Here Comes . . . The Man Without Fear!

Anyone who has known me for more than 5 minutes knows I’m a giant nerd. There is all sorts of evidence to support this – my giant Millennium Falcon, my Optimus Prime action figure. Some of the most damning evidence comes in form of my comic collection. I love comic books, everything from the Walking Dead to superhero comics. I make no apologies for it. As a product of the 80s and 90s, I grew up on a steady diet of Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman.

For me, there is much to love about comics and comic heroes in particular. Superheroes represent who we are as humans and who we strive to become. They are giant, operatic figures that tell the tale of humanity’s best and worst attributes. They bear titles like “the Man of Steel” and “the Dark Knight Detective.” They tell our stories on a larger scale.

If I could aspire to one hero’s epithet, I wouldn’t aspire to be the “Man of Tomorrow” or “the Man of Steel” like Superman. I wouldn’t even want to be called “the World’s Greatest Superhero,” as The Amazing Spider-Man’s cover boasts, in classic Stan Lee bravado. I would not want to be known as “the fastest man alive” or “the strongest one there is.” The character whose title I would want for my own would be Daredevil – the “Man Without Fear”!

Daredevil sprung from the fecund imagination of Stan Lee in 1964. At first blush, the character should have never had the history he does. His power set is meager and he possesses no offensive powers – no super strength or heat rays. He lost his sight at a young age and gained heightened smell, hearing, taste, and touch – all of the powers people forget Superman has. His heightened senses have some interesting side effects like a “radar” sense and increased balance, but what truly makes Daredevil special is the man behind the mask.


Matt Murdock’s father Jack raised him to be a man without fear. He raised him to be a man who will not back down from what is right and unafraid to take the consequences. In one issue, Daredevil stood alone against the Hulk, the strongest being on the planet. He does not win, but instead finds himself in the hospital. His courage is not limited to his life as Daredevil. Matt Murdock graduated top of his law school at Columbia. Instead of taking a high-paying job, he decides to become a public defender. This is a different kind of courage than the kind required to face down a giant rage monster. This is the fortitude to follow one’s convictions even when it is difficult. This quality makes Matt Murdock truly a man without fear.

It may surprise some people, but the most common command given in the Bible is not “don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go out with girls that do.” It isn’t “stay in school.” It isn’t even all of the things that God really does tell us to do like not taking God’s name in vain or not killing. The most common command given in the Bible is “do not be afraid.”

When Joshua had to lead God’s people into the land, he did so without Moses. The man who led them out of Egypt was no longer there. Joshua would have to take over. So God tells Joshua over and over again in that first chapter “be strong and courageous!” He encourages God with the news that he is with Joshua, even as God was with Moses.

This is the knowledge that lets us be men and women without fear. God is with us. God sent Jesus as the Emmanuel, God-with-Us, because he loves us so. Because we are so loved we cannot have fear. We do not have room in our hearts enough for fear and love. Perfect love casts out fear. God’s perfect love casts out fear because, since God loves us so fully, so madly, we do not need fear judgment from anyone. Isn’t that what we all want, to be fully loved, fully accepted? What’s more, the One who loves us holds all of life together. If God be for us, who could ever be against us? In Christ, God has conquered death itself and has invited us to die and be raised to new life with him. Armed with that knowledge, whatever shall we fear?

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Vacuum Cleaner Jesus

As a minister and especially as a future church planter, I have read many books and articles on evangelism. Out of much of the more traditional Evangelical material, the underlying pattern for personal evangelism remains pretty much standard. The steps for sharing one’s testimony goes as follows: step 1, tell your audience what your life was like before Jesus. Step 2, recount how you first encountered Jesus. And, finally, tell what your life has been like since meeting Jesus. It is a fairly standard practice and many of the personal testimonies I have heard follow this exact same pattern.

