Sunday, July 02, 2006

Reclaiming our Christian Roots

William Willimon, a professor of religion at Duke University, speaks of a momentous event which quietly took place on a sultry Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina.*

That Sunday evening in the heart of the Bible Belt in this great nation of ours, the Fox Theater opened on the Lord's day for the first time. Seven teenage attendees of the Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, and then quietly slip out the back door and go to see the show at the Fox.

That, Dr. Willimon says, was a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. The Fox theater served notice that it would no longer bow to the church, and went head to head in the battle for the hearts and souls of young people, and that evening, the Fox decisively won the first skirmish.

Greenville South Carolina succumbed to the wave of secularity sweeping across America in the turbulent decade of the 60's and the long running era in which Christianity dominated the American worldview unceremoniously came to an end.

I was born three years after the Fox theater heralded a new era, and my family's roots in America go back only to the early 80's, just a few years removed from the tumultuous era of the 60's and much of the 70's during which America found herself ambushed by an onslaught of social and cultural upheaval. As a new arrival to the country, I only got to witness the aftermath and learned about the decades through the lens of history and discussion with those who braved through the period as adults.

They had their own Greenville stories and fondly recalled with a touch of nostalgia the decades prior the 60's when America was a "God fearing Christian nation" where Judeo-Christian values were the norm and opening theaters on Sunday was unthinkable.

In the years following that Sunday evening, the secular culture grew increasingly brazen in its defiance of the church. Three years after the Fox theater opened for business on Sunday for the first time, John Lennon declared that the Beatles were now "more popular than Jesus," stepping on the already frayed nerves of American Christians reeling from the rapidly changing culture.

Throughout the formative years of my life, I stood side by side with others who, finding themselves increasingly under siege and alarmed by what they saw as the nation's continuous slide into moral deprivation, went onto fight back and even lash out at the culture. They were still fuming over what they viewed as a blasphemous statement from Lennon.

As a new American from a "pagan" nation where the marginalization of Christianity was rampant, I was determined to see to it that my adopted country reclaim its rich Christian heritage. Fondly recalling the story of an American missionary who befriended my great grandfather nearly a century ago, I felt a strong sense of kinship with this country I came to love as my spiritual homeland. To me and others, events like the one in Greenville heralded a dark godless era and John Lennon's statement put an exclamation mark on it.


Dr. Willimon, however, has an entirely different take on what took place in Greenville. You see, he was one of the seven teenagers who skipped church and sneaked into the Fox theatre that evening. When the culture sidestepped to allow the church to be the only show in town, it was assumed that people grew up Christian, simply by growing up American. But that assumption came to an end when the theater delivered the message that evening that it would no longer offer free rides to the church.

That, Dr. Willimon asserts, was one of the best things ever happened to the church of Jesus Christ in America. No longer is it assumed that the church and the culture see eye to eye and now Christians must realize that they are a peculiar people with their own peculiar identity, and learn to live as aliens in a strange land.

After extensive soul searching and the studying of Scripture, I have come to agree with Dr. Willimon. I have come to conclude the assumption that people grow up Christian, simply by growing up American is downright heretical in violation of every principle taught by Jesus and practiced by the first century Christians.

The notion of the Christian faith being an extension of a particular nationality was absolutely unheard of in the fledgling first century Christian Church. In fact, Christians, faced with intense persecution from the surrounding culture called themselves "aliens" and "strangers" simply passing through the present world as "sojourners." They spoke of living in peace with their neighbors, and conducting themselves as examplary law-abiding citizens.

Waging so-called "culture wars" against their pagan society was literally two thousand years and two continents away from their minds. Today the "war" has become a de facto tenet of the faith in the American Christian church. Sadly the tone of belligerence has drawn lines and fostered the us-against-them mindset while sidelining the true message of Jesus Christ.

We bitterly complain about the supposed disrespect and mis-characterization of our faith. Doing away with references to God in school curriculum, coins, and public monuments has galvanized Christians, but what do those things really have to do with our faith? Besides, as the saying goes, respect is to be earned, not to be demanded or worse yet, legislated.

