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Messages for Our Noisy Age in Scorsese’s “Silence”

(By Ann Corkery, Real Clear Religion). We live in such a harsh and noisy age that silence can sometimes seem unbearable.

But there’s a particular type of silence that is most disconcerting of all. It’s a silence we all can experience—non-believers certainly, but believers, as well.

It’s God’s silence in response to the violence and persecutions that ravage our world. It’s God silence in response to our seemingly unanswered prayers.

Or it’s what we take to be God’s silence.

That’s the “Silence” in Shusaku Endo’s historical novel and Martin Scorsese’s recently released movie adaptation of the book.

Non-believers point to this silence, sometimes with contempt, in making their case against God’s existence, but even the most devout believers have experienced that silence. Saint Teresa of Calcutta certainly did—for the last 50 years of her life—as her letters and diaries make painfully clear. The martyrs depicted in “Silence” most certainly did while experiencing the brutal persecutions of Christians in 16th and 17th century Japan.

Endo’s main character, a Jesuit missionary, writes back home to Portugal: “Already two years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.”

“Silence” is the story of two Portuguese priests (Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garrpe, played by Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in search of their former teacher (Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson). There, they learn that, like so many Japanese Christians, Father Ferreira has “apostatized.” He has been forced to “trample the fumie”—to walk on the image of Christ and, thus, publicly recant his Christian faith. Ferreira is now married to a Japanese woman and living at a temple while working on a book refuting Christianity.

Captured and imprisoned, Rodrigues faces a similar choice: Apostasy or death—not own his death, but the unspeakably cruel deaths of several devoted Japanese Christians.

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Book Review: “No God But One” by Nabeel Qureshi

(By Joseph Rossell, Juicy Ecumenism). Most Muslims and Christians know their religions trace their origins back to the same Abrahamic roots but diverge widely in both theology and practice. However, beyond these basic facts, how many adherents of either faith have examined the beliefs of the opposite religion in detail?

No God but One: Allah or Jesus, by Nabeel Qureshi. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. 320 pages.

Nabeel Qureshi seeks to remedy this dilemma in his latest book, No God but One: Allah or Jesus. Published last summer, the book serves as an essential resource to at least two groups: Christians who desire to share their faith with Muslims and Muslims interested in investigating the claims of Christianity.

“While sharing this message [the Gospel], I often come across two kinds of people: Christians who enjoy criticizing Islam, and Muslims who want to argue but do not want to learn,” Qureshi writes. “I am not writing this book for either of them.” Instead, he intended for No God but One to reach those interested in discerning the truth about Christianity and Islam.

Qureshi deftly weaves together personal narrative and powerful real-life stories with apologetics and historical evidence to examine the case for Islam versus Christianity. Based on the evidence, he shows why an objective observer would choose Christianity over Islam.

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Related article: 7 Highly Inspirational Quotes from Nabeel Qureshi about His Faith

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100% of Christians Face Persecution in These 21 Countries

(By Samuel Smith, The Christian Post.) One-hundred percent of Christians in 21 countries around the world experience persecution for their faith in Christ as over 215 million Christians faced “high levels” of persecution in the last year, a leading human rights watchdog group reports.

Open Doors USA released on Wednesday morning its 2017 World Watch List, which is the 25th annual ranking of the top 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution.

“2016 was the worst year of persecution on record with a shocking 215 million Christians experiencing high levels of persecution for their faith,” Open Doors USA CEO David Curry asserted during a press conference at the National Press Club.

“It is worth repeating that nearly one in every 12 Christians today lives in an area or culture in which Christianity is illegal, forbidden or punished. Yet, today the world is largely silent on the shocking wave of religious intolerance,” he continued. “The 2017 World Watch List and the information it represents presents one of the most complex and pressing challenges to President-elect Donald Trump and his administration.”

According to a fact sheet provided by Open Doors, the organization documented as many as 1,207 Christians who were killed around the globe for faith-related reasons during the 2017 list’s reporting period — Nov. 1, 2015, to Oct. 31, 2016.

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Open Doors’ The 2017 World Watch List

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What We Need to Learn from the Early Church

(By Tim Keller, The Gospel Coalition). Many say that Christians who maintain the historic, traditional doctrines are behind the times, are too exclusive, and are “on the wrong side of history.”

Two recent books that cast doubt on this view are from historian and biblical scholar Larry HurtadoDestroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World and Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?.

The earliest Christians were widely ridiculed, especially by cultural elites, were excluded from circles of influence and business, and were often persecuted and put to death. Hurtado says Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups.

Why? It was expected that people would have their own gods, but that they’d be willing to show honor to all other gods as well. Nearly every home, every city, every professional guild—including the empire itself—each had its own gods. You couldn’t even go to a meal in a large home or to a public event without being expected to do some ritual to honor the gods of that particular group or place. To not do so was highly insulting, at the least to the house or community. It was also dangerous, since it was thought that such behavior could elicit the anger of the gods. Indeed, it was seen as treason to not honor the gods of the empire, on whose divine authority its legitimacy was based.