If this sounds kind of like a sales pitch, it seems to be by design. Evangelism Explosion by D. James Kennedy and other such programs modeled their approach to personal evangelism on door-to-door sales tactics of vacuum cleaner salesmen and the like. It isn’t a terrible system in that it helps people who otherwise would struggle with speaking to strangers share how Jesus has transformed their lives. And, indeed, a transformed life is truly the greatest testimony of all. However, the system simply cannot persist as the primary model of evangelism. Immediately, at least, pragmatic issues occur. Door-to-door sales are simply not effective anymore. Ask yourself: how many door-to-door salespeople have you encountered in the last several years? If you are like me then not even one. Sales people have learned that people are not as likely to welcome a stranger into their home to sell something to them. We are too private and already too inundated with advertising. Marketing people have learned this, has the Church?

Now, there are even deeper, more theological issues with this approach. One is that it assumes that all Christians must have gone through some sort of crisis experience at some point in their lives. As the son of a pastor who has known Christ in some capacity his entire life, I would find myself robbed of any sort of testimony. Yet, wouldn’t the fact that I have been a disciple since my youth itself be a testimony? Wouldn’t the presence of a godly mother and father, of Christian grandparents, be a gift I should thank God for? In this schema, it would seem to be quite the opposite. I have, at some points, believed myself in some ways lacking something, as I did not have some sort of climactic story of redemption to share. Instead of a single dramatic moment, I have little moments in which I have grown over time to know Jesus more and more.

A far larger problem resides in the formulation as a sales pitch. A before-and-after approach to personal testimony works as long as we remember that our lives may not resemble the fantasies of the common American. We cannot promise that a life with Jesus will help us meet our personal goals, become better workers and lovers, or even help us heal our broken families. Indeed, Matthew 10:34-37 seems to indicate that sometimes life in Jesus will break our families instead of mending them. Often life with Jesus, by our standards, will often become worse rather than better. Can you imagine Peter or Paul giving the kind of vacuum cleaner testimony we’ve described? “Hi, my name’s Peter. Before I met Jesus, I owned a small fishing business with my brother and my father. Then, after I met Jesus, I was crucified upside down!” Or perhaps, “My name is Paul. Before I met Jesus, I was a respected pharisee. Now, people throw rocks at me everywhere I go! Turn to Jesus!” Of course, in defense of Kennedy and others, they typically do not fall into the sort of Jesus-brings-the-American-dream testimony I’m now mocking, but often that is precisely what it becomes. When we form our personal testimonies as a sales pitch, it is easy to appeal to the pragmatic concerns of a culture that is used to being sold to.

There is another way of doing this same thing. There is another way to show the world how Jesus has affected your life. It is to live a life of beauty. It is to live a life so Christ-like that people cannot help but be attracted to it. Will Willimon, former Dean of Duke Chapel, likes to tell the story of how many of the students in his Wesley Fellowship would go on missions trips and return to North Carolina changed. They decided to abandon their former career path and give their lives to fulltime missions work. Their parents would then call Willimon angrily, asking how their child’s life could get so off track. Presumably, these parents sent their children to Duke University, one of the most prestigious universities in America (bragging on my Alma Mater here a bit) in order for them to have successful careers as lawyers, engineers, or something of the sort. They did not invest in their child’s education and future in order for them to throw it all away because of some missions trip! Their story is not a pragmatic one. It doesn’t make sense to invest in a difficult, expensive university just to leave it all behind. It isn’t pragmatic, but it is beautiful.

The Christian life is not one of pragmatism. It simply does not make sense to bless those that abuse you. It doesn’t make sense to give to all that ask. It doesn’t make sense to die on a cross for the very ones that crucify you. It doesn’t make sense, but it is beautiful. So, this is what we have to offer — a beautiful life that is worth imitating. We cannot promise that God will give us a successful career and a nice car. Instead, Jesus promises a cross. But with that cross comes beauty and joy and hope and love and God himself. And there is resurrection. Amen.

