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Sex, murder, and preaching: How much is too much for Sunday morning?

Some analogies stick with you. They embed themselves deep within your psyche. You could probably get rid of them with enough counseling or some seriously strong medication. But, short of that, they’re probably yours for the rest of your life.

I remember one in particular. My youth pastor was preaching that Sunday, and he usually started by warming us up with an entertaining story. That’s what a good comedian preacher does, right? This Sunday was no different.

“Have you seen Top Gun?” he began. The congregation tensed immediately. My youth pastor was known for taking sermons in interesting directions. And, this certainly sounded like it might qualify. “Do you know the part where Goose bets Maverick that he has to get ‘carnal knowledge’ of a girl in the bar before the night is over?” He continued. “And, to pull it off, they end up singing ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’….”

To be honest I don’t remember anything after that. Did he really just manage to combine alcohol, gambling, and sex in one sermon analogy? That’s impressive. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he somehow managed to relate this to a Bible verse somewhere. But, I really have no idea.

How much is too much in a sermon?

A similar question came up a while back as I was reflecting on theological themes in Dexter, a TV show about a serial killer. The show does an outstanding job illustrating brokenness, loneliness, alienation, hope, longing, and sin, among other things (see these video clips). So, it’s ripe with sermon illustrations. The problem is that most of them would be pretty “edgy.” He is, after all, a serial killer. So, we’re not talking about family friendly fare.

Would you use stuff like this in a sermon? It’s real, but is it appropriate?

Should a sermon be rated R?

I found myself reflecting on the same questions a few days ago, but from a very different direction. Carl Trueman posted some thoughts on how hard it was to preach through Judges 19, in which a woman is raped, murdered and dismembered. How do you preach that story to a congregation filled with people of all ages, backgrounds, and sensitivities? Sure it’s in the Bible, but does that make it okay for Sunday morning? And, if so, does that make some of these other examples fair game? Dexter is no more graphic than Judges.

How much is too much for Sunday morning?

As always, I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. But, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from those of you who preach regularly. How do you think about your analogies? Do you ever find yourself struggling over whether a particular analogy is “appropriate”? How do you decide? How do you balance the need to connect the hard and dirty realities that are part of everyday life, with contemporary sensibilities? Should we be “earthier” in our sermons? Or, would that just be capitulating to the more debased aspects of modern culture?

10 Fascinating Facebook Facts – and what they say about us

Pete Cashmore, founder and CEO of Mashable, wrote a piece for CNN today on 10 Fascinating Facebook Facts – and what they say about us, drawing on insights generated by several recent studies about Facebook users and their habits.

With more than 600 million people actively using Facebook, these studies in fact provide a deeper understanding of our evolving cultural norms: our values, our morals and our changing relationships between one another.

One of the more interesting facts:

3. People in Facebook relationships are happier than single people

In February 2010, Facebook marked Valentine’s Day by comparing the relationship status of its users to their happiness — this was surmised based on the level of positive or negative sentiment in the user’s Facebook updates.

The result: Those in relationships were found to be slightly happier than single people. Those who were married or engaged were also happier than single people on average.

However, Facebook users in an “open relationship” — where the partners are not exclusive to one another — were significantly less happy than single people. Monogamy, it seems, makes us happy.

Read the rest here.

Francis Chan and Erasing Hell

Ok Ok!!  I know everyone is tired of hearing about hell.  I myself checked out about a month ago.  However, since it had been a while since I checked in I thought I would see if anyone had posted anything fresh on the issue.  I was optimistically hoping to find a response from Rob Bell clarifying his position.  To this point I have not, but I did find a promo video for Francis (I literally almost wrote Jackie) Chan’s new book, Erasing Hell.  Don’t worry he’s just asking some good thought provoking questions.  The book sounds like a respectful  and thoughtful response (IN WHICH I NOW MAKE A BIG DISCLAIMER THAT I HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK YET!  THUS I AM NOT ENDORSING NOR DEFAMING IT!!!).


Bill Maher on why most Christians are no more Christian than he is

In this video, Bill Maher takes on evangelicalism, torture, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Now, just as fair warning, if you are a supporter of any one of those three things, there’s probably going to be something in the video that you won’t like. And, if you support two or more, you’ll probably hate it.

And, I should also mention that this is Bill Maher, so the video does contain some language. Not too much, but he likes to be naughty on occasion for shock

So, if he’s just picking on evangelicals and swearing, why post the video? Two reasons. (1) It’s a clear depiction of how many non-Christians view evangelicals. (2) He gets a lot of things right. It’s a short monologue intended to be humorous, so it’s hopelessly simplistic and reductionistic in places. But, his critique of evangelicals who pay more attention to political ideology than the Bible is spot on.