Christians, however, saw these rituals and tributes as idolatry. They were committed to worship their God exclusively. While the Jews had the same view, they were generally tolerated since they were a distinct racial group, and their peculiarity was seen as a function of their ethnicity. Yet Christianity spread through all ethnic groups, and most believers were former pagans who suddenly, after conversion, refused to honor the other gods. This refusal created huge social problems, making it disruptive and impossible for Christians to be accepted into most public gatherings. If a family member or a servant became a Christian, they suddenly refused to honor the household’s gods.

Christianity’s spread was seen as subversive to the social order—a threat to the culture’s way of life. Followers of Jesus were thought to be too exclusive to be good citizens.

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Related article: Must Christianity Change Or Die? Yes – If That Change Is In A Conservative Direction

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Must Christianity Change Or Die? Yes – If That Change Is In A Conservative Direction

(By Ruth Gledhill, Christian Today). A top academic has defended a five-year study that found conservative churches grow faster than liberal ones. 

The paper, published in December’s Review of Religious Research, found that churches that relied on a more literal reading of the Bible and a certain belief in hell were more likely to grow than others.

The researchers interviewed 2,225 churchgoers in 22 congregations in Ontario, Canada, as well as 29 clergy. They found that the churches that were growing were those that “held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading”.

Now lead researcher David Haskell, writing in the Washington Post, has issued a riposte to the countering argument used in defence of liberals – that it is the strength of belief, not the specific content of faith, that causes growth.

In this scenario, liberal pastors are just as likely as conservative pastors to experience church growth, provided they are firm and clear in their religious convictions.

Haskell says his study shows this is not actually the case. “Different beliefs, though equally strong, produce different outcomes,” he says.

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Related articles:

Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy

Liberal Churches are Dying. But Conservative Churches are Thriving

What We Need to Learn from the Early Church

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Sudan Court Acquits Pastor of National Security Crimes

(By Onize Ohikere, World Magazine). A Sudanese court on Monday acquitted a pastor who faced the death penalty for national security crime charges after showing compassion for an injured student.

Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) first arrested the Rev. Kuwa Shamal along with two other Christians and a human rights activist in December 2015. The three other defendants, who also face death sentences, are still in jail.

“He was released after the court found that he was not guilty of the charges brought against him,” Muhanad Nur, one of the attorneys defending the Christians, told Morning Star News.

The trial began in August but has faced multiple delays. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a UK-based nonprofit that works for religious freedom, said the court acquitted Shamal after the trial judge concluded there was no evidence against him. The next hearing will continue Jan. 9, Nur said.

Shamal, who leads missions at the Sudanese Church of Christ, and his colleague the Rev. Hassan Abduraheem attended a conference in November where Abduraheem said he was financially supporting the medical treatment of a student badly burned at a demonstration. The NISS arrested the two pastors the following month along with human rights activist Abdulmonem Abdumawla, who started the fundraising, and Petr Jasek, a Czech aid worker who donated some money.

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Five Key Findings on Religion in the U.S.

(By Frank Newport, Gallup.com). Religion remains an integral part of most Americans’ lives, but Gallup’s ongoing research shows how this has changed over time. The following are five important findings about religion in the U.S.:

1. America remains a largely Christian nation, although less so than in the past. Seventy-four percent of Americans identify with a Christian religion, and 5% identify with a non-Christian religion. The rest of the U.S. adult population, about 21%, either say they don’t have a formal religious identity or don’t give a response.

The dominance of Christianity in the U.S. is not new, but it has changed over time. The U.S. has seen an increase in those with no formal religious identity (sometimes called “nones”) and a related decrease in those identifying with a Christian religion. Since 2008, when Gallup began tracking religion on its daily survey, the “nones” have increased by six percentage points, while those identifying as Christian have decreased by six points. The 5% who identify with a non-Christian religion has stayed constant.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, when Gallup began regularly measuring religious identity, over nine in 10 American adults identified as Christian — either Protestant or Catholic — with most of the rest saying they were Jewish.

2. The trend away from formal religion continues. The most significant trend in Americans’ religiosity in recent decades has been the growing shift away from formal or official religion. About one in five U.S. adults (21%) don’t have a formal religious identity. This represents a major change from the late 1940s and 1950s when only 2% to 3% of Americans did not report a formal religious identity when asked about it in Gallup surveys. The increase in those claiming no religious identity began in the 1970s, with the percentage crossing the 10% threshold in 1990 and climbing into the teens in the 2000s.

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Why I Changed My Mind on Nativity Scenes

(By Alistair Begg, The Gospel Coalition). I used to be dismissive of nativity scenes. You know the sort—the perfect arrangements of little figurines that start popping up in mall displays and outside churches this time of year.

First, who can relate to this unrealistic depiction? Mary always looks remarkably unexhausted for someone who’s just given birth, and the animals look surprisingly unbothered at being kept from their feeding trough.

Second, and worse, is the potential for trivializing what nativity displays aim to capture. Nativity displays often sentimentalize the scene, such that we think, Ahh, that’s sweet. I like Christmas. But there’s nothing in it that arrests you. Nothing that sets you back on your heels. Nothing that says, This moment changed everything. This night, heaven broke into earth. This was a night of glory and terror and pain and majesty and awe, all centered on the Son of God in human form taking his first breath, crying his first cry, invading earth to save his people.