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That Last Gleaming Light

As someone on the older end of the Millenial generation, I have taken to the Internet culture fairly well, although not as well as some. Certainly more, of course, than my wife, whose more utilitarian approach to the internet typically involves either googling medical symptoms (a practice we have since forbidden) and online shopping (because who needs to put on pants just to buy things?). At any rate, she respects my more intimate knowledge of the net (as we in the know called it . . . in 1999!). Yes, my familiarity with the interweb’s time-wasting technology is truly impressive. I am a part of the generation that remembers life before the internet and helped to form the internet’s culture as it is today.

As with all things, while the internet and other forms of technology have brought us some truly great things — proliferation of information, availability of some truly great music — there are some negatives as well. Among them is that the Internet can bring out the absolute worst in people. Don’t believe me? I dare you to read the comment section of Youtube, Huffington Post, or pretty much anywhere and feel good about the future of civilization. The Internet allows people to post their opinions despite their knowledge of the subject matter, spelling ability, or capacity to form cogent sentences. Most importantly, it allows them to speak in near-utter anonymity. To a large degree, the fact that anyone can post their opinions on nearly any subject has been one of the great gifts of the Internet. Yet, I cannot help but think of how it encourages us to treat one another.

There is a crippling lack of authenticity in the internet, as well as in 21st century America in general. We grow to fear putting ourselves on the line, opening ourselves up, because there is someone ready at all times with a snarky comment handy. We are a culture that is far better at deconstructing others than we are at being vulnerable to one another. Of course, opening ourselves to one another means opening ourselves up to ridicule and a well-chosen meme. Yet, we are all still looking for something real.

I wonder if this is why vinyl records have made such a return. Is it that in our world of auto-tune, we still want to hear something where we can hear all of the scratches, all of the imperfections? Give me a paperback. Give me pages that feel rough between my fingers and a cover that bends and cracks and wears every time I read it and carry it in my backpack as a badge of honor. Give me a sunset, not just a picture of a sunset. We want something that we can touch and hold. We all look for a glimpse of that last gleaming light of authenticity.

It is no secret that authenticity has become a sort of buzzword in the church leadership field. The word has worked itself into a kind of cliche, to the point that I somewhat cringe whenever I use it. Perhaps, then, that being authentic means no longer worrying about sounding cliche, or simple, or too naive. I may never achieve the kind of aloof disconnect of the hipster bobbing his head disinterested to the beat of the music. I’ve always preferred dancing, myself. In this case, maybe we keep pushing authenticity because, in this case, it is more than just a cliche. It is more like a vitamin deficiency. We keep talking about our need for authenticity because it keeps getting harder to come by.

When I look back at my tweets for the past few months, the very few that were not about something inane, such as Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend and the Super Bowl, were typically snarky assessments of Pop Christianity. As a consequence of my own snarkiness, I grew too afraid to put my own thoughts out there. After all, in all likelihood there was someone else out there as snarky as me, ready to tear someone down. And earnestness? No, it far easier to be ironic. After all, I had associated earnestness with the kitschy Christianity of people that own Thomas Kincaide paintings and listen to CCM. I, of course, am not that glib. I am too sophisticated for such unbridled enthusiasm. I did not want anyone to think I was like those uncool, over-eager simpletons.

This problem spilled over into other areas of my life. I find snark much easier than praise. I find it easier to bag on others’ ideas than to say anything original. When I read books, blogs, or hear sermons, I compile lists of what is wrong with their position but keep silent when it is time to voice my own thoughts. It is easier to hold the world at arm’s length than to feel exposed to it. When everyone else stands by, nonchalantly bobbing their head to the music, I’m too afraid to dance. I’ll look like a fool. Then the choice is clear: you can stand by and feign, or perhaps even attain, cool disinterest in the music you hear, but then you will never get to dance.

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Dancing with the Devil in God’s Opera

As many of you know, I have recently moved back to South Carolina to plant a church. This requires much work on the front end, long before we hold our first worship meeting. I plan to spend time on this blog periodically updating about the steps I take in church planting — the trials, the victories, and everything in between. Part of this process includes preparing myself to become the kind of person that can withstand the pressures of church planting. To this end, Anthony Braswell, a church planter in my denomination, offered me this sage advice: I will need to equip myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually to see this task through.

