How Poetry Might Change the Pro-Life Debate

January 22 marks the 45th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion. What has changed in those 45 years? Well, not a lot. After peaking in 1980, the abortion rate has been on a slow, steady decline (although it’s heartbreaking that in 2014, 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion). While the reasons for the overall decline are debated, one thing hasn’t changed much: public opinion on the issue.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, half of Americans say abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances,” while 29 percent say it should be “legal in all circumstances,” and 18 percent say it should be “illegal in all circumstances.” These percentages have moved very little in four decades of polling.

Charles Camosy, an ethics professor at Fordham University, points out that despite the fact that 7 in 10 Americans would like abortion to be illegal after 12 weeks, the pro-life/pro-choice binary reinforced by media coverage makes it even more difficult for Americans on both sides to move toward areas they agree on.

What will it take to move past the abortion stalemate?

We might look to the method of persuasion used by Paul in Acts 17, a passage cited often in Christian apologetics. Here, Paul presents the gospel to the Greek philosophers gathered before pagan shrines at Mars Hill in Athens. He begins, not with words of Scripture, but with words of writers familiar to his audience: “As even some of your own poets have said…” After quoting these lines from pagan poetry, Paul then goes on to point to the one true God who fulfills the truth sought by those poets.

Christian apologists today describe this approach as literary apologetics, which recognizes the role imagination plays in the human desire to seek and find truth. Holly Ordway, a professor at Houston Baptist University and a scholar of literary apologetics, explains in her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination:

Both reason and imagination are modes of communicating and encountering truth; imaginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.

Reason and imagination are both crucial to understanding truth and also applying truth to the moral life. Reason explains what morality is while imagination conveys its feel or form. Art and literature are superb transmitters of the moral imagination, a concept defined as the “intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of chaotic experience.”

The power of the moral imagination helps explain why so many artists express ethical truths that they may not stand for in their personal or political lives. This moral imagination can be seen at work in poetry about abortion written by some of our greatest poets, some of whom have staunchly advocated for abortion rights.

The poet Alice Walker, for example, gave a poetic address in 1989 at the National March for Women’s Equality and Women’s Lives in Washington. Her words in favor of abortion rights can be seen, ironically, as confirmation of reasons to oppose abortion.

Walker’s speech begins with a question that she repeats throughout the speech: “What can the white man say to the black woman?” She responds,

For four hundred years he ruled over the black woman’s womb.

Let us be clear. In the barracoons and along the slave shipping coasts of Africa, for more than twenty generations, it was he who dashed our babies brains out against the rocks.

What can the white man say to the black woman?

For four hundred years he determined which black woman’s children would live or die.

Abortion, for many women, is more than an experience of suffering beyond anything most men will ever know; it is an act of mercy, and an act of self-defense

What can the white man say to the black woman?

Only one thing that the black woman might hear.

Yes, indeed, the white man can say, Your children have the right to life. Therefore I will call back from the dead those 30 million who were tossed overboard during the centuries of the slave trade. And the other millions who died in my cotton fields and hanging from trees.

Walker couldn’t be more wrong than when she says abortion is an act of “mercy.” (The agent of death has simply changed from man to woman.) Yet, to read this speech—to hear the pain and injustice behind the words, to recognize the sin that wrought such pain—is to understand why an idea like this could be so seductive. As pro-life people, we cannot hope to persuade others to choose life unless we acknowledge the depth of pain and injustice that the poet conveys so devastatingly here.

Another poet, Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds, whose verse is well-known for both raw sexuality and pro-choice politics, is surprisingly honest in her poem, “The End.” “We decided to have the abortion, became / killers together,” the poem begins. It then goes on to link that action with a car accident that occurs outside while the couple lies in bed talking about the abortion. What they see when they look out the window at the tragedy below is described in language startlingly similar to an abortion:

Cops pulled the bodies out
Bloody as births from the small, smoking
aperture of the door, laid them
on the hill, covered them with blankets that soaked

The poem presents the pregnancy and the resulting abortion as—like the car crash—serious, violent, fatal, yet mere “accidents” to be endured.

However, in another poem, “The Unborn,” Olds waxes longingly about the children she didn’t have. The poem describes these unborn children as “lying like love letters / In the Dead Letter Office” and ends with a haunting picture:

… I can feel just one of them
Standing on the edge of a cliff by the sea
In the dark, stretching its arms out
Desperately to me.

Anne Sexton, another Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, writes frankly about abortion in a poem titled, simply, “The Abortion.” The poem begins with the honest and straightforward statement, “Somebody who should have been born is gone,” and continues, matter-of-factly,

Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.

After describing what was likely an illegal abortion, the poem repeats elegiacally—“Somebody who should have been born is gone”—then concludes on a note of self-recrimination:

Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death. Or say what you meant,
you coward … this baby that I bleed.

The bell jar in poet Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel of that title refers to the jars that hold preserved human fetuses in a medical lab. These jars come to symbolize the narrator’s feeling of being trapped by the restrictions imposed on her as a woman living in the mid-20th century. At the novel’s end, the narrator connects the foreshortened lives of these babies to her own life when, following her descent into madness, she says, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

By far, the most moving poem I’ve encountered about abortion is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “the mother.” When I taught this poem last semester in my women’s literature class, my students were moved to solemn silence as the emotional import of the poem sank in. It begins:

Abortions will not let you forget

You remember the children you got that you did not get …

The speaker regretfully describes the many things, both good and bad, that these aborted children—and the mother—will never experience. Midway through, the mood deepens into a mournful lament:

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.

Then the speaker concludes by professing, pleadingly,

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you

Advocates for legal abortion might march, they might chant, they might shout their abortions, but as their own poets say, beneath it all is a desire for mercy, justice, and love big enough to welcome and affirm all life. We need to listen to these poets. As we converse with them and other pro-choice advocates, we can draw on the moral desires latent in their imaginations. Only then we can point them to the One in whom we all—as the Greek poets themselves wrote—“live and move and have our being,” born and unborn.

