Questions about the place of world religions may prompt the theological showdown of the decade.

There are two kinds of Christians—those who believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and those who don’t. For the first group, Jesus is the only way to salvation. For the second, he is only one of several ways.

For older conservative Christians, it seems almost incredible that there is any question about which of these options to choose. The uniqueness of Christ has been a cornerstone of orthodoxy for nearly 2,000 years. No major theologian has ever denied it. Most have championed it vigorously. But incredible as it may seem, this choice may well be the key theological issue of the new decade.

To understand why this question has jumped to the fore, one must first consider the staggering growth of the church in previously non-Christian parts of the world. In all of Asia and most of Africa, unprecedented numbers are coming to Christ. But they are doing so in cultures where animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism have traditionally ruled. New Christians in these cultures experience tremendous pressures to syncretize their new beliefs with traditional ones.

Young Asian and African theologians are working overtime to maintain the uniqueness of the gospel and at the same time allow indigenous theologies to develop. The linchpin in this process is holding fast to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. If this theological stake is driven firmly in the ground, then all kinds of creative expressions of the gospel can blossom. Without it, cultural relativism can easily take over.

It is ironic that in the very moment our fellow Christians in Asia and Africa need a strong statement on Christ’s uniqueness, the American church finds itself struggling for definite statements. It is no secret that the world religions are growing at unprecedented rates in the United States. This need not be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity to sharpen our beliefs and increase our witness.

Nevertheless, some Christian leaders have responded unhealthily, suggesting that because the world religions are here, and because we all know good, moral people in those faith traditions, we should reconsider our stance on the uniqueness of Christ. This is no sinister plot. This desire is born of the best of motives, a desire to love and fellowship with all people.

Redrafting the central tenet of our faith, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, is not, however, the way to answer the challenge of the world religions. As Americans we are still called to take in and help the “poor huddled masses of the world.” As Christians, however, we are not called to accept and integrate the poor huddled masses of ideas—Buddhist, or secular, or New Age.

Article continues below

We are called to recognize this new worldwide challenge. We are called to learn all we can about the historic religions. We are called to love and respect people of all faiths, whether Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim. But we are also called to be Christian.

At last fall’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Bong Ro, one of Asia’s foremost theologians, said, “We are looking to you, the American church, to make a clear statement on the uniqueness of Christ. Frankly, we are fighting a battle for it in Asia.”

In an age where the role of foreign missions is increasingly assumed by indigenous churches and church leaders, it may be that the most important thing we can do for the global Christian community is to remain true to the historic doctrines of the Christian church. Right here. On our own turf. The uniqueness of the saving work of Jesus Christ is a good place to start.

By Terry C. Muck.

Where do babies come from? Fortunately, young people graduate from tales about storks and cabbage leaves to knowledge of gametes and zygotes. And even when we master the science of reproductive biology, we sense mystery, for in the dance of the chromosomes, God is still present to those with eyes to see.

The same is true of the ways faith transforms individual lives and whole societies. Today Protestantism (particularly evangelicalism and Pentecostalism) is transforming Latin America’s traditionally Catholic society. According to Brazilian bishop Monsignor Boaventura Kloppenburg, Latin America is turning Protestant even faster than Central Europe did in the sixteenth century. As a result, scholars are paying attention, analyzing the social and political forces at work, offering explanations that range from the stork-and-cabbage-patch variety to the more scientifically plausible. Readers with a special interest in the developing analysis will want to acquire new books by anthropologist David Stoll (Is Latin America Turning Protestant? from the University of California Press) and sociologist David Martin (Tongues of Fire, Blackwell), who is interviewed beginning on page 23.

Among the stork-like descriptions offered for the success of evangelical and Pentecostal religion in Latin America is the notion that many ministries are tools of the CIA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and White House-basement cabals. While there has been some such involvement, funneling North American monies to the Latin poor, the results are, as Stoll has pointed out, far in excess of the funds expended: “If evangelical churches were really built on handouts, they would be spiritless patronage structures, not vital, expanding grass-roots institutions.”

Article continues below

Likewise, some claim that the ignorant are being preyed upon by unscrupulous sheep stealers. Others, recognizing the shortcomings of traditional Latin parish life, call evangelicals “opportunistic proselytizers” who are ultimately destructive of culture and society. While specific examples can be found to support these accusations, by themselves they come nowhere near explaining a phenomenon of such magnitude.

More scientific explanations recognize the ways in which becoming evangelical helps a person get control of his or her life and ultimately change society for the better. Latins who become evangelicals frequently better their lives by acquiring personal disciplines (reinforced by their new community’s values) that make them marketable employees. As John Maust, editor of Latin America Evangelist, points out, these converts no longer participate easily in Latin America’s culturally sanctioned corruption; they become honest, industrious, and thrifty; and they resist the tradition of drunkenness: “Employers seek out evangelical employees because they will work hard and will not lose work time because of drink.” These changes in personal lifestyle translate into increased prosperity for families and communities, as entrance into nonhierarchical Christianity provides opportunities for developing indigenous leadership and organizational skills.

When we take all these social factors into account, we are still faced with the puzzling miracle of changed lives—so many of them lives that would not change so radically just for hope of an increased paycheck. And it is at the threshold of mystery that we stand in awe, peering south across our borders as we see the hand of God reaping the harvest of history.

By David Neff.

“Man bites dog” is the clichéd explanation of what makes a good news story. Journalists report what is new, unexpected.

And so what did New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor do to cause newspapers and television newscasts across the country, even Time magazine, to report his behavior? The big news was that he said he believed the Devil exists.

Who would have guessed it? Who would have thought that a well-respected leader in a worldwide Christian organization (the Roman Catholic Church) still believed such religious primitivism?

Article continues below

O’Connor fanned the flames by going on to admit that he thought portions of the 1970s movie and best seller The Exorcist were “gruesomely realistic,” that heavy-metal music can “help trap people, especially teenagers,” into experimenting with satanic rituals, and that he had approved the performance of two exorcisms in his archdiocese in the last year.

Rock star Ozzy Osbourne, whose performances used to include biting off the head of a bat, whose body advertises a tattoo of a demonic snake head, who penned the popular tune “Suicide Solution,” and who was the former lead singer of a band called Black Sabbath, sent a telegram to the cardinal stating that O’Connor had “insulted the intelligence of rock fans all over the world.”

Time magazine—which positively salivates over the possibility of filling its pages with stories on mass-murdering sociopaths, “wilding” gang rapes, brutal wars, heinous negligence—asked, “Was O’Connor seriously suggesting that demons were loose in the land?” For guidance they turned to a Catholic theologian who assured them that the belief in a personal Devil is just “premodern and precritical” superstition. (What a relief.)

Flannery O’Connor noted that the modern materialist “fails to recognize the Devil when he sees him.” This seems to be true for journalists as well. But what else are they missing? Perhaps we can make some headlines of our own. Here goes:

Not only do we believe there is such a being as a Devil, we also support the “premedieval” belief that there is a God. What is more, we believe that he, not George Bush or Mikhail Gorbachev, runs the world—in fact, the universe—and that he is currently at work subjecting “all dominion, authority and power” under the rule of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there is a headline!

By Michael G. Maudlin.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.