Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Therapy of Silence

Today's meditation from Forward Day by Day (first published in 1973 and reprinted in the current issue) is a timely one for me, particularly as we move closer to the busyness of the post-Labor Day Cathedral calendar.

Psalm 39. While I pondered, the fire burst into flame.

“Activism does not make theologians…The voice of God is heard only in quiet. Good tidings are at everyone’s door if they would stop talking and listen to the knock.”

These are the words of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, advice from a wise priest that every Christian should take seriously. He calls it the “therapy of silence.” It is true that the more burdened we are with responsibilities, the more we need silence to meditate.

It is in meeting God in this quietness, alone, that we begin to learn how to hear God’s voice. It is in meeting God face to face that we are brought to see our sinfulness and to know forgiveness. It is in God’s peace that we obtain the peace that passes understanding.

While we are musing, while we meditate, the fire kindles. The Holy Spirit operates in a way which is impossible in our busyness. Spiritual lives are developed in silence, where the deep things of our lives are shaped.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The New Atheists' Questionable History

In the following videos, John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity points out the many historical errors and significant misrepresentations of historical scholarship made by the so-called "New Atheists," and he charges that they have "invented a scholarly debate that doesn't exist." These are well worth watching!

The New Atheists questionable history part 1 from CPX on Vimeo.

The New Atheist's questionable history part 2 from CPX on Vimeo.

At one point in the second video, Dickson asks: "If in the one area I can check up on the New Atheists I find them significantly misrepresenting historical scholarship, how can I have confidence that they're not doing the same thing in the areas I can't easily verify, in philosophy, science, sociology, statistics, and so on?"

And he sums it all up like this: "For all the learning and rhetorical brilliance of the New Atheists, their commentary on Jesus and the New Testament reminds me that dogmatic skepticism can be every bit as blind as religious dogmatism. In fact, they're the mirror image of each other. I can respect Richard Dawkins the biologist, Christopher Hitchens the literati, and Michel Onfray the philosopher. But there's no doubt in my mind that when these authors range outside their specialty, they are more than capable of sloppy reporting of information and significant misrepresentation if it furthers the atheist cause."

Hat tip to David Ould.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salvation History as a Five-Act Play

Yesterday I attended the Warren Burns Learning Series at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson, MS. The presenters were the Rev. Dr. Pamela C. Hawkins and the Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells.

Pastor Hawkins is a United Methodist elder and author of Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent and The Awkward Season: Prayers for Lent. She is also the managing editor of Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. (Turns out that we were in an ethics class together at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early 1990s. Small world!)

Professor Wells teaches Old Testament and biblical theology at Duke Divinity School, where she also directs the Anglican Episcopal House of Studies. Her books include God's Holy People: A Theme in Biblical Theology and Isaiah in the People's Bible Commentary Series. Ordained a priest in the first wave of women priests in the Church of England, she previously served as dean of Clare College as well as lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley Hall, both in Cambridge, England.

Both women offered much food for the soul in their presentations yesterday, and both preached outstanding sermons this morning at St. Andrew's Cathedral (one at 8:45 and the other at 11:00). In fact, what each had to say about the gospel reading was directly pertinent to a number of pastoral issues unfolding in the lives of several parishioners.

One of the things I found most intriguing about yesterday's presentations was when Professor Wells talked about salvation history as a five-act play (I note that she's drawing on and modifying work by N. T. Wright). Here's how the play unfolds:

Act I - Creation (ending with the Fall)

Act II - Israel (ending with the Exile)

Act III - Jesus

Act IV - Church

Act V - Heaven (or, perhaps even better, New Creation)

I find this approach to the Bible helpful for a number of reasons. First, it answers the question (for Christians, at least) "Why the Bible?" by saying, "The Bible is the play, or the basic story, in which we live. It is the story or meta-narrative in which our life stories find their ultimate meaning and purpose."

It also serves as a humbling reminder that we in the Church do not live in the center of the story. We are not the key players. The most important things have already happened, and the center of the story is the person and work of Jesus.