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.

Don’t Just Stand There, Say Something: Intention vs. Action in Evangelism

The church in the West lives in exciting and challenging times. People are truly considering what it looks like to be a missionary in their cultural context now more than in the past 100 years. This has been a great thing for the church, and a large part of this new movement is because pastors are getting excited about missional ministry.

They are leading their churches to think and pray about how to contextualize the gospel in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

However, among the pastors of this new movement, there is concerning statistical and anecdotal evidence that the talk of ‘being missional’ is replacing the actual practice of mission as it pertains to sharing our faith with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family. I am convinced that the pastor drives both the intention and the action behind evangelism in the church.

Not too long ago I shared statistics and thoughts on the difference between intention and action regarding evangelistic efforts with Influence Magazine.

The first statistic I shared in the article was concerning prayer for nonbelievers: 90% of even the least evangelistic pastors of small churches pray for unbelievers by name, whereas 96% of the most evangelistic pastors make that a weekly practice. The statistics are high, even for the least evangelistic pastors.

The second statistic of note is the action of evangelism towards nonbelievers. Only 87% of the most evangelistic small church pastors share their faith on a weekly basis.

There is a nine-point percentage difference between how the most evangelistic pastors pray for the lost, and how pastors share their faith with the lost. As I mentioned in the article, “The intention is there, but the action isn’t matching up. In other words, just about everyone is praying, but not everyone is sharing.”

In Matthew 9, we have great insight into the praying mind and heart of Jesus:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:36-38)

Jesus loved people, and he loved to pray. As he felt compassion in viewing the crowds like sheep without a shepherd in Matthew 9, he urges the disciples to pray in the midst of giving them assurance that the harvest is indeed plentiful. While there may be difficulty and hardship in evangelism, Jesus says there are many ready and waiting to hear the good news and respond in faith.

In the article, I observe, “Prayer without action is as effective as filling up a car’s gas tank only to park it in the garage and never drive it.” There are many pastors who love Jesus and love the lost, yet cannot seem to lead their congregations towards evangelism and reaching people with the gospel. They host prayer meetings, revivals, and dedicate time weekly to a prayer meeting. These pastors plan evangelism trainings from experts in the field, complete years of Bible study, and yet utterly fail at leading their congregation to loving and reaching their neighbors for Jesus. I’ve advised pastors like this, and this sadly becomes a normal state rather than the exception. What is the cause of this disparity?

I attempt to answer this in the article:

Part of the answer is fear. Since the Garden of Eden, Satan has used fear as a motivator for evil action or evil inaction. He tempted Eve with the fear of missing out when he said: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Perhaps fear silenced Adam as his wife faced the greatest battle of her life. Today, fear is still at work, paralyzing the church into inaction.

It is fear that drives so many good intentions but no true action. And that is very much against the pattern of Jesus.

As the very next verse following our Matthew 9, it says that Jesus “…called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Matt. 10:1). As we continue in the same scene, Jesus sends the disciples to the Jews, to witness and proclaim the Kingdom of God. This is remarkable. After he prays, he sends. Jesus urges the disciples to pray in light of his compassion, then he immediately sends out the 12 with authority over unclean spirits.

We have to follow Jesus. Our prayers must result in real, evangelistic, intentional action.

Here are three ways to turn your intention to action in the day to day:

1. Consistently host a community event at your house, like a cookout or dessert night. Go to your neighbors’ houses with an invitation in hand, knock on their door, and invite them personally to your house. At the first event, plan a second and ensure people are invited before they leave. This will discipline your schedule to make time for the people in your proximity.

2. Spend time intentionally going and meeting people where they live, work, study, or play. This might mean moving some non-sensitive staff meetings to a coffee shop. Stop and talk to the barista. Go to the same restaurant consistently and tip well. Park outside of your garage and make a point to speak to your neighbors. Do your outdoor chores on the weekends and during a time when your neighbors will be outside.

3. Weave the truth of the gospel through as many conversations as you can, seeing yourself as a translator of the good news of Jesus into the lives of others. If you tip well, explain to your friend who is shocked by the amount that generosity flows out of who you are because you have been gifted everything you have by Jesus. If you are challenged about your beliefs, respond with clarity on how Jesus has changed you and invite that person to be changed by Jesus.

As I conclude the Influence Magazine article, I give a charge to pastors and now to you:

Pastor, the only way your church will overcome the gates of hell in your community is if you act on your evangelistic intentions. This is the difference between death and life, between effectiveness and apathy, between advancing the gospel and letting Satan seduce the people God has called you to reach. Don’t stop praying. Just make sure you also start going.

As you speak the gospel to your neighbors, your church will follow. Let’s do it together.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.

The very human tragedy of persecution

Persecution of YazidisOpen Doors USA has released its annual report on the persecution of Christians. And numbers don’t tell the whole story. One of the greatest persecutors of Christians of all time, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, was purported to have said the following: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin would …

Evangelist Luis Palau Has Lung Cancer

Evangelista Luis Palau revela que tiene cáncer.

World renowned evangelist Luis Palau announced Thursday that he has lung cancer.

Palau shared the news in a video on the Luis Palau Association web page with his sons Kevin and Andrew.

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“An early report that we got just before Christmas was that there was some form of cancer in one of Dad’s lungs. We did the normal thing you’d expect,” Kevin said in the Facebook video. “To our shock, just a few days ago, we got the word that it’s stage four lung cancer. And that’s a shock. Especially for someone who’s always been as healthy as dad.”

Palau’s said the first thing he did when he heard the news was cry.

“I think, ‘Oh wow. I could be gone in a few months,'” he said. “You cry a lot. You cry when you think about your sons, about your ministry, about your friends, about your wife.”

Although the news is grave, Palau said he has peace that surpasses all understanding

“Peace with the Lord is deep. One verse that hit me hard is Isaiah 1:10 – ‘Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed. I am your God,” he said. “I know that the Lord is with me by the Holy Spirit indwelling.”

