Scott Munger

Q&A --

Cleansing The Church

An agnostic-turned-missionary writes that Christianity needs to be saved from the behavior, and bad theology, of some of his fellow evangelicals

November 04, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Reporter

A fiery theologian once had harsh words for some fellow Christians. "When you ... pass judgment on [others], yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?" wrote the apostle Paul. "God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you" (Romans 2:3, 24).

In some ways, Paul had nothing on Scott Munger, a Minnesota-born evangelist-author. In his new book, Rethinking God: Undoing the Damage (Living Ink Books), Munger, an American missionary, takes on fellow evangelicals - mostly a noisy few on the religious right - whose behavior and bad theology he says are repelling followers and widening the yawning gap between the religious and the secular.

"Those who claim to follow Jesus ought above all to think and act like him," says Munger, 52, a nondenominational pastor who has lived and worked in the Philippines and the old Soviet Union. "Sadly, `insipid' and `dim' describe many evangelicals today. ... Some of our most acclaimed leaders have damaged God's reputation."

A former agnostic who came to faith in God, he trained in both science (B.A., biochemistry) and humanities (M.A. and doctorate in linguistics). In addition to being a longtime student of biblical Hebrew and Greek, he has taught (university, seminary and church) in three languages and studied several others.

He has discussed religious issues on radio, CNN and FOX News, and has worked with Christian leaders from the United States and around the world.

With the eye of a narrative journalist, Munger traces his journey from agnosticism to Christian belief, and from that point of view lambastes "God's so-called representatives" in the evangelical movement - their "sex scandals, financial scandals, self-serving egotism, spiritual abuse of all sorts" - not to mention their preoccupation with political matters, something he says Jesus counseled against.

He names few names, but his point is clear. "Christians should take the utmost care that Jesus is not rejected because of our failures," he says, "whether in what we say or how we live." The book's subtitle: "God is a lot better-looking than many Christians portray him."

Munger replied to The Sun's e-mail queries from Nepal, where he works with a small school and children's home. Munger's wife, Jennifer, a nurse and fellow missionary, has worked with him at each stage of his career. Why "rethink" God now?

People need spiritual truth like they need food. If they can't get the good stuff, they'll eat things that don't smell very nice. [And] in the historically "Christian" West, Christianity is on the wane.

Many factors are involved. Financial wealth ... often puts people of all persuasions to sleep spiritually. We Christians often live at a level far below that of Jesus' high calling. [And] In part because of weak Christian testimony, new belief systems have stepped in to fill the West's spiritual void. Such as?

One ... is [an absolute faith in] "tolerance." Tolerance can sound appealing, but pure tolerance allows for evil to breed: mistreatment of the innocent, corruption, slavery, anarchy. [Pure] tolerance won't be worshipped forever, but by the time it's cast off, great damage will have been done.

In what ways have Christians, and Christian leaders, been falling short? Our neighbors, leaders, judges, schools and celebrities are, as often as not, non-Christian or even anti-Christian [today]. But are they against Jesus, or simply against us? Are we living as Jesus commanded, or as we [personally] wish to? Do the views of non-Christians about God come from [genuine] understanding, or from the ways in which we misrepresent [God]? I fear that an honest answer will not make Christians proud. What behaviors are the most damaging?

James, the brother of Jesus, says, "We all stumble in many ways." James was one of the most revered leaders in the early church, and included himself in this description (as I do myself). But thankfully, there is no record of James running off with Peter's secretary, or driving around in a gold-plated chariot, or teaching people that if they pray such-and-such a prayer, or give to his ministry, that good things will happen to them. ... This side of heaven, divine responsibility, not personal privilege, ought to be our focus.

In his day, Jesus chastised church leaders who went astray. Are American evangelicals any worse? If not worse than those of previous generations, [they] are in a worse position. The temptations to go astray may be greater today than at any time in history. Never have people had access to such wealth, immediate gratification, diversions and just plain worldly fun and sinful activity. Not that all of it is wrong, but Christians [always] need to weigh the trade-offs ... [involved in pursuing their faith].

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