What next, a jihad for Christ?

nicodemusI was reading this completely engrossing CNN story on Malika el Aroud, the widow of suicide bomber Abdessater Dahmane. He was one of the two fellows who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by pretending to be broadcast journalists. Their camera hid an explosive. Anyway, she now lives in Switzerland with her new husband running a fan website for Osama bin Laden.

The story says she grew up as a rebellious kid in Belgium but then had a change of heart:

Her life changed dramatically after she was expelled from school for striking a teacher who el Aroud said uttered a racial taunt. She descended into a whirlwind of unsuitable men, drugs, alcohol and nightclubs until she tried to kill herself with a drug overdose.

She said she then became a born-again Muslim and embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion. The strict laws gave her a sense of boundaries. It was in this circle that in 1999 she met and married the man who would kill Massoud.

Born-again Muslim? Isn’t that a curious phrase? What do you think about applying such a Christian description to another religion? I see other people, though not mainstream reporters, have used the phrase before, too. I’m wondering if Mrs. Suicide Bomber used that phrase or whether the reporter reworded what she said.

For those not in the know, here is where the phrase came from in the Gospel of John:

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

What do you think about using the “born again” language for non-Christians?

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Inclusivity is the new black

GrahamWe all agreed to take a look at Jon Meacham’s lengthy mash note to the sainted Billy Graham. I alternately enjoyed the Newsweek piece and felt it went a bit over the top in luscious praise. But I’m pretty sure I would have hated it if I hadn’t read Meacham’s earlier pieces on the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By that I mean that it took me awhile to get used to Meacham’s style, in which he denigrates biblical literalism, shares his own opinion by quoting other people, and writes in a breezy, nonjournalistic style. He’s basically the ultimate Episcopalian. He understands Christian doctrine but just wants everyone to get along already. So he pushes Christianity’s inclusivity over its exclusivity. But the man can sure write in a lively manner, which helps when you’re reading a gazillion-word piece on someone who never really interested you that much.*

Anyway, there were so many fascinating portions that I hope others highlight, namely the Watergate/anti-Semitism and Two Kingdoms areas. But I thought I would highlight this passage from the piece:

Graham spends hours now with his Bible, at once savoring and reconsidering old stories and old lessons. While he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord,” Graham says. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.” He has, then, moved from seeing every word of Scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative — a journey that began in 1949, when a friend challenged his belief in inerrancy during a conference in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. Troubled, Graham wandered into the woods one night, put his Bible on a stump and said, “Lord, I don’t understand all that is in this book, I can’t explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.”

Now, more than half a century later, he is far from questioning the fundamentals of the faith. He is not saying Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” Paul wrote, “then we shall see face to face.” Then believers shall see: not now, but then.

I think this is trademark Meacham. I mean, I really (really) doubt that Graham used the AP or mainstream media to make his point about how he views the inerrancy, inspiration or authoritative nature of the Word of God. I would not be surprised if Meacham does when describing his beliefs to his friends. So he kind of gets to use Graham to make the point that he has been trying to make in all the pieces I’ve linked. It also manages to downplay exclusivity and literalism in one fell swoop. Finally, Meacham also shows his knowledge of Christianity by mentioning the St. Paul passage.

Like I say, I enjoy Meacham. When I read him, I see the dominance of his personal style and views. I actually think the pieces are better for it. But man if that doesn’t prove tmatt’s point about the need for newsroom diversity.

We tend to look at bias or impartiality when it comes to individual stories. But my experience in the newsroom is that the bias is hidden much more deeply. It’s all about choosing which stories to write and how the story is reported. Think about how a writer like Meacham — who frequently writes against literalism — responds to Graham’s statements. Think about how a reporter who doesn’t believe in God might respond to the statements. Think about how a reporter who believes the Bible is the literal, nonfigurative Word of God might respond. I think most reporters would ask different sets of follow-up questions based on their given biases, education and perspective.

This is why newsrooms today are in such danger. They are filled with people with narrow fields of experience and education. And it shows in the paucity and weakness of coverage in many fields, religion being prime among them.