Instead of fearing death, Palau says he’s cherishing each day and looks forward to the day he will finally get to see God face to face.

“I’m ready, I know it sounds crazy to say, ‘I can’t wait to go to heaven,'” he shared. “Now, it’s a reality for me.”

Whatever happens, the Palau Association is in good hands.

“Thank God that ten years ago with the leaders of our team and the board of directors we elected Kevin to be president and CEO,” Palau said, adding that his son Andrew will continue as an evangelist in the ministry. “Everything is ready.”

“We will persevere in our calling. Not just Kevin and I, but the whole team also. All of us together. It is our responsibility for the next generation,” Andrew added.  

Despite the diagnosis, Luis Palau looks forward to preaching at several festivals he has planned this year.

“If the Lord gives me energy, strength, and the treatment works as we pray it will, or the Lord does a miracle, off we go,” he said.

The family asks that people continue praying for his health.

“Many people are praying that the Lord would do a miracle. It would take literally a miracle,” Palau said. “Thank you for your prayers, thank you for loving us, thank you for your support.”

Looking for Ancient African Religion? Try Christianity.

It’s ironic that as I crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge to attend an urban apologetics conference in Philadelphia I encountered the very religious pluralism that makes conferences such as these a necessity. As my weathered SUV pulled up to the stoplight, I could see the Marcus Garvey–inspired Pan-African flag pirouetting in the wind, and I could hear the amplified, yet muffled, sound of a man’s raspy voice through a bullhorn. He, along with a group of other young men and women, stood on the median with their faces contorted like clenched fists yelling, “Black Power, Black Power,” while others bellowed, “the black man is God!” at passing pedestrians and vehicles.

At the next intersection, a well-groomed man in a fitted black suit, with a tightly-knotted black bow tie, walked up and down the dividing line of the highway selling bean pies and handing out Nation of Islam literature, an entrepreneurial practice that has existed since the early 1930s.

Finally, after parking and inserting some quarters into the meter, a voice behind me yelled: “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (which means “peace be unto you”). I turned around and an older Muslim man with a dyed, carrot-color beard beckoned me over to his table to see his merchandise. “Are you interested in buying some of these organic, scented body oils, beloved? I have ‘Black Coconut,’ ‘China Musk,’ and ‘Arabian Sandalwood.’” After listening to his sales pitch, I bought two scented oils for $10 before heading into the conference.

Traditional African Religions Have an Appeal

As an inner-city dweller, occurrences like these transpire on a consistent basis because our cities are hubs of religious diversity, expression, and practice. While some urban religions such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America were birthed in the early part of the 20th century, other religious preferences such as ancient African faith have existed for centuries and are often more appealing to people of color than traditional Judeo-Christianity because they are faiths practiced by the ancestors of the African Diaspora. While the ancestral connection is undeniable, abandoning Christ for traditional African religions is unnecessary. As our ancestors understood, West African cosmology comports well with Christianity because the gospel clarifies rather than contradicts pre-existing African theological and social structures.

Furthermore, for many of the slaves who practiced traditional African religions prior to arriving on Southern plantations, Christianity elucidated their theology because it was fastened to a set theological convictions and practices that already fit their existing presuppositions. This contributed to the boom of Christianity among slave populations. God used stories such as Moses and the Exodus and Christ and the resurrection to strengthen the resolves of slaves in the face of trials and displayed his preeminence over their indigenous African deities. Therefore, leaving Christianity for a traditional African religion exhibits a lack of understanding of the richness of Christian theology and our enslaved ancestors’ connection to the faith.

Why Are People Leaving Christianity for Ancient African Faiths?

In a recent article published on Vice, a young lady wrote about her journey from Christianity to an ancient African faith after the passing of her father. The article, which read like a journal entry, recounted how she found solace in the religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. They were the largest ethnic group trafficked in the Mid-Atlantic Trade, in what we would call Togo, Benin Republic, and Southwestern Nigeria, today. Their religion, which is generally referred to as “Yoruba religion” or “African traditional religion” had more appeal to this young woman because it lifted her out of grief in a way that she felt Christianity could not.

Her piece impaled my soul because, as a pastor in one of America’s notorious inner cities, her experience reminded me of so many of those who I’ve met and engaged with about faith; and, sadly, this trendy turn to African traditional religion is especially prevalent among millennials who have become frustrated with the church’s apparent duplicity in communal engagement.

The shift displays a lack of understanding of Christian theology and history, and more closely mirrors internet propaganda than reliable scholarship. But from my experience, understanding the increasing prevalence of African traditional religions in the mainstream in recent years is a valuable tool to have in our apologetic toolbox. Researching the historical debate among scholars about the continuity between the traditional African faith and Christianity gives pastors and churchgoers helpful ways to respond to this trend.

Adherents of African traditional religion rail that they “want to worship the god(s) of their ancestors,” because they believe Christianity does not appeal to their religious sensibilities, engage their oppressive predicament, or affirm their ethnic culture. In the face of these claims, it is imperative to diversify our apologetic arsenal to provide clarity about why we choose to cling to Christ rather than abandon him.

The Allure of Lemonade

While inquiry about West African spirituality has been discussed for centuries, it moved into the mainstream in early 2016 when acclaimed artist Beyoncé released her Grammy-winning album, Lemonade. Accompanied by short films that illustrate musical concepts and high production values, she drew upon the imagery of one of the most revered orishas (deities) in the Yoruba pantheon, Oshun. In her video “Hold Up,” she dawned the fluorescent yellow dress of the goddess of love and fertility who’s often depicted as wearing the same garb.

She gained even more notoriety for her use of West African spirituality again during her Grammy performance. In what some consider an ode to black America, Beyoncé, dressed as the beloved deity, captivated the stage with her vocals and paid homage to West African tradition that has also spread into parts of the Caribbean and South America.