There’s nothing in a nativity scene that really says, Behold!

So there was a time I happily dismissed nativity scenes as unrealistic and trivial.

But not any more.

Offense, Apathy, and Awe

I’ve changed my views because our culture has changed. As society becomes increasingly secular, it seems to me that just about anything that ties Christmas back to the historical account of Jesus’s birth provides an important point of connection. These small displays are an opportunity for engagement and conversation between those in our communities who celebrate nothing more than Santa and those who love the message of the Jesus’s incarnation.

In fact, I’m always intrigued when someone is offended by the presence of a nativity scene. It’s quite fascinating that people can be offended by a collection of miniature ecclesiastical characters. Why do people get upset? Perhaps it’s because they recognize that what’s being said in that small scene is challenging and even personal: “This happened, this is history, there is a Jesus, and you have to deal with him one way or another.” The person who gets annoyed by public nativity scenes is someone I want to have a conversation with.

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Movie “Believe” Has Prosperity Gospel-ish Message

“If you believe in your heart and pray hard enough, it’ll come true.” This is the message of Believe, the latest Christian movie. The only problem is that is not a Christian message. Not at all.

Believe is a kinda cute though predictable and cliché story. The acting is pretty decent and it’s got some sweet, heartwarming moments. Even if it feels like they kind of ripped off “It’s a Wonderful Life,” especially naming the movie’s “angel” Clarence. The 10-year-old boy who plays Clarence, Isaac Ryan Brown, is hands-down the best part of this film. But I just can’t get past the prosperity gospel-ish message.

The church has got to stop preaching this message. Not only is it unbiblical and overly simplistic, it’s dangerous, damaging and condemning. I have a dear friend whose mother died of cancer when she was in her 20s. A well-meaning friend who firmly believed in “the power of prayer” told her that if she really believed and prayed hard enough, her mother would be healed. So, when her mother died, she not only went through the grief and loss, she blamed herself for her mother’s death. If only I had prayed harder. If only I had believed more. It’s my fault.

This message is not the Gospel. It’s another version of works-righteousness. If I pray hard enough, if I believe hard enough … It makes it about me and what I can do. Not about God and what He has done.

And it’s a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate God. God isn’t a genie in a bottle, there to grant my wishes. God isn’t Santa Clause. I don’t usually quote theologians in my movie reviews, but I think this one warrants it. C.S. Lewis, from “The Efficacy of Prayer:”

“Even if all the things that people prayed for happened — which they do not — this would not prove what Christians mean by the efficacy of prayer. For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable ‘success’ in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something more like magic – a power in certain human beings to control, or compel, the course of nature.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” from The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1960))

Our faith is a childlike faith not because all our wishes will come true if only we believe hard enough. Our faith is childlike faith because we are the children and God is the Father. Like any good father, He wants us to come to Him with our requests, our hopes, wishes, and dreams. But, also, like any good father, He will sometimes say no. Not because we weren’t good enough or didn’t believe hard enough, or didn’t pray hard enough. But because it wasn’t what was best.

Real faith is when you trust that God your Father knows what is best, even when the answer to your prayer is no. Only one character at one brief moment in this film even suggests this idea, though it is quickly overshadowed by everyone getting everything they could ever want all tied up in a neat little bow at the end. The doctor says at one point about Clarence to his mother, “That’s a strong faith he’s got there. I hope that same faith helps him accept it if it doesn’t happen.” That’s a movie I would like to see. That would be a movie that would preach the Gospel. That would be a movie that would teach us what it means to believe.

 

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Died: Thomas Oden, Methodist Theologian Who Found Classical Christianity

(By Kate Shellnutt, Christianity Today). The “orthodox, ecumenical evangelical” Thomas C. Oden—a Methodist whose deep commitment to classical Christianity defined his life’s work—died Thursday at age 85.

Oden’s vast body of theological writings includes his Systematic Theology anthology, four volumes on John Wesley, dozens of Bible commentaries, and the pages of Christianity Today, where he served as executive editor alongside J. I. Packer and Timothy George.

His scholarship on the church fathers led to his surprising mid-life shift from liberal Protestantism to evangelicalism, as recounted in his 2014 memoir, A Change of Heart.

“The heart of my story is that the first part of 40 years of my life, I was way, way out there on a path that I had to go on in order to come back like the prodigal son to the father,” Oden told Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a 2015 interview. “But eventually I did and by my 40th year, I became deeply invested in listening carefully to the classical Christian consensus … of the ancient Christian writers and their interpretation of Scripture.”

“Tom is now with the early saints whose lives and teachings he studied so closely,” said Institute on Religion & Democracy president Mark Tooley, who called him “a dear friend and counselor, a brilliant and cheerful warrior for good causes, irreplaceable.”

“What a loss to us all is the death of [Oden]. He is a hero of orthodox conviction,” tweeted Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

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Related articles:

Remembering Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016), by Good News 

Methodist Theologian Thomas Oden 1931-2016, Champion of Christian Orthodoxy, by Juicy Ecumenism

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