Photo via ChadChadBinks on Flickr.

*I have to share that my mom “got saved” by Billy Graham when she was a teenager. Sure, she had actually been baptized as an infant at her Evangelical and Reformed church. But she went with a neighbor to a crusade and feared they wouldn’t drive her home if she didn’t walk down at the altar call. I don’t know why I love that story so much, but I do.

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Aging Billy finally achieves humility, says Jon

Franklin Billy 1As noted in the past, Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham really doesn’t do ordinary journalism anymore.

Instead, he writes cover stories that are doctrinal essays that seek to guide Americans toward a more mature, nuanced, educated, intelligent approach to religious faith. This would bring us closer to Meacham’s approach, of course.

This week’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” feature — yet another report about Billy Graham as a lion in winter — is an instant classic and a perfect example of why Meacham is must reading for anyone striving to understand what is happening on the left side of American Evangelicalism. Meacham is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Repent! Repent of your doctrinal absolutes! Repent and embrace mystery and humility! Like me!”

So let me start with a personal note of my own. Regular GetReligion readers may remember my list of the three doctrinal issues that, in this era, tend to separate Christian liberals from Christian conservatives? As journalistic questions, I think they are relevant to Meacham’s epistle. As a refresher, they are:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Meacham leaves the Resurrection alone, but addresses the other two. The key is that the elderly Graham is, we are told, maturing into a more nuanced, mysterious view of Christianity. Thus, this new Billy can be held up as a moderate prophet whose example should be heeded by his less mature, more judgmental brethren. That means you, Franklin.

Here is the key passage:

A unifying theme of Graham’s new thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.” Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham’s view, only God knows who is going to be saved: “As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible’s Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven,” says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. “However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart.”

Surely Meacham knows that Graham has been giving these very same answers to basic questions for decades, at the very least since the hard lessons of the Watergate era. There is a reason that Christian fundamentalists have, since the 1950s or thereabouts, called Graham a dangerous man who has sold out to modernity. You can look it up.

What we needed here were a few specific questions and then some solid direct-quote answers from Graham himself. Other than strident voices on the far right, no orthodox Christian would claim to be able to see into the human heart and pass judgment. Graham has been saying that for decades. At the same time, he will also affirm that Jesus did not call himself “a” way, “a” truth and “a” way to eternal life.

In other words, I think Meacham needed to take a more journalistic approach. Ask the man specific questions. Print the answers. Read the man statements that he has made in the past and ask him to respond. Print the statements in the past and contrast them with his current words.

Then again, I am more interested in what Graham has to say about Graham than what Meacham has to say about Graham. Silly me. The GetReligion non-Borg will now weigh in.

(Photo from Baptist Press.)

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Some biased words about Robert Sloan

robertsloanbaylorAs I have stressed in the past, it has been hard for me to write about the wars at Baylor University because of my close connections with the campus. I’ve known Dr. Robert Sloan for many years and consider him a friend and colleague in the wider ecumenical world of Christian higher education.

I must admit I am surprised to hear that he is poised to become the new president of Houston Baptist University, although I can certainly see potential there that would attract his attention. It is a growing school with a quite diverse student body, which you would expect in a city like Houston. Along with Dallas Baptist University, it is part of the growing marketplace of Christian higher education in Texas.

And there is the catch, of course. Baylor is a growing power on the national level, but the wars that have shaped the campus in recent decades have all centered on whether my alma mater is a Christian campus or a Baptist campus. It will be hard for Baylor to become a major player in Christian higher education at the national level until that issue is settled. Again, let me stress that this analysis is my own (click here for a recent post on a related topic).

So Baylor is a major, major Baptist school — one of the remaining strongholds of true “moderate” Southern Baptist life. Baylor tends to be a kingdom unto itself, and many Baylor people like it that way.

I have been surprised, as I read the usual suspects this morning (here at the Dotcom Cafe in the beautiful and relatively cool Burnsville, N.C.), that no one has noticed that Houston Baptist has already jumped into the global Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. (I will note, again, that I lead the CCCU’s journalism program.)