Her performance not only catapulted West African spirituality into the mainstream spotlight, but her album and subsequent performances highlighted the diversity, complexity, and layers of faith of traditional Yoruba religion. Conversely, it also aided in clarifying misconceptions many individuals, especially those in theologically conservative evangelical circles, often have about the intricate matrix of religious thought in Africa.

Africa Is More Than Huts and Lions

The word “Africa,” often conjures images of lands untouched by modernization, a vast continent of raw material and resources. Though the land is valued—as a source for raw materials—the mind of the African often is not. The intellectual prowess and the complexity of faith of African people groups in general, and West Africans in particular, are often overlooked.

Our perceptions of the continent are reinforced by Hollywood’s depiction of people living in huts and wearing loincloths while dying from malnourishment and autoimmune diseases. Similarly, the faith of people on the continent is often reduced to fetishism (i.e., the worship of an object with mystical powers) which is actually practiced broadly around the world.

Because we are impaired by our cultural biases, when Christianity is represented as a product of the West, as opposed to the Middle East, some urban dwellers view the faith as unpalatable. They see Christianity as an Anglo-dominated religion that is irrelevant when dealing with the issues of black and brown people, while African traditional religions seem to better match their cultural sensibilities.

They often fail to realize that Christianity has existed in Africa so long that it can be considered an indigenous religion, especially in North Africa. While it is harder to trace its development and expansion into West Africa, many scholars believe that Portuguese explorers were the first to bear the name of Christ to West Africa in 1458, before the first African slaves were brought to American shores. For pastors like myself who serve in the inner-city context, this has become an urgent issue of apologetics because it is imperative to discover the link between the truth about African spirituality and faith in Christ in order to defend the faith knowledgeably and truthfully.

The Debate Within the African American Community

The debate regarding the continuity between African traditional religion and Christianity has been raging since the early 19th century. According to theologian Tony Evans, W. E. B. Du Bois argued that the black church was the only institution that started in Africa and survived slavery. Contrary to Du Bois, historian E. Franklin Frazier believed that there was no correlation between the black church and ancient African religious practices. He believed that because of the lack of cultural transference, the African American experience in America is a new institution with no historical reference.

In recent years, historian Henry H. Mitchell argues in his book Black Belief: Folk Beliefs of Blacks in America and West Africa that Du Bois was correct in his assertion. Black faith in America today, as he states, is a carryover from traditional African religions and thus to think of the black church as a mere variant form of white missionary endeavors is historically inaccurate.

Mitchell argues that Southern plantations were hubs of cultural transference. Slaves brought their culture, influences, habits, religious inclinations, and a myriad of other aspects from their past to the United States. Furthermore, because of the “re-Africanization” of plantations, with new slaves constantly being bought from Africa, these Southern homesteads were bastions of African cultural heritage.

The sustaining and reinforcing of this heritage was aided by the development of the “invisible instruction” where slaves developed a new community and the role of the black preacher, who in African traditional religion passed down oral traditions, was solidified as civic leader and primary religious communicator. Because of the African religious sensibilities that permeated everyday life, the religious predispositions of Africans assisted, not thwarted, their capacity to understand the Christian faith.

Mitchell argues, rather convincingly, that Europeans simply affixed Christian theology to preexisting theological and social structures. Like the altar in Athens to the “Unknown God,” (Acts 17:23) Christianity, inherently, would not have been alien to the West Africans arriving at American Southern plantations.

In spite of the varied forms and systems, religious consciousness permeates every portion of African life; secularity has no reality in the African existence. As Nigerian scholar J. Omosade Awolalu explains in his book Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, contemporary African scholars believe that generally all people groups of Africa believe in a supreme, self-existent deity who is responsible for the genesis of man, maintains the heavens, and brought into existence the subordinate deities who are his functionaries and the intermediaries of his theocratic universe.

The Gospel Clarifies African Faiths

The gospel, therefore, brings clarity to African traditional religion because it places the transcendent deity of the African cosmology in proper context. Through the Yoruba religion, theology was communicated through the Odu, a binary symbolic system that serves as a vehicle of oral tradition. As Evans argues, in the Odu, Oludumare is seen as magisterial and supreme beyond other deities. Within the African cosmology, this supreme deity, who is also known as Mungu, Mulungu, Katonda, Ngai, Asis, and other names among African tribes, presides over the pantheon of his subordinates.

To the surprise of some, contemporary scholars argue that a distinct sense of monotheism lies at the heart of African traditional religion because these lesser deities have no power on their own and acquiesced to Oludumare’s will, similar to Jewish and Christian understandings of Yahweh’s sovereignty. Oludumare is revered for his justice and goodness, and according to Yoruba tradition, this omnipotent deity is all wise, all knowing, all seeing, and he never errs.

Another distinct feature of African traditional religion is the integral role of sacrifices in the life of Yoruba. Sacrifices were the manner they sought favor from a god and drove away evil spirits. To find favor from Olodumare, the intermediary deities require appeasement because, according to the Yoruba, no human has access to him.

Arguably, because of the transcendence of the great supreme deity and the institution of appeasing sacrifices, it would have been rudimentary for the West African mind to comprehend the functional role of Christ and his atoning sacrifice once and for all because in many ways West African spirituality shares foundational beliefs with Christianity.

The similarities to the Christian faith are so strong that theologian John Mbiti describes the God of the Bible as “none other than the God who is already known in the framework of traditional African religiosity.” Consequently, it wasn’t a quantum leap for our enslaved ancestors to transition to Christianity; rather, it was a logical step forward because they were prepared by their existing theological system.

It’s unfortunate that some urban Christians are leaving the faith for ancient African religions. It is even more heartbreaking when these individuals claim that their new faith corresponds better with their cultural sensibilities because the Christian theology is the realization of the truths that African spirituality points toward. While the traditional religion of our ancestors has some appeal, an honest assessment of the African traditional religious theological system displays the centrality of various Judeo-Christian concepts.