Following from that is another important and humbling point: since we are not the key players and we are not the center of the story, we Christians are not responsible for saving the world. Yes, we are responsible for serving the world in the name of the One through whom the world is saved. And we are responsible for sharing the story of Jesus with the world by word and deed, inviting others to discover that the ultimate meaning and purpose of their life stories is found in the biblical meta-narrative, living as kingdom-bearers and lights of the world who point to the One who is uniquely and exclusively the way, the truth, and the life. We are entrusted with the gift of salvation. And so the Church is an indispensable part of salvation history (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). But we Christians are not saviors, for there is only one Savior. And salvation is God's gift to the world through the Church, not the work of the Church on behalf of the world. We do not live in Act III, and we cannot jumpstart the arrival of Act V.

And so the understanding of salvation history as a five-act play reminds us that we are not responsible for the end of the story. God is. We have been entrusted, however, with knowledge of how the story ends (in God's way and in God's time). And building on what has come before us in the second and third acts of the play, we have sure and certain grounds for the kind of hope that can, indeed, allow us to "live with confidence in newness and fullness of life" as we look forward to "the completion of God's purpose for the world" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 861). Perhaps, in the midst of so much division and ugliness in the Church today, this can serve as a reminder that it's not up to us to solve everything or to get everything "right." Our job is to be faithful, and that can be more than sufficiently challenging.

Another aspect of this approach to the Bible I find appealing is that nothing that comes before gets lost. A play forms a narrative unity. No act stands in isolation from the others. You can't understand what happens in a subsequent act without knowing what happened prior to that act, just as you can't reach the ending or fulfillment of the story without everything that came before. And so this approach rules out supersessionism, for Acts III-V make no sense apart from Act II. Israel cannot be ignored or written out of the story.

In small group discussion, Professor Wells gave us three questions to kick around about all of this which I now share with you:
  1. Which act of the play do you most readily relate to?
  2. Can you name some examples of people who seem to operate as if they are living in the wrong act?
  3. How, by the way you live, do you (and/or might you) demonstrate that you are in Act IV?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Remembering Jonathan Daniels, Episcopal Seminarian and Martyr

45 years ago today, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniels was shot and killed in Hayneville, Alabama. Here's what I said about Jonathan in my sermon this past Sunday:

In response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to come to Selma, Alabama, Jonathan decided to go South, leaving behind the safety of the seminary and putting his faith into action on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle. A few months later on August 20, 1965, while trying to enter a store, Jonathan and his friends were confronted by an angry white man with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun at a young African American girl. Jonathan pushed her out of the way, taking the point-blank blast of the shotgun, giving his life so that another would live.

You can see pictures of this year's pilgrimage to the site of Jonathan's martyrdom here (note that the Episcopal Church observes his feast day on August 14). Be sure to also watch the video of this year's pilgrimage.

You can read more about Jonathan here and here.

And if you haven't seen it, watch the following video that tells Jonathan's story:

Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels from Episcopal Online on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Utilitarian Religion and Self-Fulfillment

In the Gospel reading assigned for today in the Daily Office, we read John's account of the feeding of the five thousand. Apparently, Jesus' miracle made such an impression on those who witnessed it that "they were about to come and take [Jesus] by force to make him king" (John 6:15). It's kind of hard to blame them. After all, here's a guy who can guarantee that you never run out of food, someone you can rely on to supply your basic needs. And if he can do that, what else is he capable of? Might he also be capable of doing something decisive about living under Roman oppression? And what else that we want can Jesus supply?

We're told that when Jesus realized what the people were up to, "he withdrew again to a mountain by himself" (John 6:15). Jesus will not be forced into doing our bidding. He walks away from propping up our agendas on the warrant of his authority. He rejects being reduced to his utility value for us.