The moderate Baptists at Associated Baptist Press picked up, as expected, another political element of this story:

If elected, Sloan will succeed Doug Hodo, who served as HBU’s second president from 1987 until his retirement in July. During Hodo’s tenure, HBU’s endowment grew from $30 million to more than $75 million, and the school’s total unrestricted revenue increased from about $13.3 million a year to $33.3 million.

Also during his time as HBU president, the university took steps to loosen its ties to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. HBU trustees voted in May 2000 to create a self-perpetuating majority on their board, rather than continuing to allow the BGCT to elect all its trustees. And three years later, HBU entered into a fraternal relationship with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, a fundamentalist group that broke away from the BGCT.

BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade praised the HBU search committee for its recommendation and said his “great hope” and expectation is that Sloan’s election as president would strengthen the relationship between HBU, the BGCT, its churches and its other institutions.

So this article notes that Houston Baptist weakened, but did not cut, its ties to the Baptist left and built a non-binding bridge to the Baptist right. The word “fundamentalist” is used several times in this story as part of that internal warfare, since Associated Baptist Press is the voice of the “moderates.”

What the article fails to note is the university’s decision to align itself with a global network that is openly “Christian,” but not narrowly “Baptist.” The CCCU is broadly ecumenical, ranging from Mennonites to, yes, Southern Baptists. In other words, the “Christian” issue is settled, yet Houston Baptist is not tied to either army in the Southern Baptist war. This is an option that quite a few Southern Baptist schools have chosen in recent years. It is not a narrow, “fundamentalist” option, as as one glance at the CCCU’s membership list will tell you.

It will be interesting, of course, to see how this move by Sloan affects Baylor and other schools in Texas. It wll be interesting to see if this affects the long-pending decision about the location of George W. Bush’s presidential library. It will be interesting to see if any mainstream newspaper in Texas bothers to note that Sloan has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of Basel in Switzerland, as well as experience in Baptist pulpits.

It will be interesting to see what Sloan does next, on the national stage of Christian higher education.

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Evangelicals are people, too

god gop 01It must be the week for stories about how evangelical Christians are turning their backs on Republican politics. Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece on Gregory Boyd is still rockin’ the charts, even driving Boyd’s book from #32,738 to #54 on Amazon.

Darrel Rowland had an interesting piece in The Columbus Dispatch a few days ago about Ohio megachurches that avoid political activity. Ohio is in the midst of an interesting gubernatorial campaign, with the Democrats having their best chance in years. I think this has something to do with a series of corruption scandals involving Republicans. Heck, the current Republican governor was convicted of some crimes (his approval rating bottomed out at 6.5 percent in late 2005!) yet refuses to step down. Anyway, the Democratic candidate is doing pretty well in a rather Republican state. Rowland talked to pastors at three megachurches to learn more about how they handle political activity:

As political activity exploded among religious conservatives in recent years, a certain profile of a politically active church emerged:

Evangelical Christian. A growing megachurch, defined as more than 2,000 in attendance. Predominantly white. Loose or no denominational ties. Often located in suburbia, not far from an outerbelt.

Such churches and affiliated groups are under the microscope these days for their role in picking a president and possibly Ohio’s next governor.

What’s often lost is the fact that many evangelical Christians are uncomfortable with the increasing intermingling of religion and politics. In reality, a majority even of those churches that fit “the profile” intentionally remain on the political sidelines.

I wonder whether these stories represent an actual change of thought among megachurch pastors or whether this divide has always existed. I really don’t know. It would be nice to get a bit of perspective in future stories. I figure there will be future stories because reporters all over the country will probably write local versions of this and Goodstein’s story, giving the impression that this is a huge trend. And it may be, I don’t know. Is there any way to substantiate political activity among evangelicals and whether it’s on the decline? Anyway, here’s more from Rowland’s interviews with the pastors:

[Rich] Nathan, 50, pastor of the Vineyard since 1987, said, “We think the Gospel has political implications, but it’s not partisan. And we don’t think that either the Republicans or the Democrats have the sole possession of the implications of the Gospel.”