He opens the video with

New rule: If you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies and torture, you have to come up with a new name for yourself.

And, his closing thought hits the same theme theme even harder.

If you ignore every single thing Jesus told you to do, you’re not a Christian. You’re just auditing. You’re not Christ’s followers, you’re just fans. And, if you believe the earth was given to you to kick a#@ on while gloating, you’re not really a Christian. You’re a Texan.

Check out the rest of the video and let me know what you think.

HT Jason Goroncy via FB

Channeling Desire: A Theological Vision for Celibacy and Sexuality

Celibacy. No sex. At all. Talk to most people today about celibacy and you’ll probably get one of two reactions, possibly both:

  1. It’s impossible. Anyone who claims to be celibate is lying, or will be soon.
  2. It’s unhealthy. Sex is an essential part of being human that you shouldn’t just give up.

And, to support their convictions, many will appeal to the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. “See,” they’ll say. “Those priests tried to give up sex and they failed because it’s just not possible.” Or they’ll argue, “Look what happens when you try to give up such an essential part of being human. It’s just not healthy.”


Protestants seem particularly fond of such arguments, pointing at clerical celibacy as one of the more absurd aspects of Catholic dogma.

But, as Sarah Coakley points out in her article, “Taming Desire: Celibacy, Sexuality, and the Church,” a real theology of desire requires much deeper reflection. Coakley argues that if we look at how people respond to both clerical celibacy and homosexuality, we’ll find several, deeply-rooted problems.

1. There is both a widespread pessimism that celibacy is even possible and a shared consensus that certain forms of sexuality should never be expressed. So, we maintain that (clerical) celibacy is impossible, and at the same time we tell “sexual deviants” that they should remain celibate.

2. There is a focus on issues surrounding homosexuality and a corresponding neglect of the problems that plague so many heterosexual relationships. So, we spend considerable time discussing gay clerics, but devote surprisingly little attention to divorced clerics.

3. There is a tendency to view celibacy and marriage as opposites: one involving no sex, and the other as much sex as possible.

Coakely uses these three to demonstrate that popular sexual thought is deeply conflicted.

She then turns to an interesting discussion of Freudian sublimation. Unlike the common notion that Freud viewed all sexual sublimation as repressive and unhealthy, she points out that Freud’s more mature thought saw sublimation as a necessary channeling of energy toward other ends. So, even Freud could be a champion of celibacy, as long as it was a healthy redirection of energy and attention toward worthy goals.

Having dispatched the supposed anti-celibacy champion, Coakley turns her attention to Gregory of Nyssa as an example of a Christian thinker who saw sexuality as something that could be channeled toward a greater purpose. Referring to Gregor’s “On Virginity,” she says:

Indeed, what is truly interesting about Gregory’s treatise is the image that lies at the heart of the argument. It is the metaphor of the “stream” of desire, and of its right direction, use, and even intensification in relation to God. In this task, Gregory says, both celibates and married people are equally involved as a life-long ascetical exercise (“ascetical,” of course, here referring to the practice of disciplining and training one’s body, of learning, in other words, self-control).

It might be thought that Gregory intends this intensification of desire towards God as mutually exclusive with a sexually-active life in marriage. But interestingly, he repeats the same metaphor of the stream precisely to explain how sex in marriage can be a “good irrigation” provided it, too, is ordered in relation to God and so made “moderate” in comparison with the intensified and unified stream that desire for God demands.

It is not, then, to suppress passion that Gregory’s treatise is written, but actually (as stated by Gregory at the very outset) precisely to “create passion” for “the life according to excellence.” And so Gregory lauds virginity, not on account of its sexlessness, but because of its withdrawal from worldly interests.

So, she argues that “Gregory’s vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God…represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of ‘repression’ and ‘libertinism’.” Placing the discussion in a much broader theological framework, we can see that sexual desire is not an end in itself and break free from the constraints of modern sexual discourse.

When it comes to specific ethical issues, I’m sure that Sarah Coakley and I would differ significantly. But, she has done a great job here identifying the weakness of our modern notions of sexuality. We consistently reduce it to particular forms of sexual expression/repression. Instead, we need “to re-invest the debate with a theological and spiritual wisdom too long forgotten.” She is well-aware that this will not make the arguments go away, they are too complex for that, but she’s right to argue that this is a necessary step forward.