I'm reminded of James M. Gustafson's critique of "utilitarian religion" in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, Volume I: Theology and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1981):

The temptation of religion is always to put the Deity and the forces of religious piety in the service of the immediate needs and desires of individuals, small groups, and societies. ... Religion is put into the service not of gratitude, reverence, and service to God but of human interests, morally both trivial and serious. Religion - its theologies, its cultic practices, its rhetoric, its symbols, its devotions, becomes unwittingly justified for its utility value. God is denied as God; God becomes an instrument in the service of human beings rather than human beings instruments in the service of God (p. 25).

The human interests that put God and Jesus in our service include the understanding of religion as that which "helps us to be free and happy" (p. 20). Using religion to pursue our freedom and happiness as ultimate ends can take many forms, including the ways we push causes in an increasingly issue-driven and politicized Church. Power-plays eclipse theological discernment, while the voice (and votes) of the majority are said to unequivocally express the will of God.

I sometimes wonder how much of all of this is about the justice of the causes we pursue, and how much of it is about pursuing one of the highest values of our culture: self-fulfillment. And I wonder that, not only because of how politicized things are in the Church (often to the detriment of the common good), but also because of how over-personalized things are, as well. To disagree with those who hold a contrary view, and sometimes to even ask questions or express doubts, can be taken as a personal insult, a form of disrespect for who and what one is, and thus an assault on one's dignity as a human being. I often see signs of this "Church of the Ugly Party" in the Anglican blogosphere and on Facebook. And it's not confined to any one point along the theological spectrum.

When it comes to utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment, N. T. Wright makes an important observation:

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction [Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp. 233-234.]

I also find myself wanting a Christianity without sacrifice, discipleship without cost, and a faith that not only affirms my deepest yearnings and desires, but that also reflects my moral and political values without ever asking me to change. And I am guilty of trying to force Jesus to be king on my terms. I don't think I'm unique in that regard. We're all guilty as charged. It's not a liberal, or a conservative, or a centrist problem; it's a human problem. But the solution to that problem cannot be found in utilitarian religion's false promise of self-fulfillment. Instead, the solution is found in conforming our lives to Christ, and specifically to Christ crucified.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Two Rival Understandings of God's Goodness

Preparing to lead a Sunday school forum on biblical responses to the problem of suffering, I came across some interesting stuff in John Beversluis' C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion. I'm citing below from the first edition of Beversluis' book published in 1985 (you can read a review of the revised edition published in 2007 here). The excerpt comes from the chapter in which Beversluis argues that a fundamental shift in Lewis' theology of God's goodness takes place between The Problem of Pain (1940) and A Grief Observed (1961). I'm not a Lewis scholar, nor am I particularly invested in whether or not Beversluis is right about the shift in Lewis' theology. But what Beversluis has to say about the differences between a Platonic and an Ockhamistic conception of God's goodness is quite interesting.

According to the Ockhamist, the very attempt to solve the Problem of Evil ... is mistaken in principle. Suffering is a problem (and hence an obstacle to belief in God) only for those who think that their own judgments, based on ordinary moral standards, are legitimate. This the Ockhamist denies. Instead of wondering whether suffering is compatible with a God who is good in Platonic terms, the Ockhamist insists that God is not subject to ordinary moral standards. To expect the God of Christianity to take our moral preferences seriously is to mistake him for some other God, and to demand a justification for his conduct is an act of impiety.

Although there are in the Bible isolated examples of people, such as Job, who question God's goodness on the basis of ordinary moral standards, they are exceptions to the general rule that God is to be obeyed no matter how flagrantly his commands may violate the precepts of ordinary morality. Think, for example, of the command that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, that Elijah slay the prophets of Baal, that Joshua's army annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan right down to the last woman and child, that the she-bears tear into pieces and devour the boys who had called Elisha "baldhead," that Samuel lie to Saul about anointing David king of Israel, that the Israelites despoil the Egyptians as the exodus took place, and that Annanias and Sapphira be struck dead for lying to Simon Peter. Think of Uzzah being done away with for trying to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling, or of Moses being forbidden to enter the promised land simply because he had angrily beaten a rock with his staff. All these apparently immoral and capricious commands are ascribed to a God who is said to be good. But good in what sense? Surely not in the Platonic sense.