When Christy and I headed to the mountains at the end of May to celebrate our fifth anniversary, I saw it as a time to begin to address those three areas. I saw the Appalachian mountains as a perfect place to grow closer to God. Surely the beauty that inspired such great writers as Silas House and Wendell Berry could inspire me as well. Nature is, after all, what John Calvin called the opera dei, God’s theatre, where we could see the handiwork of God almighty. We watched in the morning as the sun peeked from behind a veil of trees, as if it were waiting for the precise moment before it popped out fully, exposing its full and bright glory. We looked out from our cabin to green mountains, finger-painted by the hand of God. Surely, I expected, that this would lead to some sort of spiritual breakthrough.

It did not. Instead, I found myself waking up late at night, grappling with the enormity of the task ahead. I counted one by one the reasons I would prove insufficient to the work I needed to do. Where I expected to behold the beatific vision, I found the Man at Jabbok. I was not, nor am I now, entirely sure who or what it was that I wrestled with that night. Was this Satan, testing my resolve? Was this merely my own insecurities? Or, like Jacob, did I wrestle with God? I don’t know, but I do know that I came on the other side with a newfound resolve to continue in my mission.

At the lowest point, I resolved only that, even if I was utterly unqualified for this task, I could do nothing else. I knew that there was one thing and one thing alone that would make me feel as if I had done something fulfilling — that is to plant this church. If I was not the man who could do it, I prayed that God would make me that man. I believe that God continues to fashion me into the kind of pastor this church needs.

I want to put these feelings out there — my doubts, my insecurities — out there as an offering to those who have at any point believed God has called them to do something big. I came down from the mountains with a realistic sense of who I am and what I am capable of but also a renewed sense of what God can do. If the God who decorated the world with a word promised to see me through, what have I to fear? If God be for me, who can be against me?

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Confessions of a Relevant Christian

I grew up the kind of Pentecostal that disallowed its members to attend movies and listen to secular music. Outside of Southern Gospel music, we listened only to Country. I do not wish to use this space to whine about my childhood deprivation, but I think this might explain why I care so much about culture now. The consequence of my not attending movies or listening to secular music meant that I was, for the most part, ignorant of what influenced others in school. I felt left out.

Once I decided I disagreed with the idea that holiness meant avoiding secular entertainment all together, I began to consume it. I developed a voracious appetite for all things media. After consuming so much, I began to develop more and more of a discerning palate. From middle school to now, I have managed to go from listening to the Gaither Vocal Band to Michael W. Smith to Creed to Arcade Fire.

Recently I realized that I did not need to know everything about everything. I need not worry myself  with who people listen to or what the latest social-networking platform is. I do still in some way participate in this system. I write this as I listen to M83 and type on a WordPress blog. I do not mean that we must listen to bad music and communicate through stone tablets. I do think we need to take note of what forms our souls.

I have discovered that, when I unplug, I become more interesting to everyone around me. No longer needing to be relevant frees me to simply be present, to listen. The need for relevance enslaves us to a culture whose minds have been lulled to sleep by spectacle, whose imaginations have atrophied through the razzle-dazzle of CGI and numbed by over-stimulation. Relevance becomes a curse when it prevents us from speaking to the culture because when it comes time to speak, the only words we know are those the culture taught us. Our thoughts belong to the culture, our beliefs belong to the culture.

This is the reason why Christians must produce great art. I do not mean to legitimate the category of “Contemporary Christian Music.” I mean that Christians can produce music, movies, and literature of at least the same quality as secular culture. It will not do to simply produce low-quality copies of the world’s music. Evangelicals have typically understood the didactic capacity of media, but they have not truly grasped the ability of a great movie or song to shake you to the core. Good or mediocre media cannot do this the same way as great media. Fortunately for the Church, we have great resources at our disposal in our hymnody and literature. We need not just look to our past, as many new artists have arisen and will continue to arise.