The gospel of Christ, in all of is beauty, clarifies African traditional religion by illustrating that there are no longer intermediaries between God and man; instead, the great, high God became a man and made an appeasing, once-for-all self-sacrifice so that humans do not have to continue to unsuccessfully appease his wrath. Jesus is ultimately the key to understanding West African faith, and we should embrace rather than abandon this loving deity.

Ernest Cleo Grant II (@iamernestgrant) is a pastor in Camden, New Jersey, a doctoral student, community advocate, and writer. He blogs at

North Korea Tops Christian Persecution List

Christians hear lots of stories—even on this podcast—about the rise of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and how it’s leading to greater persecution. But a non-Middle East country actually tops the list of countries where Christians are most persecuted. Listen to hear more on North Korea and the persecution of Christians.

Why I’ve Spent Half My Life Helping North Korea

North Korea’s recent decision to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics comes at a time when the country has arguably never been more isolated from the West. Recent actions and counteractions between the United States and North Korea have led to unprecedented tensions in a long-strained relationship. The State Department issued a travel ban that forced about 200 Americans working there to leave before it went into effect, and more recently, the United Nations initiated new sanctions against the country.

Despite the risks and restrictions—some of which have been ongoing for decades—American Christians have found ways to minister to North Koreans in need. For some, it means teaching young people at the evangelical-founded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. For Heidi Linton, who serves as the director of Christian Friends of Korea (CFK), it means serving gravely sick North Koreans.

CFK describes its mission as sharing “God’s heart of love and grace to the North Korean people primarily within the context of tuberculosis and hepatitis.” “These are both very serious diseases in North Korea that affect hundreds of thousands—probably millions,” said Linton, who has been working in the country since the mid-1990s.

Linton, along with her American team members, must now secure special validation passports to continue working in North Korea. She spoke recently with CT about her family’s long connection to North Korea, her personal relationships with citizens of the closed country, and the role Billy Graham played in catalyzing CFK’s work.

To what extent has fear factored into your work?

How can you avoid fear when it comes to North Korea? That said, I cling to the verse in 1 John 4:18 that says, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.” None of us in our own strength can ever love perfectly, but the Holy Spirit working through us can show God’s perfect love to the North Korean people.

This last August [after North Korea ran new ballistic and nuclear tests] was a very intense time for CFK. We sat ourselves down and said, “Are we supposed to be going back in August?” We called our board of directors together for prayer and discussion over two days, and team members also talked with their families. We laid out several criteria—this needs to happen by this date, and that needs to happen by that date. If these things come together, then we will go. They did all come together, we had a productive trip, and God gave us peace while we were there. We ended up going back in October, as well.

This has been a walk of faith from the very beginning, and that’s hard to define sometimes. You read Hebrews 11 [where it says “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”], and there are many, many examples of how confusing and difficult that can be in the moment. Yet God is faithful.

What is your organization’s connection to Billy Graham?

Billy Graham wanted to go to North Korea in the early ’90s. My brother-in-law had made a visit to North Korea and maintained relationships with the North Koreans at the UN Mission in New York, so he made some introductions, and then he and others were involved in negotiating and helping to organize Dr. Graham’s early visits.

My husband’s uncle—he was a lifelong missionary to Korea who later served on the board of CFK for many years—interpreted for Dr. Graham when he spoke at churches and at Kim Il-sung University and other places. Graham and his team met then-president Kim Il Sung, who declared that they were “friends of Korea.” After we realized there was a real need in North Korea for ongoing humanitarian assistance, my husband and his brother joined with three other board members and founded what became Christian Friends of Korea. We now have different partners and volunteers across the US and globally.

What initially catalyzed your work in North Korea?

We initially began working in 1995 during the famine years—from 1994 to 1998—and we started by sending food. Not long after, we got a request to send an ambulance, so we put one together. Part of the funding for this project came from an honor (including a monetary prize) my mother-in-law had been given for her work with tuberculosis in South Korea. When they found out about that, [our contacts in North Korea] said, “Oh, we have a tuberculosis problem. Could you help us with that?” It really was just sort of a door that God opened to us, and we walked through it.

Obviously, treating these types of diseases in North Korea is extremely challenging. How has the risk and complexity changed in recent years?

The past year has been particularly difficult. The travel ban, which took effect on September 1, has been part of that, although we’ve been able to navigate it. But there have been issues with new sanctions, which impact lots of different aspects of our work. Whenever you raise sanctions on a country, third parties that we have to do business with in order to deliver humanitarian aid in North Korea start to get very nervous. This work has always been difficult, but now we’re at an unprecedented level of complexity. Humanitarian activities are being seriously jeopardized, and Christian organizations like ours face additional challenges.

What is your own family’s relationship to Korea?

I married into my husband’s family, and his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all missionaries in Korea. His great-grandfather, Eugene Bell, went to Korea as a Presbyterian missionary in 1895, and the family has had a presence in Korea ever since then. So we’re going on 123 years, now. Most of them speak the language very fluently, and they certainly have a deep understanding and appreciation for the culture and the people, the context and the history.

Are there other missionary connections for CFK?

In the Black Mountains/Montreat area of North Carolina, where CFK is headquartered, there were many retired missionaries to Korea who returned from the mission field and settled here. We ended up establishing our organization here in part because of all these wonderful people who really understood Korea and knew its language and culture. We used to bring the North Korean officials down here from New York to visit them. It was sort of their home away from home because they would have dinner in these people’s homes and speak their own language and begin to understand how much these people really loved their country. Many of these retired Korea missionaries had known their country before it was a North and a South, before it was divided. That resonated on another level, as well.

When did you first sense God’s call to North Korea?

I would have never dreamed of working in North Korea in my 20s. Although I had known many Koreans in college and high school, it wasn’t really on my radar screen. But when I married, I began to learn a lot more about Korea. When I went to North Korea for the first time, it grabbed my heart. The needs were overwhelming. I had already been involved in the work for three years as a volunteer, helping with newsletters and communications with donors and that kind of thing. But it was transformative to actually visit the country, meet ordinary North Koreans, and follow God’s lead in understanding how we could potentially help.