This Ockhamistic conception of God's goodness is the view held by the vast majority of orthodox religious believers, most of whom have either never heard of the Platonic alternative, or who have heard of it but reject it as foreign to the biblical view. Orthodox Christians unhesitatingly affirm that obedience to God is absolute and unconditional. He is to be obeyed because he is God, not because we have judged him good by some human standard.

Theologians have long insisted that the most fundamental property of the biblical God is not goodness but holiness. To say that God is holy is not an extravagant way of saying that he is good. Holy does not mean "very very good." The root meaning of the Hebrew term for holiness is "set apart" or "other." In the Old Testament, to say that God is holy is to say that he dwells in light unapproachable. There is none like him. He answers to no one. Creatures were called into being at his command and they are obliged to acknowledge his radical authority over them. To acknowledge that God is holy is to acknowledge that one is a person of unclean lips, that one has no claim on him. This root meaning is preserved in the New Testament, in which believers are called saints and said to be holy in a derivative sense: not because they are good but because they have been set apart as a peculiar people who are in the world but not of it. In the Bible God and man do not share a common moral world. There is a radical discontinuity between them. In response to his doings, we are not to "hotly criticize" his behavior and produce our moral standards; we are to be still and know that he is God and that his ways are not our ways. One cannot be a Christian without coming to terms with this doctrine. There is no way around it. One must bow the head and bend the knee. This recognition of the ultimacy and nonaccountability of God is precisely the rock of offense on which a consistently Platonic approach founders and is finally broken. Given this conception of God's goodness, evil is not a problem.

Consistently held, Ockhamism undercuts another belief that many Christians may be considerably less eager to abandon, one of the most firmly entrenched lingering vestiges of Platonism - the belief that one day all will be made plain. Ockhamism provides no basis for thinking that on the last day God will gather the saints around him and let them in on what he has been up to, reveal his "plan," after which they will see that all was for the best. On the contrary, God will explain nothing for the very good reason that there is nothing to explain. If we are Ockhamists, we already know what he is up to: he is allowing suffering to exist. For God to take the Platonists' questions seriously and say, "Yes, I see your point," would be for him to acknowledge that the issues they raise are legitimate and that the burden is on him to come up with a face-saving answer. To acknowledge this, however, would be to surrender his status as the Creator of the world who possesses absolute prerogatives. St. Paul was very firm about this: "Hath not the potter power over the clay? May the clay say to the potter, 'Why has Thou made me thus?' God forbid" (Romans 9:21-22). For us to question God is an affront to his holiness. For God to meet men as equals, as if he and they were both reasonable parties engaged in some cooperative enterprise, would violate the Creator-creature relationship. Those who refuse to accept what God has done unless they find it plausible, convincing, and "justified" are refusing to acknowledge what that relationship defines them to be - creatures. It is to reenact the Fall. Imagine Adam asking, "But look here, that command about the tree was arbitrary. What's so bad about picking fruit apart from your prohibition?" But that is just the point. The prohibition made it wrong. For God to feel called upon to "justify" his prohibitions on independent moral grounds is unthinkable. This is often true even in human relationships. When the private asks the sergeant "But apart from you command, why do we have to stand here at attention in the blazing sun?" the sergeant is not reduced to groping for good reasons. Similarly, when the private obeys the sergeant, it is not because he agrees that it would indeed be nice for the entire platoon to be found standing straight and tall, but simply because he has been commanded to do so by someone with legitimate authority over him. Good soldiers do not raise searching questions about their orders; they obey them.

Just as the sergeant does not countenance the private's questions, neither, according to the Ockhamist, does God countenance ours. He is to be obeyed not because he is invariably right but because he is God. If you disagree with him, you are in the wrong by definition. Hence, all those who scrutinize God's commands on moral grounds have simply not come to terms with their creaturely status. God is not flattered by being called good only after being subjected to rigorous cross-examination and acquitted.

