Bellah and Madsen called Sheilaism “a perfectly natural expression of current American religious life” that created the logical possibility “of over 220 million American religions, one for each of us.” They may have underestimated the quantity—we now have more than 300 million Americans—but were right on the central impulse: To be free from “the dead hand of the past,” with its creeds, confessions, denominations, propositions, and senses of antithesis.
When many young Americans are primarily yearning for freedom, talk about objective truth may swim right by them. That’s why some of the most successful pastors with young people start out not by talking about truth but about freedom. Tim Keller in Manhattan, for example, tells his youthful audience: You may think you’re free, but you’re not. In shunning Christ you have made yourself a slave to money, or sex, or to a particular body image, or success, or?…?something.
Those who shun Christ embrace slavery of some kind. Those who embrace Christ gain freedom: As Jesus said to the Jews who believed Him, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The University of Texas at Austin and many other institutions have carved onto administration buildings those words from John 8:32, but I have yet to see on the walls Christ’s follow-ups: “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin,” and “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).
We need all those verses and we need to get the order right, because truth leads to freedom yet freedom does not necessarily lead to truth. Sadly, college professors these days typically advocate freedom and skip over the means by which we gain it—so students often do the same. That leads to my apologetics question: Is it unproductive to talk about eternal life with young people who don’t yet care about it? Or to talk about Truth with those who don’t think it exists? Why not talk about our shackles and how Christ breaks them?
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