If you’d like to read further on some of the issues involved in developing a theological vision of sexuality, here are a couple of other posts on the subject:


The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities

Forbes magazine just put out its list of the 1oo Most Powerful Celebrities. This list factors in their total annual income, TV/radio rank, press rank, web rank, and social media rank,  to determine the total overall influence of each celebrity. Based on these criteria, here are the 10 most powerful celebrities in the world today:

  1. Lady Gaga
  2. Oprah Winfrey
  3. Justin Bieber
  4. U2
  5. Elton John
  6. Tiger Woods
  7. Taylor Swift
  8. Bon Jovi
  9. Simon Cowell
  10. LeBron James

We had an interesting discussion a while back about Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the World. And, most of the commenters agreed that the Time list was really more an indication of celebrity status than influence (unless the two are equated in some way). The Forbes list at least makes it clear that we’re dealing with celebrities, though it still equates “powerful” with media influence. Although I have to agree that this is true to some degree, I don’t have to like it.

And, I’m not even going to bother commenting about the people on this list. Why bother. Justin Beiber? Again? I’m going to bed.

Anti-Trafficking Conference at Western Seminary

For the second year, Western Seminary will be hosting an anti-sex trafficking conference. Portland has developed a reputation for being an international hub for sex-trafficking. And, the conference seeks to call Christian leaders and churches to respond to this crisis.

According to event organizers,

The purpose of this conference is to not only create awareness about sex trafficking in Portland, but to provide pastors and ministry leaders with the vision they need to empower Greater Portland churches to stand up and get engaged in whatever manner God calls them.

Here’s some more information on the conference. Space is limited. So, if you’re interested, check it out quickly.

DATE: Wednesday, June 15, 2011

TIME: 10 to 1:30pm (box lunch will be provided)

PLACE: The Johnson Chapel at Western Seminary (5511 SE Hawthorne,Portland)

ATTENDANCE IS LIMITED. Please register at:


Portland’s Faith community has wakened to sex trafficking as an evil that exists in our own community.  Western Seminary is hosting a second “A Portland Faith Awakening” conference calling the Church in Portland to unite and find its role in opposing sex trafficking.


Dr. Steven Tracy (Mending The Soul Ministries, Phoenix) will address the systemic components of sex trafficking/exploitation he has observed in working for nearly 20 years with abuse victims and more recently prostituted girls and women in the US and Africa.

Pastor Mike Wilkerson (Mars Hill Church, Seattle) will describe how his church’s “redemption group” movement has taken Isaiah’s prophetic calling to “bind up the broken-hearted” into streets and homes in Seattle, and the results to date.

Dr. Gerry Breshears (Western Seminary,Portland) will conclude with exhortation from scripture pointing to God’s clear calling to his people and how we must respond in order to be true to God’s calling.

Also, representatives will describe how the Church is participating inPortland’s system of response to the issue, and three mini-sessions are scheduled with speakers from Abuse Recovery Ministry & Services (ARMS), Mars Hill Church, and Pure Life Alliance.

6 Reasons You Should “Waste” Your Time Reading Fiction

A while back, I asked people to answer the question “What Have You Enjoyed Reading Lately?” And several people responded with some really good books. I’ve added a couple of them to my own reading list, so thanks for the suggestions.

creativity, creative, colors, painting

photo by Paul Mayers

But one thing that really stood out to me from the responses was the complete lack of fiction. In all the responses, not a single fiction title.

Now I suppose that could be because some of you are students who long for the day when you’ll actually be able to choose your own books. So you just don’t have time to read fiction. Or maybe some felt that because I’m a professor, they should only list sufficiently academic books. And, since I posted this on a Saturday, it’s possible that those of you who do enjoy fiction were just out enjoying life while the more studious types were still hunched over their keyboards.

So there could be many reasons for the non-fiction tilt of the responses. But it did make me wonder if there’s still a sense that reading fiction is ultimately a waste of time – or, at least, significantly less valuable than reading real books. If so, here’s my best shot at offering 6 reasons that I think reading fiction is important.