[Jim] Leffel, 48, who has been with Xenos [Christian Fellowship] for 16 years, said, “We’re very concerned that the white evangelical church in America is almost becoming . . . guilty of adding to the Gospel itself through social identity, namely (the) political right for the most part.” . . .

“We never want to communicate to somebody that comes here that they’ve got to go through two conversions in order to come to Christ,” [Nathan] said. “We don’t want to have somebody believe that first I must be converted politically from wherever I’m coming from politically, in order to then come through that to Christ.”

The paper posted the transcripts from the reporter’s interviews on its website. Very interesting.

Photo via Lukewho on Flickr.

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Leaving politics aside?

godreignsWe would have looked at Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times piece on an evangelical pastor disowning Republican politics even if many of our readers hadn’t asked us to. Apparently a number of you had strong feelings about the piece, some loving it and some not so much. It’s also the second-most-e-mailed story on the Times website right now.

Goodstein writes about Minnesota evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd’s decision to preach against evangelical ties to the Republican Party and evangelical confusion of patriotism and Christianity.

Before we get into anything more substantive, it must be said: Goodstein writes well. She paints a vivid picture within a few words and keeps interest through a lengthy article. She clearly takes the time to study and understand her subjects and fleshes out multiple angles without overwhelming the reader.

Anyway, let’s look at a few passages:

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

Boyd’s sermons cost the megachurch 20 percent of its members. What I found most interesting about that was that the same people who left didn’t leave over an earlier controversy. Boyd had taught open theism, a rather unorthodox doctrinal position.

I’ve admitted my strong bias on these pages before: I think that the vast majority of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, among others, confuse the work of the church with the work of the state. I am an advocate of what Lutherans call the Two Kingdoms, a belief that the work of the church — preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments — is different from the work of the state — administering laws and keeping order. The two work together, at times, but have different realms.

My thing, though, is that the media seem to have a very easy time of seeing a One Kingdom approach when its being done by evangelical Christians on the right but a much more difficult time when its done by the left. I oppose both so I find them both easy to spot. Let’s see how Goodstein handles this:

Mr. Boyd lambasted the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of Christians who focus on “sexual issues” like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

“Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,” he said. “And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.”

It would have been nice if Goodstein would have permitted a response to Boyd’s view that Jesus didn’t “push peoples buttons” about sex. I mean, who said the following in the Gospel of Matthew?

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The whole book is full of Jesus’ condemnation of adultery, fornication and lust. But, of course, the book is also full of Jesus’ forgiveness of same.

I bet this passage was also the point where some readers got upset. Lambasting the hypocrisy and pettiness of Christians who focus on abortion? Them are fighting words, we have to admit. Christians have dominated the American pro-life movement for three and a half decades. I doubt that many of them would consider abortion a sexual issue so much as a life issue, but even so, opposing abortion is one of the longest-held views in the Christian church. Church fathers from the very first centuries of the church preached against abortion.

Saying that such a cause is not worthwhile is definitely taking a political position, one that advocates, essentially, the status quo with regard to the current abortion laws in the country. There are apolitical positions to take on abortion, it can be said, but lambasting Christians who oppose abortion is political, plain and simple.

Goodstein does mention that some parishioners bristled at his views, but I think it’s worth noting that they are speaking defensively and not given the same treatment as Boyd. In general the parishioners who opposed Boyd could have been treated a bit better in the story. There is a coherent philosophy (one I disagree with, sure) for Christians being so political. But it’s not quite fleshed out. And in some cases the politically engaged Christians were made out to be buffoons. I would not have permitted this quote to stay in the story, for instance (because I have an incredibly hard time believing that the quote accurately relates a real conversation):

Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church’s Sunday school.

“They said, ‘You’re not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,’” she said. “It was some of my best volunteers.”

Readers also must check out the excellent video that accompanied this story. You get to hear Ms. Goodstein’s soothing voice!

Photo via Beelzebobo on Flickr.