According to the Ockhamist view, then, we cannot ask separate questions about what God commands and whether he is good in commanding it. If there is any "lesson" in the book of Job, that is it. Job demands answers from God, fails to get them, and toward the end no longer seems to mind. Either the story is hopelessly confused or the point is that his questions are illegitimate. Heaven does not solve Job's problems ... by showing him "subtle reconciliations" of his apparently contradictory notions. In the Bible the answer to the Problem of Evil is God's assertion of himself as God. His ways are not temporarily obscured by a regrettable lack of clarity that will one day be dispelled; they are shrouded in an unfathomable mystery that cannot be solved by the acquisition of further facts. Although it sounds decidedly odd, it is nevertheless entirely accurate to say that, according to the Ockhamist view, redeemed souls have forgotten about their moral scruples and are prepared to declare without reservation that "The Lord, He is God." The worship and adoration of the hosts of heaven is elicited by the fact that God is their Creator and Redeemer, not by the assurance that he has finally explained himself to their complete satisfaction (and presumably great relief).

~ John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion
(William B. Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 152-155; emphasis in text.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

[Listen to the sermon here.]

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” Almost every Sunday of the year, we sing these words at the beginning of the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. It’s the song of the angels.

You’ll recall that, on the night when Jesus was born, the angels appear in glorious splendor to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. The angels are bursting with joy. And so they sing the opening words of the Gloria to share the good news. This is the song that prepares the world to receive God’s Word incarnate in Jesus. So it’s fitting that we prepare ourselves to receive God’s Word in scripture and in sacrament by singing this angels’ song of joy. Singing the Gloria reminds us of the beauty and majesty of God. And it reaffirms our faith in Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace in a violent world.

It’s precisely because we begin worship with this joyful song that hearing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading is like slamming into a brick wall. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51) Conflict, division, and broken relationships – these are the sorts of things Jesus warns his disciples to expect. How in the world are we to reconcile the angels’ triumphant proclamation of peace to God’s people on earth with Jesus’ dire words?

It helps to remember where we are in the story. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s headed directly for the truth of his vocation. It’s a truth most fully revealed when Jesus is rejected and nailed to a cross. As he journeys, Jesus’ message becomes more urgent and his words and deeds evoke more hostility and conflict. It’s a tragic irony. The more clearly Jesus conveys who he is and what he’s all about, the more he becomes an icon of division. And the more enemies he makes.

By this point in the story, Jesus’ mere presence creates a crisis of having to choose to be either for him or against him. And in the end, almost everybody chooses to oppose and reject Jesus. Jesus knows this is happening. And so he warn his disciples, saying in effect:

“If you take what I’m doing and teaching seriously enough to live it, you will experience what I’m experiencing. You will lose friendships. Your family will think you’ve lost your mind. The world in its addiction to power and money will turn against you. And so you need to prepare yourselves now because the time of trial will come. On that day, will you put me first, or will you put commitments to family, friends, and personal security first?”

To the early Christians, Jesus’ warning was not merely speculative. It was a daily reality. In the early Church, for instance, persons who wanted to be baptized often had to commit to three years of intensive instruction and moral examination. In the process, they had to repudiate the taken-for-granted values and separate themselves from the practices of the surrounding pagan culture.

In some cases, that meant forsaking jobs and financial security. You couldn’t, for example, become a Christian if you worked at the theatres where gladiators fought to the death. And if you were a soldier in the Roman army, you couldn’t become a Christian unless you were willing to disobey orders to carry out executions and unless you refused to take a military oath to the pagan state. For all of the early Christians, following Jesus as Lord meant refusing to ever say “Caesar is Lord” even if it meant death.

Becoming a Christian often meant breaking ties with family and friends. If you were a Gentile – particularly if you were a member of respectable Roman society – dedicating your life to this Jewish peasant who was executed by the state as a common criminal was an embarrassment and a dishonor to your family. If you were Jewish, by the end of the 1st century becoming a Christian meant getting disowned by your family and kicked out of the synagogue. And, of course, there are the countless martyrs of the Church – men, women, and even children who were willing to suffer torture and death rather than break their commitment to Christ.

