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God,” wrote former archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. “Our Lord devoted himself to …

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Stand By Me. But Don’t Be a Bystander.

Pay attention to the sin of passivity, especially in church leaders dealing with abused women.

In a lot of undergraduate psychology programs, a legendary crime case comes up. Kitty Genovese was raped, robbed, and repeatedly stabbed outside her Queens, New York, apartment building in 1964.

Although the killing was horrific, the case isn’t studied for its gruesomeness. Professors don’t generally focus on Genovese or her murderer but rather on the bystanders and neighbors who, according to reports, heard her screams for help but didn’t act to save her life.

Their supposed indifference is explained by a social theory known as the “bystander effect,” which says a bystander is less likely to assist someone if they’re in a group rather than alone.

In short, the response to one woman’s murder reveals the common evil of people “standing by” out of self-protection and passivity.

Something similar happens in Judges chapter 19. An unnamed victim is identified by her connection to a Levite. This man, commanded to follow God’s Law, should have been her safeguard. But shockingly, he throws her into the hands of her abusers.

The Old Testament is packed with narratives of seemingly obscure women like the Levite’s concubine. Some of these stories are rarely taught and largely unknown. And yet, they are part of the canon of Scripture—divinely inspired words that unfold the grand story of redemption. So what do we miss from the larger portrait when we overlook its dimmer corners?

And how might these dark stories—in this case, the account of a molested woman and her indifferent priest—diagnose our own hearts amid the church abuse crisis of our day?

In the Book of Judges, we find a Levite man bending God’s law by marrying a nameless …

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Elisabeth Elliot’s Lost Manuscript

While searching through old files, radio producers at Back to the Bible discovered an unpublished work written by the late missionary pioneer.

When people pass on, their loved ones or legacy holders sometimes sift through old papers and discover a stash of love letters or a forgotten stock certificate. Once in a while, that good fortune is a gift to the public.

Last year, Kathy Reeg, the president of the Elisabeth Elliot Foundation, reached out to Back to the Bible, the producers of Elliot’s long-running radio show, Gateway to Joy, in search of some information about Elliot’s past work.

In the process of looking for that other project, the team made an extraordinary discovery: A long-buried computer file contained an unpublished devotional by Elliot called Heart of God: 31 Days to Discover God’s Love for You. The book is scheduled for release this September by DaySpring.

“We ran across it strictly by accident,” said Reeg. “But nothing is accidental. Everything is providential.”

She knew there were a few unpublished materials in the archives, but the discovery of Heart of God was a complete surprise. A staffer at Back to the Bible told her how sorry they were they hadn’t found it earlier.

“No,” Reeg replied. “This is all God’s timing.”

The story of the manuscript’s discovery is also the story of a relationship between Reeg and Elliot.

“I got to know Elisabeth through her writing and later her daily Gateway to Joy broadcast, just as so many others have,” said Reeg. “I’d heard her speak in person at a seminar and had even exchanged letters with her after her book The Shaping of a Christian Family released.”

After Elliot was diagnosed with dementia in 2001, Reeg began corresponding with Elliot’s husband, Lars Gren, first as she was …

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Baby Blues: How to Face the Church’s Growing Fertility Crisis

If current rates continue, most religious communities in America will shrink by more than half within three generations. But nondenominational Christianity might buck the trend.

Birth rates in the United States are near record lows, but not for everyone.

Under the surface of the fertility decline is a little-noticed fact: Births have declined much more among nonreligious Americans than among the devout.

Data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) from 1982 to 2019, along with data from four waves of the Demographic Intelligence Family Survey (DIFS) from 2020 to 2022, point to a widening gap in fertility rates between more religious and less religious Americans.

In recent years, the fertility gap by religion has widened to unprecedented levels. But while this difference may comfort some of the faithful who hope higher fertility rates will ultimately yield stable membership in churches and synagogues, these hopes may be in vain. Rates of conversion into unfaith are too high, and fertility rates too low, to yield stable religious populations.

Past religious fertility

Since 1982, the NSFG has asked respondents about their religious attendance and their recent fertility history. In recent years, it has operated as a continuous annual survey.

As a result, data from over 70,000 women surveyed from 1982 to as recently as 2019 can be used to estimate fertility rates for three broad groups of women: those without any religious affiliation, those with religious affiliation but less than weekly attendance, and those with at least weekly attendance.

Total fertility rates are estimated by using a given group’s current birth rates by age to guess how many children a woman would end up having over the course of her life. In practice, however, birth rates shift as women get older, and of course religious identity can change over time, as well, so fertility measures of this kind are unlikely to perfectly …

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Moral Failings in the Pulpit Lead to Moral Injury in the Pews

Church and pastoral abuse can trigger a unique form of PTSD.

I first encountered the concept of moral injury during my MDiv program at the University of Chicago in an anthropology class called Humans After Violence.

The MDiv program required each of us to intern at a site of our choosing for the middle year of the program, and I’d opted to work with the clergy at my church. Earlier that year, our church had discovered reports of our priest’s abuse of power, and he was removed from leadership.

Initially, my school supervisors worried it might be a bad idea for me to work at a church where so many of us still felt betrayed and uncertain. But I wanted to conduct my internship at a church that was asking questions about how to do community and how to steward power well—rather than at a church that could gloss over these conversations simply because they were functioning better.

Halfway through the internship, I signed up for the class hoping it would help me understand what our community was experiencing. The professor told us she aimed to explore “where violence leaves us—or rather, how violence doesn’t leave us.”

Through examining various case studies, I learned that trauma is not necessarily about the way someone is hurt but about how they carry their hurt. I also discovered that the concept of PTSD was developed by mental health professionals who worked with Vietnam veterans.

What captured me the most, though, was the concept of moral injury—a term developed by these military therapists after they noticed that some classic PTSD symptoms in vets were sparked not by a reminiscence of physical threat to life but by a profound violation of their moral sensibilities. Moral injury could occur, for instance, after obeying a trusted superior’s …

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Foursquare Abuse Response Ignites Fight over Transparency

An investigation found a “culture of unchecked power” at a Virginia college. Denominational leadership has declined to speak about it publicly.

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel has suspended a safeguarding team that was working with students who accused a former college president of manipulation, bullying, and harassment.

Members of the team—along with Foursquare ministers and former students at the affiliated school in Christiansburg, Virginia—were raising questions about how the Pentecostal denomination handled a third-party investigation into the allegations. Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) found that Mike Larkin, president of Ignite Life Pacific University, misused his authority and that Foursquare failed to set up adequate structures of oversight and accountability.

But at the denomination’s national convention in June, ministers demanded to know why they hadn’t heard any specifics about GRACE’s report. They criticized board members for not taking abuse seriously enough and voted to recommend the 11-member safeguarding team be given more power and freedom from board interference. In late July, the board informed the team their work would be put on pause.

Larkin, a Los Angeles cop who became a charismatic minister in the 1980s, was a prominent figure in The Foursquare Church until he resigned from the Virginia school in 2019. Starting in the late 1990s, he served in the national leadership of the 100-year-old Pentecostal denomination with an estimated 255,000 regular attenders. Then Larkin turned his attention to discipleship and education. He launched Ignite at the flagship Foursquare school in Southern California in 2008. He called it a “reproducible, hands-on ministry where discipleship, academics, global ministry and local community outreach are all synchronized together.” …

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