We do not and should not bow down to some generic deity concocted by government officials on dollar bills and coins. Whether public monuments carry references to God, or lack thereof, does absolutely nothing to affirm or discredit my faith. My faith comes God Himself. My faith comes from my own relationship with God. My faith comes from what I read in the Bible, not the Constitution of the United States or the pledge of allegiance.

In retrospect, I believe the Fox theater did the church of Jesus Christ a monumental favor by spurting us to reclaim our true identity as Christians. As intoxicated as he was in a stupor of self-absorption, Lennon inadvertently uttered what deserves to go down as one of the most profound theological statements of the 20th century.

Jesus himself on trial before the disdainful eyes of Pontius Pilate declared, "My Kingdom is not of this world."

As saturated with "Christian values" the foundation and fabric of this nation may appear, America is ultimately of this world while Jesus' Kingdom is not.

The words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn are haunting. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 for his writings which exposed the atrocities of the Soviet Gulag.

The goal of the Gulag was not just the eradication of religiosity, but complete and thorough dehumanization. Reflecting on his harrowing years in prison, he penned the following words:

It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.

American Christians today behave as though the line between good and evil passes between the Republican and Democratic parties, between America and the rest of the world, and between the middle class and the underclass.

Solzhenitsyn's words remind us that what ultimately matters are human hearts, not states, classes, or political parties.

Instead of longing for the good old days when America was Christian, how about the days of the early church when Christians were Christian? Instead of bickering over the popularity of Jesus in America, how about striving for the supremacy of Jesus in our own lives?

We must wage "war" not against our neighbors, but against ourselves in our own hearts and souls. That is where the war must be fought with all of our might and with all our fervency.

That is how we can reclaim our Christian roots dating back not to the founding of our nation two centuries ago, but to two thousand years ago when Jesus built his Church with his blood.

And that is how we Christians can be Christian again.

* Dr. Willimon's story is taken from James Van Tholen's Where all Hope Lies (pages 59-64). It is an outstanding collection of sermons


At July 02, 2006 5:57 AM, Blogger grace said...

Wow, excellent post.

I think that many Christians still see the goal to be having power and influence in our society. But you've explained so well the need for us to understand the kingdom as a realm distinct from society.

We really need to learn our identity as citizens of the kingdom engaging with the culture around us, rather than trying to create a Christian bubble around us to exist in.

At July 02, 2006 9:01 AM, Blogger L-girl said...

Excellent post, David. Thanks for sharing this with us.

I will add another perspective to this.

Was pre-1963 America acting as a Christian nation when it systemically denied dark-skinned citizens the rights granted to white-skinned citizens? Or when it looked the other way when they were terrorized and murdered by the hundreds and thousands?

I could give a hundred examples, but I'll spare you the alternative history lesson. :)

My point is that there was no mythical time when America was a Christian nation. There was a time when the mainstream was more homogenized (white, Christian, male-dominated, straight), and other viewpoints were invisible and more easily ignored. But there was no time when all was peace and harmony because America hadn't been secularized yet. It was only peace and harmony for the dominant group.

This idea of the Christian nation is a myth, perpetuated to make you feel something has been lost, something you can reclaim, by putting "them" (liberals, Jews, minorities, whoever) back in their place. But it's something that never existed.

At July 02, 2006 11:02 AM, Blogger Brian Buriff said...

Well stated David. No writer's block there!

Reclaiming our roots in America by doing the inward soul search reaching beyond patriotism and our founding fathers (back to the earliest NT church) is an important message that's easy to "Amen" but far more difficult to apply.

Every year when we travel to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for mission's work - we are especially cognizant of this - based on their experience of the "white man's religion" of yesterday and today. Many sad atrocities have been committed under the guise of "Christian evangelism". Native Americans have good memories - making our job all the more difficult later this month.

Thank you again for the reminder!

At July 02, 2006 11:31 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

@grace, Thanks for the kind words.

the need for us to understand the kingdom as a realm distinct from society.