What has changed over the years that you’ve been in North Korea?

My early visits were during the famine years, and that was a time of incredible hardship and overwhelming need. It’s hard to explain what we saw and experienced. Certainly, the country’s come a long way since that time, at least in some respects. There is more food available now, although it’s not enough. But there are small segments of the population that are doing significantly better than during those hard, hard years. I remember when bicycles came in. People were walking everywhere in the earliest years, and then all of a sudden bicycles came on the scene, and that was a huge transformation.

Many people have cell phones, too. There’s color everywhere now—the buildings always used to be gray—and so to have things painted colors brightens everything. There’s grass planted everywhere now; that was all barren when we first came. There are parks, and there are new buildings, especially in Pyongyang. So I have seen a lot of changes over the years. Certainly, there’s been a lot of work done, and yet there’s still a long, long way to go.

Is there a personal relationship with anyone in North Korea that is of particular importance to you?

One meaningful relationship was with a director of a tuberculosis sanitarium that we visited off and on for years. I’ll never forget just how excruciating the difficulties were; he was trying to take care of TB patients and was sick himself.

When we visited one time, I went to shake his hand, and it was so hot because he had a fever. As we were leaving, he gave me a box of pheasant eggs. I said, “How did you get these eggs?” He said, “I knew you were coming. I wanted to welcome you. So I hiked around the hills for the last three days to collect these eggs out of the nests for you.” I was amazed by this huge act of sacrifice and generosity. We went on to help this man rebuild his care center from the ground up. We helped him build a ward to care for multi-drug resistant (MDR) TB patients. We had a new well drilled for him, and then our team worked with his staff to put in a solar/gravity water system. We worked with him on a greenhouse. By the time we finished, his whole facility had been completely transformed.

He died about a year and a half ago from MDR-TB. He had been sick with TB five times. He was 59 years old, just a few years older than I am. But his life gives you an idea of the kind of people who are there—self-sacrificing, hardworking, and special people.

I’m sorry about his death.

Sadly, there are a lot of people who have died. We’ve worked in about 30 care centers, and so we get to know many different people. It’s really a privilege to visit them. They’re hospitable and welcoming and share ideas about how to improve the facility and help the patients.

On this last visit, one man that we talked with told us he’s been in TB work for more than 20 years. He built the road to his own facility when he first got started, and then he built the buildings and planted fruit trees. His vision and determination are remarkable. He was planting fruit trees during some of the hardest years, and now they are starting to bear fruit. He and his staff—local doctors and nurses—are now rebuilding a main patient building by hand. The care center has improved so significantly, but he went through some really hard years to get there. These are very selfless people, and the people that they care for are generally very, very sick.

How do you see the church in South Korea interacting with North Korea?

It’s been very difficult because of the legal constraints that the South Koreans are under. There’s been almost no interaction between the South and the North in recent years. In many cases, their South Korean passports prevent them from being able to go to North Korea. I hope that can change, but for now, they don’t have the opportunity.

What I will say for the South Korean church is that it’s a praying church. I’m always amazed at the Koreans’ early morning prayers and their calling out to God. We can learn from that.

What about the American church? How can it better love and support North Koreans?

First of all, we need to be aware that there are 25 million people there that need our prayers, love, and support—people who need us to understand their context. I hope we can be a praying church. What we get in the news is often a very scary picture, but underneath that, there are real people who need to know that God loves them and has not abandoned them.

So I would encourage the American church to find tangible ways to help. There are several very good organizations involved in North Korea, and they need a lot of help. They need volunteers. They need prayer support. They need financial support. People should get involved. We have an amazing opportunity to love people in the name of Jesus and to let them know that Christians will be at the forefront of caring for them.

What do you want our readers to know about North Korea?

North Koreans are real human beings who are trying to love their families well. They’re trying to raise their kids. They’re trying to be healthy. They suffer just like we do. They long for better relationships with the outside world, with us as “the enemy.” They want to know who we are and why we think the way we do. They’re limited in the amount of information they have, and that’s important for us to understand, and it’s also important for us to understand that they have very little say in what their government does.

It’s a very complex situation, but I think the Bible is very clear: We are called to actively love our enemies. When we do, God enters into that space and brings healing, understanding, righteousness, and justice. So we’re called to engage. We’re called to reach out. We’re called to remember that these are our brothers and sisters.

The Rise of Reformed Charismatics

The rollicking worship pulsed for nearly an hour in the humid Sanctuary: energetic singing, hundreds of hands raised, prophetic words referencing the Spirit’s flames, and sparks of spontaneous prayer among strangers from different states and nations.

When the worship ended, the crowd sat down, opened their English Standard Version Bibles and settled in for a 35-minute expository sermon on Galatians from King’s

Church London teaching pastor Andrew Wilson, who brought a different kind of fire.

Each night of the Advance church planting network’s global conference featured this sort of hybrid—doctrinally rich, gospel-focused, Reformed preaching sandwiched between free-flowing charismatic worship—a combination that would make many a Presbyterian (and a few Pentecostals) squirm.

But for the crowd gathered at Covenant Life Church in suburban Washington, DC, including pastors from Kenya, Nepal, Australia, and Thailand, it flowed as naturally as it does in their own Reformed charismatic churches—more than 70 of them across the globe.

Advance is hardly the only group in the middle of this theological Venn diagram, with growing numbers of theologically savvy, Spirit-filled followers in the United States, Britain, and around the world. Five hundred years after the Reformation, Luther’s 21st-century inheritors are embracing the Holy Spirit in new and deeper ways.

Newfrontiers, a network of global “apostolic spheres,” has planted hundreds of churches over the last 30 years, many of which fit the Reformed charismatic mold. The movement’s founder, Terry Virgo, a British pastor, serves as a sort of elder statesman of Calvinist continuationists and authored the book The Spirit-Filled Church.

Acts 29, the Reformed church-planting network, has also begun to showcase its charismatic side, holding a conference in London around the theme “Reformed & Revived.”