Not many Christians in modern Western society pay a price for following Jesus. But Jesus’ warning that putting him in first place can create conflict and division still comes true.

Take, for example, a woman who, while she was in college, committed her life to Christ and responded to a call to join a Christian community dedicated to a life of poverty and service to the poor. Exasperated, this young woman’s parents said: “We didn’t raise our daughter to be a fanatic!”

Then there’s the 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian from Keene, New Hampshire named Jonathan Daniels. In response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to come to Selma, Alabama, Jonathan decided to go South, leaving behind the safety of the seminary and putting his faith into action on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle. A few months later on August 20, 1965, while trying to enter a store, Jonathan and his friends were confronted by an angry white man with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun at a young African American girl. Jonathan pushed her out of the way, taking the point-blank blast of the shotgun, giving his life so that another would live.[1]

Sometimes following Jesus takes us to places and asks us to give things we would never have imagined.

It’s important to note that Jesus is not telling us to look for ways to create conflict and division. And he’s definitely not saying that families and friends are bad, or that we should actively seek out danger and death. But the point remains: there are times when loyalty to Jesus Christ and working for the peace and justice of God’s kingdom alienates and offends other people.

And so Jesus is right when he says that he didn’t come to bring peace. At least not the kind of peace that acts like nothing really matters, or that tries to please everybody all the time, or that says all values are relative and that it’s okay to do what you like as long as nobody gets hurt. Jesus is not advocating a “live and let live” peace.

The peace Jesus offers is neither the absence of conflict nor the abandonment of truth and virtue but the pursuit of wholeness. It’s the kind of wholeness that comes when we commit ourselves to a cause that unifies all of our values, goals, and actions towards a single purpose. And for we who follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, that purpose is nothing less than God’s kingdom come, and God’s will done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Our end, our purpose, our fulfillment lies in “the life of the world to come,” a life in which heaven and earth are united as God’s new creation in which all things “shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”[2]

Sometimes our loyalty to this purpose will elicit the world’s approval. At other times, loyalty to Jesus Christ and to the kingdom for which he died will hit too close to home and too close for comfort for those who give their ultimate allegiance to worldly kingdoms doomed to pass away. That may provoke anxiety, anger, and opposition. But regardless of how others respond, we have the reassurance of sharing, not in the false peace of the world, but in the peace of someone who has lived the worst that the world can dish out. The peace of someone from God. The peace of someone who is God. This is the peace of the risen Lord Jesus.

Jesus’ peace doesn’t minimize or abolish conflict and suffering. On the contrary, it often brings wholeness, new life and hope through conflict and suffering. Truly, it is a peace that passes understanding. And it’s a promise that despite all appearances to the contrary, our loyalty to Jesus Christ is not in vain.

By emptying himself of all claims to power and privilege, bearing the shame of the cross, dying and rising again, Jesus has overcome this world and bridged the chasm separating us from God. And so the risen Jesus is our peace. His kingdom is our true home. It’s a peaceable kingdom that knows no disease or death, that needs no violent defense, and that unites friends, strangers, and enemies in a single embrace. We fervently pray for and commit ourselves to assist the coming of this peaceable kingdom every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And we joyfully anticipate its arrival with the immortal words of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.”

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2006).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Techno Cosmic Mass

"Wannabe cool," "wannabe relevant," inclusive and diverse "Christianity," cutting-edge Episcopal-style:

In a nutshell, here's the theological rationale for this techno-syncretistic "religious experience," according to Episcopal priest Matthew Fox:

Creation spirituality begins with the theology of original blessing instead of original sin. You came into the world as a real expression of divinity, and as something beautiful and yearning to connect with others, including with the Creator. The Cosmic Christ theology is also a big part of our cosmic mass. It teaches that the Christ, that is, the image of God, is present in every being in the universe. This allows you a much broader canvas in which to paint your worship.

Feel like dancing now?