That is a thought provoking statement, and we often mistake that for building our own subculture and isolating ourselves in it, further fostering the us-against-them mentality.

But as you say, the key is, engaging with the culture around us as you put it. And the subculture does neither. It is neither a distict realm from society because it is nothing more than a parallel universe which mimicks the culture in every way (Christian TV, Christian celebrities, music, etc), nor a vehicle to engage the culture around us.

Could be another topic. Maybe you can write about it? :)

At July 02, 2006 11:40 AM, Blogger David Cho said...


You are absolutely correct, and I did not want to open up a whole new can of worms (the essay was already getting long). Just the other day, a Republican state chairman in his interview with Pat Robertson's 700 Club, rattled off a bunch of "Christian quotes" uttered by the founding fathers.

It turned out that they were all made up. He got the quotes from a forwarded email, and I suspect he got punked.

Due diligence, anyone? I will see if I can dig up the actual transcript. It is just embarassing.

Most of the founding fathers may have been deists, but not Christians. Saying a bunch of things about "God" does not make one Christian. After all, you have to make some references to CHRIST to be Christian, no?


Thanks for your anecdote. I am always hesitant to call out the "white man," because it has become very tiresome to do so. It is so much better when white men call out their own. I will call out my own Korean people in the future :).

I agree with you. There was nothing Christian about what the nation did to American Indians, and a host of other minorities as Laura mentions.

At July 02, 2006 11:59 AM, Blogger L-girl said...

Most of the founding fathers may have been deists, but not Christians. Saying a bunch of things about "God" does not make one Christian. After all, you have to make some references to CHRIST to be Christian, no?

I'd say so, although not being Christian I'd have to defer to your judgement.

The founding fathers certainly put some of their spiritual beliefs into the new country they were forming, but (IMO) they were careful not to define those beliefs too narrowly. It's later interpretations that label the god of "In God We Trust" as Christian.

I did not want to open up a whole new can of worms

You can count on me to do that for you. :)

At July 02, 2006 1:13 PM, Blogger Friar Tuck said...

I had read this in Willimons book before...but not the other stuff that followed

At July 02, 2006 1:26 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

@Cliff, thanks for stopping by.

I had read this in Willimons book before...but not the other stuff that followed

What is "this" and what is "the other stuff"? Here is more on his take on what happened in Greenville.

At July 02, 2006 4:44 PM, Blogger Mike Y said...


Good job on this and in sharing your personal experience with it.

Too often I see professing Christians assuming it's someone else's job to preach the Gospel to this world. Others seem to think the answer is in social reforms or lobbying.

The answer is very personal and rests on every one that names Christ. We are to live out our faith as if we actually believe it. The inconsistencies and sin have got to be dealt with. Perhaps when people start living like Christians, the world might consider us as such.


At July 02, 2006 5:56 PM, Blogger The Gig said...

Wow, what a great post. I thoroughly ejoyed reading it and also reading the comments you received from fellow bloggers. I am one of those Christians who has been upset about Jesus being taken out of everything, "In God We Trust," the schools, the "one nation under God" situation, etc. Your prospective on those matters are quite thought provoking and I never thought of it like that before. I agree that we must come to terms with our own belief in God and yes, your faith must come from God himself and what we read in the Bible. We must focus on our relationship with God and live according to what we believe in.

At July 02, 2006 8:29 PM, Blogger Granny said...

You outdid yourself with this one.

I agree with almost all of what you wrote although, like l-girl wrote, it could have been taken a little further.

Perhaps another time.

At July 03, 2006 7:12 PM, Blogger L-girl said...

about Jesus being taken out of everything, "In God We Trust," the schools, the "one nation under God" situation, etc.

David, here's a perfect example of what you meant. The phrase is "In God We Trust", it was never "In Jesus We Trust".

Why is "God" automatically assumed to be synonymous with Jesus? Is Jesus being taken out of everything? Was he in everything American to begin with?

At July 03, 2006 7:18 PM, Blogger Just Rannin' Around said...

