It seems that every poll we read these days just reveals even more clearly how totally shallow the spiritual formation of American evangelicalism really is. A new Barna Research Group poll asks for a favorability response for several well-known public figures. On the list are people like George Clooney, Katie Couric, Faith Hill, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey and Bono. What is striking to me is how consistent the favorability and unfavorability rankings were of these personalities among all adults and among those who are "born again." There is virtually no difference at all.
Clooney, Spears and Hilton, for example, were equally favorable with all adults and the "born agains." Katie Couric and Donald Trump were slightly more favored by the "born again" crowd than the general population, but by something like 2%. What stunned me was this: Bono was less favored by the "born again" group (4%) than the general population! What on earth is going on here? Are people of (supposed) faith that ridiculously undiscerning in how they view public people and their importance? Bono is the one person on the list that serious Christians ought to think very highly of for reasons that actually relate to faith and the work of Christ’s kingdom.
Oprah Winfrey had the highest favorability rating among all adults, 83%. But the "born agains" gave her a favorable rating of 85%. Oprah may actually do more to undermine the gospel of grace and the message of Christ’s kingdom, precisely because she is such a likable sort who embraces religious ideas so diametrically opposed to the kingdom of God, than any of these figures. But how can you not like Oprah?
What all of this says to me is quite simple—the nearly identical perceptions of prominent people that are held by the general population, and by those who are "born again," demonstrates clearly that being "born again" means less and less in our culture. The term is virtually worthless by now but then we should already have known that if we had been paying much attention to the culture and the church.
Actually, I stopped referring to myself as a "born again" Christian about twenty-five years ago. The reasons are simple: 1. The term is almost completely misleading and misunderstood. 2. The general idea is that being "born again" refers to something that we do or did, not to real regeneration. 3. The better and more biblically accurate term would be to refer to one as "being born from above" (cf. John 3:1-8). This real spiritual birth comes from God and opens eyes and hearts to the kingdom according to the John text. What multitudes mean by "born again" today is very different than what John meant. I suggest we stop using the term completely and stick with the better and richer biblical terminology and thus the theology behind it. Evangelical sub-culture has become so much like culture in general that we can no longer communicate well with the wider culture unless we use a different language and provide a richer meaning for people to consider. I suggest we stop talking about being "born again" and talk more about the kingdom of God and our relationship to the sovereign King through grace alone.
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Another good explanation of is found in 1 Peter 1:3-5, which equates the new birth with a newfound hope in God’s kingdom. To my understanding, one who is born again should be standing with one foot in the world and one foot in heaven. To think that a person can be born again while keeping both feet firmly planted in this world is a gross distortion of the Bible’s teachings.
Wasn’t the term “born again” unknown to most of America before the 1976 presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter? If it came into widespread use in that context, it seems inevitable that the term would acquire all sorts of connotations that have nothing to do with what the Bible actually says. In my 25 years as a believer, I have never felt comfortable calling myself a “born-again Christian” because the label carries too much cultural baggage, much like the label “evangelical” now does. Once a term becomes identified with a particular segment of the population, the sins and shortcomings of those people get attached to the label and it becomes an ugly caricature of itself. Principles of good communication require that, if a term has acquired a meaning different from what we intend, we need to avoid it and express ourselves in new and thoughtful ways. To me, Barna’s data suggest that large numbers of Americans find it easier to apply a label to themselves than to thoughtfully examine what they really believe.
Perhaps what I just wrote is not so accurate. From Barna:
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
The “born again” label was applied by Barna, not by the respondents. But they do identify themselves as heaven-bound Christians.
Favorability ratings are a funny thing, though, because they are so generic. It’s possible for a public figure’s favorability rating in two groups to be the similar, but for very different reasons. It’s possible, for example, that many self-styled non-Christians have a favorable view of Oprah Winfrey because they deeply agree with her philosophy. Many self-styled Christians, on the other hand, may disagree with a lot of her views but think she is a good person and give her favorable scores just because they like to be generous. The generic term “favorable” means different things to different groups.
These two insightful comments are superb! Thanks for posting them JLS. You have served our readers by your very important and thoughtful responses.
Once, my pastor was asked if he was a born again Christian while a passenger on an airplane. He replied, ‘Yes, I am born again and again and again.’ I always liked that answer. I think his point was that he had an ongoing and growing relationship with Jesus as opposed to a one time event. I find that I must always come back to Jesus through repentance and newly receive His forgiveness. Thanks for all you write, I find it encouraging and enlightening.
I’ve got to be honest, as someone under 30, the only thing the term “born again” says to me is that the person probably became a Christian sometime in the 1970’s. It’s an expression that just sounds dated these days. 🙂