Matt Chandler, Acts 29 president and lead teaching pastor of the Dallas-area Village Church, has identified himself as Reformed charismatic. He believes the charismatic gifts are still active and should be pursued, a position somewhat uncommon among Southern Baptists.

Frontline Church, an Acts 29 congregation that has expanded to four locations in the Oklahoma City area over the last decade, combines structured liturgy (creeds, the Lord’s Table) with “planned spontaneity,” including small groups of prayer during communion, where congregants pray for each other’s healing and offer prophetic words to one another (e.g., “I believe the Lord wants to say to you . . . ”).

Lead pastor Josh Kouri thinks the church’s unique Reformed charismatic focus, “100 percent committed to both Word and Spirit,” is part of its appeal.

“Some people show up on a Sunday morning and don’t know where to peg us, but I think that is actually to our benefit,” he said. “It’s stretching, but it also feels safe to people. I think that commitment to hold in tension things we typically try to resolve . . . that’s been a big part of the unique story of our church.”

Wilson (also a CT columnist), Chandler, and Kouri, along with pastors Sam Storms (author of The Beginner’s Guide to the Spiritual Gifts) and Francis Chan, spoke in October at the Convergence Conference in Oklahoma City, an inaugural event focused on Word and Spirit.

Reformation and Revival

Historically, evangelicals of the Reformed and charismatic camps have been on separate ends of a spectrum, suspicious of one another’s views on the role of the Spirit’s miraculous gifts (e.g., the nine listed in 1 Cor. 12:7–10) for today’s churches.

“The mind and the emotions are not rivals. The way God reaches people is through both.” ~ Andrew Wilson

The Reformed tradition has tended to be cessationist, either denying or avoiding the continued practice of charismatic gifts like healing, tongues, and prophecy, believing they were only for the foundational era of the church. Charismatics, on the other hand, are continuationists, believing these gifts are still available and valuable.

Cessationists, like Reformed heavyweight John MacArthur, accuse charismatics of being light on biblical truth, often elevating spiritual experience above sound doctrine. As he writes in his 2013 book Strange Fire, MacArthur believes “Charismatics downplay doctrine for the same reason they demean the Bible: they think any concern for timeless objective truth stifles the work of the Spirit.”

Continuationists like Chan believe many evangelical churches neglect the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (the subject of his 2009 book Forgotten God) and, out of fear of abuses or unwieldy emotionalism, come close to what Paul warns against in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt.”

But in this historic divide, which has tended to pit knowledge of the Word against the experience of the Spirit, is there a third way? Francis Schaeffer thought so. In his 1974 essay, “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” he wrote:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion.

But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit.

The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival.

The Head and the Heart

Four decades after Schaeffer’s essay, church planter Dihan Lee saw the restoration the theologian called for, first in his own life and then at his church, Renew Church LA.

It started in a living room with 15 people. About two years later, the congregation leans on the Spirit and the Word to draw a diverse crowd of more than 400 to weekly services.

“We are card-carrying Gospel Coalition people,” Lee said. “We’re big fans of Piper and Keller. I’m a five-point Calvinist. And yet we are also people who engage with Bethel and IHOP, and I love Sam Storms. I don’t see a discrepancy between being a covenantal Reformed guy who loves theology and pursuing all of what the Holy Spirit wants for the church.”

As a pastor, Lee doesn’t label his preaching Reformed, but it’s in his skeleton if not on his sleeve. He preaches God’s sovereignty, covenants, and election, but also the prophetic, the gifts, and spiritual warfare.

“It’s a balance that people find refreshing, where you can have good theology but also freedom in the Holy Spirit,” said Lee, who found his charismatic breakthrough at a Christian Healing Ministries conference in Florida after a season of ministry burnout.

Like many Korean Americans, Lee grew up Presbyterian, Reformed, and cessationist, even if he didn’t use those terms at the time. His movement in the Reformed charismatic direction began at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School under Wayne Grudem, who hosted healing sessions in class and “taught charismatic Reformed theology in a way that was very convincing,” Lee said.

At the Florida conference, he ultimately found profound healing, deep repentance, visions, and prophecy that “gave life to my theology,” he said. “It opened doors from my head to my heart in ways I’d never experienced before.”

Lee doesn’t think today’s culture is impressed by orthodoxy alone.

“So you’ve got the corner on orthodox faith. Great. Show me how that’s going to heal my marriage. Show me how that’s going to remove depression and shame out of my life,” he said. “To engage with a broken city, orthodoxy alone doesn’t cut it. You also need power.”

Wood and Fire

Just across town from Renew Church LA, Vintage Church, an Anglican congregation in Santa Monica, merged with a Baptist church two years ago. Now, its services blend the expected liturgical elements—prayers of the people, passing the peace, sermon, Communion—with extended periods of contemporary worship.

Lead pastor Ger Jones refers to the front rows as the “Holy Spirit splash zone,” where worshipers display livelier expressions and sometimes share prophetic words with the congregation during the service.

Jones sees the interplay of Word and Spirit in terms of wood and fire. The Word is the wood, which is necessary to start a fire, “but without the spark of the Spirit, it is just dry wood,” he said.

“A good fire needs good wood,” said Jones, but sometimes charismatics try to have fire experiences without good wood, without the sort of meaty, doctrinal teaching that grounds the weekly message at Vintage.

“It’s like kindling catching on fire, so it doesn’t last long,” he said. “It’s connected to a moment but not sustained. It’s event-based.”

Unlike most churches, where the singing is prior to preaching as a sort of theological tee up, Vintage offers a longer worship set after the sermon, “giving space to the Spirit to set the preached Word on fire.”

Extended periods of worship and openness to spontaneity are hallmarks of Reformed charismatic churches, but they can create discomfort for congregants and worship musicians who are more used to structure and predictability.