I have to agree that this was an excellent post. I also agree that it is up to every individual to gain their faith, testimony and identity in God's kingdom separate from the country in which they live. I have done that and do not doubt that regardless of society, I will stand up for what I believe. So stand I will.

I believe that God consecrated this land for religious freedom. I also believe that if we forget God, He will forget us and we will lose the rights and privileges of worshiping how, when and where we want. By accepting and in essence allowing those few around us to take those seemingly "meaningless" mentions of God out of our Nation, we are handing them our rights to make God apart of His land.

I don't think that it is about whether or not I need them to believe that there is a God, but rather how much am I going to allow someone else to tell me when, how and where God should be allowed in this nation, on His Earth.

Nobody can take my away nor weaken my personal relationship with my Father in Heaven, nor His son, my Savior, Jesus Christ. It is past due for those of us who do have that internal resolve and knowledge to stand up and keep the those rights of religious freedom so that others have the opportunity to do the same. As much right as they have to say get rid of all mentions of God, I have the right and should, with my beliefs stand in the opposite corner.

At July 04, 2006 3:29 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

@JRA, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I myself absolutely treasure religious freedom. However, I have my doubt as to whether religious expressions on public monuments or school curriculum or lack thereof have anything to do with my right to worship my God.

I do agree (from your blog entry) that the secular side goes over the top when they fight to censor references to God in graduation speeches or to dismantle historic monuments to remove references to God. Seems real trivial and petty.

At the same time, I see "our side" going way over the top and the list of examples is endless.

Thanks you so much for the kind words.

Thanks for stopping by.

Thank you for your kind words. Well, that is it for my leftward march for this month :-).

I think she is talking about different things. There are specific incidents of Jesus being taken out. Since the cross symbolizes Jesus, all attempts to remove the cross from public property can be interpreted as Jesus being taken out. There was a movement in a city to have the Christmas Nativity scene taken away from the city hall's lawn. So that is another example of Jesus being taken out.

Both sides have way too much time on their hands, if you ask me. The Religious Right dictating Bush's middle east policy based on end times prophecy scares me. The ACLU might get a check from me if they would file lawsuits to expose this non-sense which I blogged about. People are dying because of this.

But a silly Nativity scene and a reference to God in the pledge of allegiance? Take that out or leave it. I don't care. I can do fine without it. People get so caught up over symbols.

At July 04, 2006 5:28 AM, Blogger L-girl said...

I think she is talking about different things. There are specific incidents of Jesus being taken out.

Oh, I see what you mean. Thanks for clarifying.

At July 04, 2006 5:31 AM, Blogger A thinker said...

Bravo! Bravo!! Bravo!!!

[picture me mentally standing and cheering]

Absolutely *brilliant* article, David. There is no way I could have said it better and this stands as a classic of your writing. I have nothing to add.

Refine it a little bit more and it would be worthy of publication anywhere. Great job.

At July 04, 2006 10:03 AM, Blogger Jeje said...

Well written post. It gives me a lot to think about. I'm not sure if I agree completely, but it is definitely something I should ponder more. Thanks!

At July 06, 2006 3:45 AM, Anonymous l. said...

interesting blog post

At July 06, 2006 1:06 PM, Blogger Oricon Ailin said...

I think I agree most with Just Rannin' Around. I'm with her.

I think your article was wonderful and I do agree with some of what you said. It's true that we should need symbols of our faith in society, politics, etc.

HOWEVER, is it MY right to want those things. I feel quite offended when people don't allow me to have my references to Jesus and God.

I do believe the principles of this country were founded on the ideas about God. Now, I am not saying that "God" have to be the Christian God I worship. It could be the "God" of any religion.

THAT is what offends me so much when people are trying to take it out of the things we see everyday. They are basically saying that none of us should be allowed to praise our God for the blessings of this nation. I chose that God to be the Father of Jesus, the Christian God as most would say.

I have no problem with symbols of other religions to be displayed during religious holidays. I have no problem with sharing the front lawn of the town hall by displaying a menorah next to the Nativity.