  1. Fiction reveals truth. There’s something about a good story that reveals truth in ways that non-fiction cannot. Why do you think Jesus chose to tell so many stories? A good story makes us experience truth. Although non-fiction is great for conveying information, fiction can make that same information sink into our bones in powerful ways.
  2. Fiction strengthens the imagination. Ours is a pragmatic culture. As a result, we often fail to appreciate the importance of the imagination. At best, it’s a diversion. At worst, it distracts from real concerns and takes time away from what truly matters. But imagination is the skill of seeing the world as it could be. And, when we’re facing a world ravaged by sin, what could be more important that the ability to see what could be?
  3. Fiction manifests beauty. Like any art form, good fiction has a unique ability to display beauty. The right combination of words, a powerful metaphor, a well-described scene, each of these uses the written word to display beauty in ways that no other art form can. And, although non-fiction has the same ability to manifest beauty through the written word, there’s something in the beauty of narrative that’s impossible to capture in any other medium. Soaking up a good story can be like watching a beautiful sunset – a reminder that there is still beauty in this broken world.
  4. Fiction expands horizons. We are storied beings; our stories define us. If you want to understand another person fully, you need to know his or her story. That’s one reason that biographies sell so well. They are a window into different world, a world other than my own. Fiction does the same. A good story draws us in, unveiling reality from a new perspective. For a short time, I can “become” a modern housewife, a 19th century slave, or something else dramatically removed from my own experience. Fiction expands my window on reality, letting me see reality through another’s eyes. And by drawing me in and making me part of the story, it reveals these new perspectives in ways that non-fiction typically doesn’t.
  5. Fiction makes better writers. One pragmatic issue to consider is that reading fiction makes you a better writer. Fiction authors use language differently than non-fiction writers. And any good writer needs exposure to a variety of writing techniques. Indeed, I’d suggest that any writer should seek exposure to a wide range of literary genres – poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, religion, etc. Each reveals a new way of writing that can expand the tools available to the aspiring author. And, in this way, good fiction shapes good writers.
  6. Fiction is fun. It would be easy to conclude that merely being “fun” isn’t a good enough reason for reading fiction. Why not? Unless I’m missing something, God created us for both work and play. Each manifests his glory in unique ways. So enjoying yourself is simply part of being who God has created you to be. And reading good fiction is fun. Enjoy it.

Now it’s important to realize that for all of this to work the fiction has to be good fiction. Reading trashy fiction still impacts us, but not necessarily in good ways. And, if what you read shapes what you write, then bad fiction produces bad writers (the writer’s version of “you are what you eat”). So be aware of what you read. A trashy novel is like a candy bar; every now and then may be okay, but don’t make a steady diet of it.

If you want to reflect more on the importance of reading fiction, here are some other articles you might enjoy:

10 Things We Learned from the Rob Bell Controversy

I got tired of the Rob Bell discussion pretty quickly, so I’ve generally been avoiding posts related to that controversy. But, Relevant Magazine has a great post today from Scot McKnight that is well worth reading. In the post,  What Love Wins Tells Us about Christians, McKnight offers an interesting reflection on the current state of evangelicalism, the way evangelicals respond to controversy today, and how our changing social/technological context shapes all of this.

Here’s his list 10 things that we’ve learned from this controversy:

  1. Social media is where controversial ideas will be both explored and judged.
  2. Megachurch pastors are being watched closely.
  3. Tribalism pervades the American religious scene.
  4. Hell remains a central Christian conviction and concern.
  5. Christian views of hell are both incomplete and in need of serious examination.
  6. Pressing questions require serious thinking.
  7. Missiology remains the center of gospeling in our world.
  8. Low church, non-denominational evangelicalism, of which Rob Bell is an exceptional representative, carries its own dangers.
  9. We are still asking a big question: What is the Gospel?
  10. What is evangelicalism and what is orthodoxy?

Make sure you read the whole post, but I thought his comments on the Gospel were particularly interesting. McKnight argues that the Gospel is still the centering reality of evangelicalism:

You can talk all you want about eschatology and about atonement theory and about evangelism and about worship, but the moment you cross a line others perceive to be too far in the wrong directions, you will be called out on it. The essential line in Christianity is the Gospel, and all theology is measured by its fidelity to the Gospel or its denial of the Gospel.

But, he then goes on to point out that we still don’t have a widely accepted definition of the Gospel:

How odd, I muse at times, that so many claim “gospel” for what they think but at the same time don’t recognize that the word “gospel” seems to be a contested term and category that demands careful words and definitions.

No wonder modern evangelicalism is having an identity crisis.

10 Historic Tweets that Captivated the World

Some tweets document history. Others make history. Others simply serve as a zeitgeist for how our culture and communication are evolving.

That’s how Mashable begins their fascinating list of 10 Historic Tweets that Captivated the World. It’s an interesting look at the collision of history, technology, and culture. (Somehow, though, Justin Bieber made it into this list as well. Why is it that every time I find an interesting list, his name is on it somewhere?)

Here are my two favorites.


Check out the rest here.

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