I do not wish for my fellow Christians to shut the world entirely.  I do not want to advocate a strict diet of Christian media, nor do I wish to denigrate such media. The question is, what is forming us? We can be formed by secular movies just as well as “Christian” movies. I just want to suggest discernment, and that means more than avoiding the Saw movies. If we are to speak prophetically to the world, our imaginations must be formed by the Church.

The alternative to the worldly imagination is not crappy Christian art but worship. This is why how we worship matters. This is why we need to pull upon the great resources for Christian worship — our hymnody, the Psalms, not to mention the rest of Scripture. Worship shapes us so that we are not limited by the dead imagination of the world. Scripture gives us new grammar with which to speak. Worship reforms our hearts and minds and turns us to delight in our Lover, Savior, and Maker. This is a big task and this is why so much of the worship music that exists now will not cut the mustard. So, let’s worship in a way befitting of this task. Let us sing a new song.

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Blue Like Jazz Review

I had the privilege of attending a special preview of the new movie adaptation of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, directed by Steve Taylor. I read the book, just like possibly everyone else, while in college. This book preceded my interest in theology, so represents a time before I read heavy dogmatics. Although not academic, the book asks questions of faith and helped spur me deeper. I have, in short, a deep affection for the book for the time in my life it represents.

When I discovered that they wished to adapt Blue Like Jazz into a feature film, I was bewildered. The book is comprised chiefly of essays, with a spattering of cartoons throughout. I did not see how they could adapt it easily. After reading Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, I saw how they took that issue into consideration. In Blue Like Jazz: The Movie, we see a fictionalized account of Don’s life.

Then, a few days ago, I discovered that Miller and Taylor would be in Greenville to promote the film and show the final cut. I managed to arrange last minute plans on Saturday to return to Greenville on Sunday and attend the screening. We stood in the cold for an hour and met Miller and Taylor before proceeding into Regal Hollywood 20 to view the film.

Those familiar with the book will immediately notice the discrepancies. In the beginning, fictional Don works in a communion cup factory. He has a relationship with his estranged father. He attends Reed College full time instead of auditing. The biggest one involves his mother, though that constitutes a pretty big spoiler. If you can separate fictional Don from real-world Don, then your experience with the film will improve immensely. I admit, I struggled with this. Since I have read four out of his five books, I feel familiar with the real Don. If you do as well, do yourself a favor and put the real Don out of your mind.

Although the filmmakers based the movie only loosely on the book, they do import many elements from the book. The short cartoons “Don Astronaut” and “Sexy Carrot” are integrated within the film. I’m not sure if I would have understood them without reading the book first. Taylor weaves them in subtly. Don Astronaut appears often, but never with the short narrative of the cartoon. However, I think viewers will get the point.

The script-writing sessions depicted in A Million Miles paid off well. The script is sharp and taut. The story follows the fictionalized Don’s journey as a young Evangelical who struggles with faith in a place that rewards him for abandoning it. The story will feel familiar for those who have attended colleges similar to Reed. As someone who attended an Evangelical school, I have had little experience with this (though I have had some). The film is evocative, avoiding sentimentality in how it deals with life, faith, and doubt.

The film ends somewhat abruptly, though I think it worked. Like jazz itself, the movie does not neatly resolve. They do not tie the plot neatly in a bow. They end with the famous confession scene from the book. We never find out what Don’s actions accomplish. We don’t know if he gets the girl. The movie desires to life as it really happens, not shrinking from the uncertainties, complexities, or, even, the vulgarities.

That the film doesn’t gloss over the real world could shock those prepared for typical Evangelical fare. The movie depicts lead characters drinking alcohol, possibly consuming drugs at a party, making crude references, and speaking crassly. Many viewers might find this abrasive. I can assure those viewers, of course, that real people do actually conduct themselves in this manner. This fact will not, of course, surprise anyone.