My hope is that we ALL have the opportunity to worship our God without feeling like the enemy.

And to me, the way things are going...they are focusing specifically on the God issue based on Christian beliefs. That targets me and I feel offended.

I'm sure I've rambled. I'm sorry if I have done so, David. I am not even close to be eloquent with words like you have been. But I do hope you understand my point.

At July 06, 2006 8:43 PM, Blogger David Cho said...


I understand your point, and I have no problem with that. You support plurality and respecting of other religions, and that is fine.

The mindset that I am against is not so. They insist that America is a Christian country to be specific, so the concept of religious freedom only applies to themselves, not to other religions.

As I stated to others, I do think the ACLU's quest to eliminate all religious expression from public places is way over the top.

At July 07, 2006 5:33 AM, Blogger Robert said...

WOW!!! I see what i have been missing by being away so long awesome thoughts my friend!!! The whole idea of christian faith being somehow tied to nationality and geographical origin excellent analysis!!!! Hope to add more and blog more now as you always stimulate more thought!!

At July 07, 2006 2:21 PM, Blogger Bruce said...

Maybe I ought to go away more often. I'm gone a week and when I come back, I noticed you've turned into a philosopher, and it's good to see you've gotten rid of the writer's block. Well done David. Well done.


At July 07, 2006 3:12 PM, Blogger J.OTIS MERSTER said...

I couldn't agree more with every word in this most excellent post. As sad as it is, I believe it is just a true statement of fact to say that the Beatles are more populsr than Jesus--and good! Jesus never wanted or claimed to be popular. Neither should Christians. Historically, the great ruin of the first "Christian" was when attendance was made mandatory. Christ's church became full of people who were there by mandate and not by choice. If you pray, go to church, read the Bible, without a heart that wants to do those things and chooses to spend time doing those things rather than spending time in other endeavors, it matters not an inkling to God. Obedience is always better than sacrifice. All must come from the heart.

At July 08, 2006 6:59 AM, Blogger Brotha Buck said...

Great post, Cho. I'm not sure how to follow that up. I learned a bit here, and was inspired as well. I know that whenever I hear about a Christian monument being removed from government property, or prayer being removed from school, I'm saddened, but think, "Wow, do these people think they are removing God simpy because they remove a statue?"

At July 08, 2006 7:30 PM, Blogger L-girl said...

but think, "Wow, do these people think they are removing God simpy because they remove a statue?"

Indeed they do not. This question completely misses the point - in fact, it gets the point completely backwards.

Those of us who do not want religion in the public sphere have no interest in "removing god". We do not seek a godless society. That's a myth - created by people who do not support freedom of religion.

True freedom of religion can only exist in a secular society. Look at all the theocracies on the planet, past and present. Is there freedom of religion in any one of them?

In a religious society, there is no religious freedom - unless you happen to be part of the majority. But as JenM pointed out, is the point of your religion to be the majority? I should hope not.

At July 08, 2006 7:35 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Laura, I think what Buck is saying is, Christians think that God is being removed only because the statue goes. So that is Brotha Buck's point is, I think. So he is really describing Christians' overreaction, not the goal of those who seek to remove religion in the public sphere.

At July 08, 2006 8:20 PM, Blogger L-girl said...

Oh duh. In that case, the question is completely apt. Sorry, Mr. B. Buck. She says sheepishly.

At July 09, 2006 8:40 AM, Blogger Worried said...

Excellent post, David.

I have read and heard many people totally diss Christians and believers in God (of Abraham and Isaac). I think many people are turned off by the interpretations of the scriptures by some radical or rigid groups and their subsequent actions and the beliefs they espouse.

The appellation "Christian" would seem to mean a "follower of Christ and His teachings". That is my definition, anyway. There is a big difference in being Christian and in belonging to particular denomination or sect.

Although I am not attuned to the music at my age, I rather like the video at

At July 09, 2006 10:10 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Very well stated, Worried. Thanks.

At July 11, 2006 7:39 PM, Blogger Brotha Buck said...

Lol, no problem.


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