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Wannabe Cool" Christianity

As we move more deeply into a post-Christian era, with as many as 70% of young adults between the ages of 18-22 defecting from regular church attendance (according to a 2007 Lifeway Research study), it's not surprising to see churches deploying all kinds of tactics to try and be "relevant" and "cool" in order to attract younger persons into the fold.

Writing for The Wall Street Journal in an essay entitled "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity," Brett McCracken notes: "Increasingly, the 'plan' has taken the form of a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant." McCracken pinpoints the motive behind this "plan" as the desire "to rehabilitate Christianity's image and make it 'cool.'"

Here's some of what McCracken notes about this "wannabe cool" Christianity:

There are various ways that churches attempt to be cool. For some, it means trying to seem more culturally savvy. The pastor quotes Stephen Colbert or references Lady Gaga during his sermon, or a church sponsors a screening of the R-rated "No Country For Old Men." For others, the emphasis is on looking cool, perhaps by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut, or by insisting on trendy eco-friendly paper and helvetica-only fonts on all printed materials. Then there is the option of holding a worship service in a bar or nightclub (as is the case for L.A.'s Mosaic church, whose downtown location meets at a nightspot called Club Mayan).

"Wannabe cool" Christianity also manifests itself as an obsession with being on the technological cutting edge. Churches like Central Christian in Las Vegas and Liquid Church in New Brunswick, N.J., for example, have online church services where people can have a worship experience at an "iCampus." Many other churches now encourage texting, Twitter and iPhone interaction with the pastor during their services.

But one of the most popular—and arguably most unseemly—methods of making Christianity hip is to make it shocking. What better way to appeal to younger generations than to push the envelope and go where no fundamentalist has gone before?

Sex is a popular shock tactic. Evangelical-authored books like "Sex God" (by Rob Bell) and "Real Sex" (by Lauren Winner) are par for the course these days. At the same time, many churches are finding creative ways to use sex-themed marketing gimmicks to lure people into church.

Oak Leaf Church in Cartersville, Georgia, created a website called yourgreatsexlife.com to pique the interest of young seekers. Flamingo Road Church in Florida created an online, anonymous confessional (IveScrewedUp.com), and had a web series called MyNakedPastor.com, which featured a 24/7 webcam showing five weeks in the life of the pastor, Troy Gramling. Then there is Mark Driscoll at Seattle's Mars Hill Church—who delivers sermons with titles like "Biblical Oral Sex" and "Pleasuring Your Spouse," and is probably the first and only pastor I have ever heard say the word "vulva" during a sermon.

And to think that all this time, I thought that the U2charist was "cool."

Writing as a 27-year-old evangelical, McCracken continues:

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? Maybe sex sermons and indie- rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

Good questions.

His response: "we don't want cool as much as we want real."

And: "we want an alternative" to a world that is "utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched."


Read all of "The Perils of 'Wannabe Cool' Christianity."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Consumer-Driven Religion and the Episcopal Church

"Here we are now, entertain us," sang Kurt Cobain with the rock band Nirvana back in 1991.

According to United Church of Christ pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald, that's precisely the attitude of many churchgoers across the denominational spectrum and the reason why so many clergy suffer burnout. (In his criticism of the church growth movement, perhaps theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas might agree.)

Here's an excerpt from MacDonald's New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled "Congregations Gone Wild":

The American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

Read it all.

I came across MacDonald's piece on Facebook, where it has generated much spirited discussion. Quite a few folks argue that MacDonald's primary argument is just wrong. They say that people are leaving mega-churches with their entertainment-style forms of worship and "feel good" sermons for churches that offer more spiritual depth. While they may not have been fleeing mega-churches, I have certainly met such persons in my time as an ordained person. However, unless something dramatic has happened within the last couple of years, that apparently does not mean that the Episcopal Church has benefited from mass defections from other churches in such numbers that we see a turnaround in membership decline.