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Sorry, no ghosts in Newsweek’s scoop

060731 COVER standardAlas, I am sad to report that there are no ghosts at all in Newsweek‘s much ballyhooed front-page exclusive look behind the secret curtain that hid the real President George W. Bush from the eyes of the secular world during his lengthy trip to Russia for the G8 summit. This is the feature story with the heavy subheadline “Behind the Scenes With President Bush As the Middle East Explodes.”

There were no prayer meetings on Air Force One and, apparently, the reporters and photographers had total access. There is no religion in this story at all, which feels rather strange, with the Bush image and all of that.

Did the Bible-thumping, power-praying president manage to go God-free for four days? Perhaps the Newsweek team was not familiar with the meaning of the words “Gog” and “Magog”? Also, I could find no evidence that Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye had a secret bedroom hidden just off the command center. How did Bush manage to hide him?

Let’s see, what else? There are no thinly veiled discussions between Bush and his disciples on the crucial question (thank you, CNN) of whether events on the Israel-Lebanon border will hasten the end of the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not shown speaking in tongues (not even Russian, while in Russia), in front of the Newsweek team or playing praise choruses on the piano (not even Rachmaninoff).

Maybe I need to read this piece again. That premillennial ghost has to be in there somewhere.

Stay tuned. Oh, and it does appear that Bush knows how to pronounce Shiite.

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The church of punditry

coulterIt’s so difficult to write about Ann Coulter. Sometimes I think that those of us who do are all pawns in her game of making hoards of money. Having read her first book — which was harsh but not a bad read at all — I have come to the conclusion that she writes them and then inserts completely over the top and uncharitable statements at the last minute. This is for the sole purpose of having the mainstream media get outraged and bring her on the air to discuss it. She then goes home and watches the Amazon counter spin out of control.

I do have to admit that one of her columns still makes me laugh when I think of it. She was asked to opine about the Democratic Convention in 2004 for USA Today. She writes a typical Coulter column that the paper refuses to run. She had the column and the edits on her website for a while, but I couldn’t find them today. They were hilarious for revealing the profound disconnect between Ann’s populist-conservative philosophy and mainstream editors. Here was a sample I found from an old webpage:

Looking at the line-up of speakers at the Convention, I have developed the 7-11 challenge: I will quit making fun of, for example, Dennis Kucinich, if he can prove he can run a 7-11 properly for 8 hours. We’ll even let him have an hour or so of preparation before we open up. Within 8 hours, the money will be gone, the store will be empty, and he’ll be explaining how three 11-year olds came in and asked for the money and he gave it to them.

USA Today editor: I DON’T GET IT.

Not that her inability to take edits isn’t notorious. Anyway, Coulter’s new book argues that liberalism is a godless religion — a fascinating thesis. But media types were too busy acting aghast at her remarks about 9/11 widows to get to what she was saying. Which is a shame, since her books are read by many.

In comes Charlotte Allen, who wrote recently the surprisingly blunt piece in the Los Angeles Times on membership declines of mainstream Christian churches:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for [Gene] Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. . . .

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

So that’s Charlotte Allen. Not exactly an apologist for godlessness. Which is why the interview, which it appears they conducted by e-mail, was so interesting. It’s a tough interview, and as Allen asks Coulter to defend her thesis, we get to see a bit of the difference between two women who oppose relativism. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

We’ve done some polls here at Beliefnet, and a surprising number of Democrats at least say they are religious. Some 61 percent say they pray daily and 72 percent attend worship services once a month or more. How would you explain that?

Just curious: What percentage of them know which Testament the Book of Job is in?

You say you’re a Christian. Do you think Jesus would want you to be nicer to your political opponents?

Who knows? Maybe He’ll say I was too tough or maybe He’ll chastise me for not being tough enough on those who hate Him. Ask the money-changers in the temple how “nice” Jesus was. Maybe He’ll say I needed more jokes or fewer adjectives. I’ll just apologize for not getting it right and thank him for dying for my sins.

What does it mean to be a good Christian, and do you consider yourself to be a good Christian?

To believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins. Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.

It’s a pretty interesting read, both in terms of the questions and the answers.

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