“Seeing how the Spirit is moving during a service is still a little disorienting as I can look out into the congregation and see some people really responding to the spontaneity and others upset because there are no words on the screen for them to follow,” said Katie Hendrickson, who sings and plays keys during worship at Southlands church in Brea, California, which is a member of the Advance Movement (and this writer’s home church).

She has come to see the Reformed charismatic worship of Southlands as “a beautiful blend of allowing the Word to formulate your response to God while also allowing the Holy Spirit to speak.”

The Cross and the Gifts

Oscar Merlo, director of Biola University’s new Center for the Study of the Work and Ministry of the Holy Spirit Today, researches the movement of the Holy Spirit in the global church.

He believes the doctrinal foundation and biblical teaching of the Reformed tradition plus the energy and growth of global Pentecostalism could be a recipe for revival.

“More than ever, the charismatic movement can learn from a more intentional anchoring in the Word,” he said. “From the other side, Pentecostalism teaches us about the charisma, the gifts of the Spirit, and I think the Reformed tradition can learn from this, that the gifts are for the equipping of the saints for an infusion of evangelism.”

Merlo, former executive director of the Alberto Mottesi Evangelistic Associaton, one of the world’s largest Latino evangelical associations, views the Reformed emphasis on the Cross as an important corrective to the charismatic movement, which often emphasizes victory and prosperity more than the cost of discipleship.

“The Cross needs to be preached,” he said. “The Cross, the suffering, is the way of renewal. It’s where man is transformed.”

On the other hand, the charismatic movement’s emphasis on worship and joy in God can bring a buoyancy and enthusiasm often lacking in sometimes staid Reformed churches.

“I find it helps me be happier in God,” Wilson said in a 2017 sermon, “Why I am Reformed and Charismatic,” delivered at Covenant Life Church.

“Reformed theology and charismatic experience both place the greatest possible emphasis on the gifts of God,” he said. “God is a gift giver. He gives us his presence to enjoy. He gives us the gift of salvation in Christ. He gives the gifts of the Spirit to the church. And that makes me grateful.”

Wilson was raised in a conservative Reformed Anglican church (St. Helen’s Bishopsgate), but he doesn’t see the intellectual orientation of his tradition at odds with the emotional, experiential side of charismatic tradition.

“The mind and the emotions are not rivals,” he said. “The way God reaches people is through both. I’ve just seen that my whole life.”

Rational and Supernatural

Over the past few decades, globalization and immigration have connected the global church and complicated the post-Enlightenment rationalism that pervades Western culture. As the church rises in the global South and wanes in the West, Christians across the world are bound to find a greater affinity for the “naturally supernatural” elements of their faith.

The reality of spiritual warfare, and how the Spirit equips the church in the midst of it, is already assumed in the African church, said Bulus Galadima, a Nigerian theologian and dean of the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University.

“The more people in the West interact with people in other parts of the world, where there is more openness to supernatural realities, the more they will see the power of God made manifest,” said Galadima, who for six years served as president of Nigeria’s Jos Evangelical Church Winning All Theological Seminary.

Many believers in the non-Western world don’t have the sort of wealth and conveniences that can obscure one’s reliance on God.

“There are people who haven’t had a meal the whole day. When they are praying and asking God, they are expecting God to do something,” he said. “They’re able to see God’s provision and intervention more clearly. And when they tell these stories, they are demonstrating to us the power of God.”

Tope Koleoso, a London pastor and Nigerian native, emphasized the supernatural orientation of Christianity during a 2013 Desiring God conference, warning that without the Spirit, the gospel turns into a pragmatic message.

“If you sidestep the supernatural, you’re selling them something short; much shorter than what Jesus intended,” said Koleoso, whose Jubilee Church is affiliated with Newfrontiers. “You cannot theologize Satan away. You cannot lecture him away. You cannot hope him away. You need the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a supernatural calling.”

The Power and the Glory

Kouri believes the church is in an “Ecclesiastes moment” in history, an existential crisis wherein the promises of materialism and technology and postmodernity—that we can buy or think or self-actualize our way to spiritual happiness—have not led to the good life. People are hungry for something “ultimate and unchanging and true,” said Kouri, as well as something “experiential and authentic and real.”

“When you talk about earnestly desiring the gifts, it’s all about people encountering the love of God,” he said. “People are hungry to experience the reality of who God is and to encounter the love of God in Christ through the Spirit.”

“Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit.” ~ Francis Schaeffer

Plenty of other pastors agree that the Word and Spirit combination addresses the challenges of today’s cultural moment.

“There’s a sense in which our cultural context has been handed over to materialism and secularism, the immanent frame, the disenchanted world, all those things,” said Joshua Ryan Butler, an author and associate pastor at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon. “The cracks are starting to appear, though, and there is a sense of God’s redemptive movement breaking out, particularly in urban centers, which seem especially hardened.”

Butler believes there is an increasing sense among urban dwellers that something is missing not only on an existential level but also on a communal level. Amid growing racial tension and political polarization, the unifying power of the Spirit is increasingly where the church must turn.

“The power of the Spirit is to form reconciled communities, across age or socioeconomic or ethnic lines,” said Butler. “It’s hard to gather a really diverse group of people by ideas. But the power and presence of the Spirit of God in our midst can.”

Beyond existential malaise and cultural fragmentation, another reason for the growing reformation and revival hybrid is the simple urgency of mission. There is a sense that the theological groundedness of the Reformed tradition, plus the missionary zeal and powerful worship of the charismatic tradition, could be a powerful missional combination.

Adam Mabry is a self-proclaimed Reformed charismatic pastor who leads Boston’s Aletheia Church, a nondenominational congregation that is part of the Every Nation network.

Mabry wrote a 2016 article for The Gospel Coalition entitled “Why Charismatics and Calvinists Need Each Other.”

“I daydream about what could happen if the passion of the Pentecostal for the power of God and the passion of the Calvinist for the Word of God could be combined to accomplish the work of God,” wrote Mabry. “The world just might see the glory of God.”

Brett McCracken is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition and author of Hipster Christianity, Gray Matters, and the newly released Uncomfortable.

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