The struggle in Christian media is typically “to what level does portrayal in media constitute approval?” If we depict actions we disapprove of in movies, will people simply replicate those actions unthinking? I think such questions represent a simplistic way of viewing media, one that could not even properly interpret the Bible. For instance, the Book of Judges represents a society spiraling out of control. One could not lift a scene of Judges out of its context and believe that it represents an exemplary life.

I have longed for Christian media that tells the truth. Many of the Christian movies I have seen depict a simplistic reality in which things resolve easily. I understand that for many filmmakers, their aim is purely didactic. The makers of Fireproof, for instance, said “We did not set out to win any Oscars.” I certainly appreciate their honesty. However, well-made, moving film can teach us more than a poorly made film. For instance, the movie I think of when I think about faith is not a Christian film, but the 2008 film Doubt, which was nominated for several Academy Awards.

So, is Blue Like Jazz a “Christian film”? I find that question more difficult to answer than I would have expected. I think the filmmakers seemed a bit confused in this regard. They clearly wished to distance themselves from such films, but also expressed a desire for us church leaders to bring groups to the film. The film certainly makes for a great discussion piece, particularly with teens and young adults about to attend or currently in college. Indeed, for any of us who feel compelled to abandon association with Christianity for acceptance, this film serves as a great reminder to live with integrity. But, given the content, could I easily bring a church group there? I don’t know.

All and all, Blue Like Jazz, while significantly different from the book, was a great experience. The movie told the truth about life in a way that genuinely compelled, never manipulated. Church leaders will be warned of content. I would advise all to proceed informed simply so that you do not leave surprised. However, the movie is so much more than its rating. I only fear that its rating will detract from what is a good, honest, and at times beautiful film about faith and the courage required to live as a faithful follower of Christ.

(Originally posted on

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Traditioned Pentecostalism and Pentecostal Tradition

Not long ago, I heard an interview on NPR featuring Rosanne Cash. The interviewer asked Cash how she handled emerging from beneath her famous father’s shadow. Cash replied that her father Johnny Cash had approved of how she initially distanced herself from his legacy. However, as she grew older, she began to identify more and more with her father’s legacy. “Distancing yourself from your parents may make for a healthy teenager,” said Cash. “But it doesn’t make a very gracious adult.”

This statement resonated with me. I had, for some two years at least, struggled with the identity I had inherited in Pentecostalism. I distanced myself. I spent most of my early twenties rediscovering Christianity.

When I came to Duke Divinity, people often asked me to identify myself based on my denomination. “Hi, I’m So-and-So, Methodist, Elder track,” and so on. When it came my turn to identify myself, I would reply with a garbled ecclesiological mess. “I’m a Metho-Bapto-Cathlo-Costal.” I hesitated to identify myself too strongly with my Pentecostal roots. When I did so self-identify, I did it in a way that immediately disparaged the Pentecostal tradition I inherited. “I grew up Pentecostal,” I would say. “But I’m not one of those.”

Within my time at Duke, through many interactions and much reflection, I realized that it was immature of me to reject the faith given to me by my tradition so flippantly. Part of spiritual growth for me throughout the past two years has included learning to respect and cherish the faith I have inherited from my tradition, all while challenging it where I must.

This challenge to spiritual maturity applies not only to me as an individual, but to Pentecostalism as a movement. Pentecostalism has, in my experience, largely defined itself against what it perceives to be mainstream Christianity. It sought to provoke complacent Mainline Protestants into a faith that was not merely something they inherited but something they took ownership of for themselves.

Times have changed since the early days of Pentecostalism. The Mainline denominations decline while Pentecostalism explodes worldwide. Pentecostalism is the new Mainline. We have grown into our own. Since we have done so, we no longer need to define ourselves against Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism in a way that unnecessarily rejects all the good they can offer us. We must also challenge them when necessary. When we cease to define ourselves in contrast to other traditions, we will no longer feel the need to caricature them. We will feel free to listen to other Christian traditions and join in on the conversation that has gone on for two thousand years.

(Originally posted on

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