Of course, we Episcopalians are hardly immune to lack of spiritual depth. During my time in the Episcopal Church (dating back to the middle of the 1990s), I've heard my fair share of cotton candy sermons in which there was little, if any, biblical or theological depth. I detected little "consumer dissatisfaction" from the body language during, or from the commentary after, those services. At least nobody was made to feel uncomfortable or guilty about anything. That's what "those Baptists" and "fundamentalists" do, right? So even if an Episcopal parish is three-quarters empty on any given Sunday morning, at least we're not like "them." I'm being facetious, of course, but I do occasionally hear this sort of thing, sometimes even from Episcopal clergy.

While there are noteworthy exceptions, I resonate with Philip Turner's observations about preaching in the Episcopal Church in his essay "An Unworkable Theology." Here's what Turner writes about hearing a sermon after accepting a position at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest:

Full of excitement, I listened to my first student sermon - only to be taken aback by its vacuity. The student began with the wonderful question, "What is the Christian Gospel?" But his answer, through the course of an entire sermon, was merely: "God is love. God loves us. We, therefore, ought to love one another." I waited in vain for some word about the saving power of Christ's cross or the declaration of God's victory in Christ's resurrection. I waited in vain for a promise of the Holy Spirit. I waited in vain also for an admonition to wait patiently and faithfully for the Lord's return. I waited in vain for a call to repentance and amendment of life in accord with the pattern of Christ's life. ... One could, of course, dismiss this instance of vacuous preaching as simply another example of the painful inadequacy of the preaching of most seminarians; but, over the years, I have heard the same sermon preached from pulpit after pulpit by experienced priests.

Turner continues with general observations on "the Episcopal sermon":

The Episcopal sermon, at its most fulsome, begins with a statement to the effect that the incarnation is to be understood merely as a manifestation of divine love. From this starting point, several conclusions are drawn. The first is that God is love pure and simple. Thus, one is to see in Christ's death no judgment upon the human condition. Rather, one is to see an affirmation of creation and the persons we are.

When interviewing for my first church position, I was told by one person on the search committee that what's really important are sermons that make people feel good when they leave church. Could I deliver on that expectation? No doubt about it, it is tempting to take the path of least resistance in the pulpit. Let's face it: many people like it when you do that (and we clergy do like to be liked). And often people are more apt to respond positively (at least in the short run) to your leadership if you give them what feels good. Life in the daily grind is more than challenging enough. Why come to church to be seriously told things like, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34)?

But then again, not everybody who attends worship services wants the church to be a delivery system for mere empathy, unbounded affirmation, and unqualified inclusion. Not everyone is content with "consumer-driven religion."

I think it's a mixed bag in the Episcopal Church. Some of us want depth and challenge when we go to church, knowing that we need transformation by the grace of God in Christ. Some of us are content with what feels good ("helpful hints for happy living"). And some of us might even consider leaving for another church brand if what we hear fails to conform to the mandate that "God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire" [N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 233)].

If we follow the principle that "everyone is accepted in Christ, but no one is affirmed as they are," then we need to be willing to welcome and accept everyone who shows up, regardless of who they are, what they've done or failed to do, or where they find themselves in relation to the trend towards "consumer-driven religion." At the same time, we do well to find pastorally appropriate and theologically responsible ways to resist that trend, inviting everyone into a deeper, transforming relationship with Christ. Theologically substantive, biblically faithful preaching isn't a bad place to start.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Clear Sign

"Just as at the sea those who are carried away from the direction of the harbor bring themselves back on course by a clear sign, so Scripture may guide those adrift on the sea of life back into the harbor of the divine will."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Liturgy vs. Entertainment

Stanley Hauerwas laments the loss of liturgy ("the work of the people") within the church growth movement in favor of "worship experiences" that promote religious entertainment:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Showing God to the World

"The world needs to see who God is: neither a big bully in the sky, nor the sum total of all the impulses and instincts of the world, but the Father who sent the Son to be the foot washer, the healer, the truth-speaker, the life-giver, the one whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of the world precisely because it doesn't use the world's normal methods of power and death but because it uses God's methods of service and life."