Looking Upward, Outward, and Inward
The Day We Found the Universe
New York: Pantheon Books, 2009
The Next Christians: The Good News about the End of Christian America
New York: Doubleday, 2010
The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are
Jenell Williams Paris
Downers Grove: IVP Books (InterVarsity Press), 2011
Many years ago I read that naturalist William Beebe was a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt in his Sagamore Hill home. At the close of an evening, the two went out on the lawn, searched the skies, and Roosevelt said, “That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.” Then Roosevelt grinned and said, “Now I think we are small enough! Let’s go to bed.”
I wonder whether it’s a true story. How did he know? He died in 1919. According to Marcia Bartusiak in The Day We Found the Universe, it wasn’t until January 1, 1925, that 35-year-old Edwin Hubble told the world the evidence was now in: our universe was a thousand trillion times larger than previously believed, stuffed with countless galaxies like our Milky Way.
The Bible had already prepared me for the universe’s grandeur, almost. Here is Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And such work. Here is Psalm 8, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens. . . . When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them?”
Such praise I can echo. But the story Bartusiak tells staggers the imagination.
Her book is science told as I like it best, lots of facts and figures but with the human element—the egos, competitiveness, sacrifices, failures, and triumphs—front and center, and the many contributors to scientific progress given their share of the credit. Hubble did not “discover” the universe alone, though he sometimes seemed loath to admit he had help. His precursors include:
• Albert Einstein, whose pioneering work in relativity made it all possible
• Henrietta Leavitt, who used the blinking of Cepheids (variable stars) to measure distances in space—and who probably would have received the Nobel Prize if cancer hadn’t taken her first
• Harlow Shapley, who using Leavitt’s technique learned the Milky Way was 10 times larger than anyone had expected
• Vesto Slipher, who was the first—in 1913—to notice how the galaxies were “scattering” and took careful measurements that Hubble appropriated without saying thanks
• Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest who predicted the universe was moving outward two years before Hubble’s announcement.
These lead characters in the voyage of discovery endlessly fascinate, especially the driven Hubble, who married a rich Los Angeles woman, spurned his Midwest roots, and affected a British persona, complete with Oxford accent (“By Jove”) and spats. His was a prickly personality (“a stuffed shirt,” a fellow astronomer called him), a careful if not always precise steward of his reputation. He might have fudged about himself, but never about his science.
After reading Bartusiak’s account you will want to go out some dark, starry night and look hard at the heavens. In your ear you might hear a choir singing from Haydn’s Creation, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.”
Then you’ll be small enough.
A New Breed of Restorationists
Gabe Lyons’s The Next Christians is about first-century Christians in a 21st-century setting. These “restorationists,” like the earliest followers of Christ they emulate, are learning to live with their society because there’s no escaping it. No longer members of a ruling religion like the Holy Roman Empire or even like American Protestantism in the 1950s, and unlike religious escapists of any century, the “next Christians” engage their culture with neither fear nor fanaticism. They accept God’s creation as good, made so by a transcendent God who has hardwired human beings for “innocence, idealism, and bigger-than-life dreams.”
Lyons identifies six characteristics that set the next Christians apart from their more traditional Evangelical cousins. They are, in his words:
• provoked, not offended
• creators, not critics
• called, not employed
• grounded, not distracted
• in community, not alone
• countercultural, not “relevant.”
The next Christians often show up where you least expect, in every channel of culture and every sphere of social interaction. From college suites, concerts, and entrepreneurial start-ups to social networking destinations and work. These Christians will show up in their schools, participate in volunteer programs, support civic government, read medical research, be proponents for a just prison system, plant community gardens, be patrons of art festivals and local coffee shops.
They are “restorers” who focus on the present but who do so by running “back to the other end of the timeline and focus on what once was—and what should be again.” Sounds like an updated version of our Restoration Movement, doesn’t it?
These next Christians assert that the trend toward more businesslike church operations is missing the mark. Lyons quotes with approval Peter Drucker’s admonition that “the purpose of management of the church is not to make it more businesslike, but to make it more churchlike.”
So a Christian community that refuses to merely imitate our culture’s obsession with entertainment, productivity, consuming, partisan wrangling, and power but instead focuses on Scripture, Sabbath-keeping, simplicity, incarnation (Christ in you), and prayer will engage the world from a position of strength rather than weakness or bluster.
Lyons is long on describing the future church of his ideals but rather short on providing persuasive evidence that the next Christians are a great deal different from past or current ones.
They are moving in the right direction, though.
Us and Them?
Jenell Williams Paris’s The End of Sexual Identity could be Exhibit A in Lyons’s case for the “next Christians” as it moderates the heated homosexuality-and-the-church debate. She doesn’t offer the last word on the subject, but she does offer an alternative to the name-calling, pigeon-holing, and judging that have done so much to drive a growing wedge between the gay community—and a rising generation of heterosexual young people—and most Evangelical churches.
The author is a wife and mother, Christian college professor, and member of a conservative Evangelical church. She’s one of us. She is also a professional anthropologist. Her academic discipline gives her tools to cut through cultural stereotyping. She reminds us that the terms heterosexual and homosexual did not even exist until about 150 years ago. She argues that today’s church is held captive by Western ideas of sexual identity and orientation rather than by biblical ones—in spite of the apostle Paul’s exhorting us not to “be captive to the patterns of this world.”
When I tell you I’m heterosexual or I’m homosexual, have I explained myself? Is this all I am? Not at all, the author answers while pleading for compassion, understanding, humility, and grace. She also advocates holiness, wholeness in Christ. She believes we live in “an oversexualized culture with an undersexualized spirituality.”
I’ve been looking for this book for a long time, something that eschews trite clichés while offering a solidly biblical discussion of one of today’s prickliest issues. If your mind is already made up about them and about us, you won’t like The End of Sexual Identity. There’s ambiguity here.
Just like real life.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a Christian Standard contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.