I do not recommend a steady diet of news. Not when media play upon your fear and loathing to keep you clicking for the sake of their sponsors. Not when watching events from afar detracts from caring for your neighbors next door. Not when jumping from channel to channel and page to page erodes your ability to concentrate on a book, especially the Bible.
At the same time, I believe informed obedience of God’s command to love our neighbors depends on hearing from others, especially when we can’t relate to their experiences personally. What a difference it would make if we read and watched for the sake of empathy and unity and not for judgment and division. What if we consumed news for the sake of prayer and action, rather than despair and distraction?
That’s how I’m encouraging you to read my annual list of the top 10 theology stories (see previous years: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014). You’ll certainly notice many entries you wouldn’t regard as strictly theological. But at The Gospel Coalition we aim to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ affects all of life. And you’ll find assumptions and beliefs about God and his work in each of these events and trends.
Consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories of 2015. And consider it an opportunity to reflect on whether your priorities align with God’s and a challenge to spread good news in a world that seeks peace but finds none apart from Jesus Christ.
10. Pastor? Theologian? New resources explore the intersection between these complementary callings.
Two long-term trends finally converged this year to produce fruitful discussion about the work of pastors as theologians. First, increasing specialization of the academy, with scholars writing for other scholars, has exposed the need for theologians who speak to and for the church. Second, weaknesses in the pastor-as-CEO model show the need for teachers who lay a theological foundation for discipleship. A bumper crop of books and articles seek to support pastors caught between the demands of the study and the meeting room and to guide young ministers training for the local church in academic settings.
9. Benedict Option gains momentum.
A year from now it’s possible almost no one will recall the policy implications of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed and then revised by Governor Mike Pence. But many will remember the chilling response from the media, business community, and even some Christians. What was recently considered an uncontroversial accommodation for religious practice has been denounced as bigotry. In response Orthodox writer Rod Dreher has intensified debates about the so-called Benedict Option among Christians all along the spectrum from supporters of Kim Davis to advocates of “faithful presence.” White Protestants now understand a little of why their black brothers and sisters have so often resisted “God and country” appeals.
8. Caitlyn Jenner introduces the next step in the sexual revolution.
The next stage of the sexual revolution is well under way; most of us just didn’t realize it until 2015. When Bruce Jenner revealed himself as Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, the former Olympic gold medalist prompted countless discussions between baffled parents and confused children. Late last year the death of Josh (Leelah) Alcorn brought heaps of scorn on the youth’s family and Christians in general when the public saw the suicide note. It’s no wonder the all-time most-searched term on The Gospel Coalition website is “transgender.” Christians must do more than make the case that our view is biblical and good. We must explain why it’s not dangerous and harmful to human flourishing.
7. Islamic State beheads 21 Christians from Egypt among other atrocities.
Suffering under the sword of Islam is nothing new for Christians in the Middle East. But never before have extremist Muslims taken so much public glee in murdering followers of Jesus. And no one appears able or willing to stop them. The U.S. government appears reluctant to even identify as genocide the systematic killing of Christian in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State. As Christians explore the historical record and Qur’an to investigate whether Islam inevitably leads to violence, there can be no doubt that it can and indeed does in the region so familiar to us from the Bible. Persecution and terrorism call for clarity in Christian theology and compassion to love our enemies as Jesus commanded.
6. Mass murder at historic Charleston church raises questions about forgiveness, identity, history.
The year’s most heartening moment followed one of the year’s most brazen displays of evil. Even after sitting in a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black church leaders in Charleston. And even as they mourned in the aftermath, families of the victims extended him forgiveness. The act of mercy baffled some unbelieving black writers, particularly Ta-Nehisi Coates, noted for his award-winning book Between the World and Me. Roof’s odious beliefs and behavior—but more importantly the response of the victims’ families—led to the shockingly quick decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds in South Carolina. As churches seek mult-ethnic unity, they must reckon with history that means heritage to some but hatred to others.
5. Planned Parenthood videos reveal the truth underneath the hospital gown.
We knew Planned Parenthood killed babies. We did not know how much they profited from the murder by harvesting and selling the babies’ body parts for research. The undercover film operation, planned over years, energized the pro-life movement and led to federal- and state-level efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. Even as many of those efforts failed due to opposition from the White House and federal courts, pro-life voices directly appealed to women in the decision-making process. Offering help and hope to these women clearly contrasts with an organization that profits when consciences—and the heartbeats of the most vulnerable children—have been deadened.
4. Protest movement over police shootings contributes to widespread campus unrest over race.
Questions of authority and justice followed the death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray while in police custody, along with the court-mandated release of police video in the 2014 shooting death of Chicago’s Laquan McDonald. Such incidents fueled the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement on campuses as activists aired expansive lists of grievances and demands. While demonstrations at the University of Missouri turned coercive, Christians elsewhere sought a more excellent way as they suffered from racism. And as broken and burdened Baltimore suffered its highest-ever per capita homicide rates, church leaders held out hope for restoration and transformation.
3. Pope Francis gets the rock star treatment in U.S. visit amid crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.
Evangelicals may not submit to a pope, but as Americans we love a celebrity. And Pope Francis wields the power of modern celebrity and social media better than any other religious leader. Still, he is not widely understood by evangelicals. Nor do many Protestants follow the Vatican intrigue occasioned by his unusual accession. But they should. Charges of intrigue, heresy, and civil war surround the Vatican after this year’s Synod on the Family in Rome. If the Roman Catholic Church changes its policies and practices related to sexuality, the orthodox position we currently share will become even less plausible in the West.
2. Terrorist attacks are the new global normal.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have waited for the “next big one.” Instead, we seem have settled into an exasperating “new normal” after the San Bernardino attacks. Even Christians wonder why “God isn’t fixing this” as we pray in the wake of two killing sprees in Paris and other mass murders, whether or not they specifically target fellow believers. As the West plots ways of attacking the Islamic State that don’t result in more terrorist recruits, Christians will continue to pray for their defeat and conversion. And we’ll seek both prudence and mercy in how we serve the refugees fleeing their rule.
1. U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide.
The 5-4 decision itself might have been expected, but the reaction opened deep divides inside and outside the church that won’t soon close. Many Christians had questions for their friends with evangelical backgrounds waving rainbow flags on social media. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities lost members after declining to expel schools that moved to accept faculty and staff in same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, as leaders who had been prominent in the evangelical movement advocate for same-sex marriage, the debate focuses on younger generations. The Bible hasn’t changed. But what does the future hold for evangelicals on the “wrong side of history”?