Friday, May 29, 2009

D. A. Carson on Projectile Vomiting

From The Cross and Christian Ministry, 72:
When my daughter was born, my wife found herself unable to nurse our infant. That gave me the privelege of sharing the midnight feedings. Tiffany was a dream: I could zap the formula in the microwave, change her, feed her the whole eight ounces, and tuck her back into her crib- all in under twenty minutes. Then our son came along. Midnight feedings with him were horrendous. Although he had an enormous appetite, he sucked and darnk with only three speeds: slow, dead-slow, and stop. Worse, he had to be burped every ounce or so- a painfully slow process - or he would display his remarkable gift for projectile vomiting. Without any warning, he could upchuck what he had taken in and send it fifteen feet across the room. If there were an Olympic event in projectile vomiting, he would have taken one of the medals. I never got him back into his crib in under and hour; an hour and a half was more common.

At least he had an excuse. He was young, and his digestive system was obviously not as well-developed as his sister's at the same age. Best of all, he quickly outgrew this stage. But there are Christians who are international-class projectile vomiters, spiritually speaking, after years and years of life. They simply cannot digest what Paul calls 'solid food.' You must give them milk, for they are not ready for anything more. And if you try to give them anything other than milk, they upchuck and make a mess of everyone and everything around them. At some point the number of years they have been Christians leads you to expect something like mature behavior from them, but they prove disappointing. They are infants still and display their wretched immaturity even in the way that they complain if you give them more than milk. Not for them solid knowledge of Scripture; not for them mature theological reflection; not for them growing and perceptive Christian thought. They want nothing more than another round of choruses and a 'simple message'- something that won't challenge them to think, to examine their lives, to make choices, and to grow in their knowledge and adoration of the living God.
And yes, I did google "infant projectile vomit picture" to come up with that cartoon...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Creating a Crisis of Mission in Communities

I was thinking about a video Andrew linked to a while back. The video presents - in parabolic form - the sort of atrophy which often occurs in churches. Somebody plants a church with the burden to reach the lost, the least and the last. They succeed, and the church becomes popular. As the community grows, however, more and more energy is transferred from without to within. Soon the preponderance of resources and time are invested in the community. No longer is the church a 'who', a group of called-out ones who exist that the nations might be blessed. Instead, it's a 'what'; an entity wholly extrinsic from its members which must be sustained at great cost.

Vanier (though speaking of something slightly different) is instructive on this topic...

Creating a community means struggling against all sorts of things. But once the community is launched, energies may be evaporated and people may seek distractions; they may compromise other values. This can be very marked in a therapeutic community. At the start, it accepts people who are difficult or depressed, people who break windows. Then gradually everyone settles down and if 'window-breakers' arrive, they are unacceptable. The energies which used to be there to tackle all sorts of problems and to deal with difficult people have dissipated. A time comes when we feel too comfortable together, and that complacency signals a decline in the quality of unity.

Community and Growth, 119.

This is the gravitational pull of community. People get comfortable with each other. They feel bonded together. But then, comfort becomes king. The thought of introducing new members to the community seems awkward, or even abhorrent. While this community may feel safe and secure, it is actually crumbling internally.

A community which is growing rich and secure, and seeks only to defend its goods and its reputation is dying. It has ceased to grow in love.

Ibid., 119.

The question is, how do we counteract gravity? How do we keep communities on mission? It starts with the leadership. Leaders have a negative and a constructive role to play here. First, they must be sensitive to the principle of atrophy within communities, and sound the alarm when such atrophy begins to take root. This is the negative role; leaders alert everyone that what is happening is bad. It is depriving the lost of life, and it is killing the body. Then, the leader has a constructive task; to introduce changes to get the community back on task. G.K. Chesterton speaks of creating revolutions to recapture the original vision of something. If you leave an organization alone, you subject it to a torrent of change, until it bears little resemblance to what it was originally intended to be. Therefore, reformation is continually necessary to keep a community faithful to its original vision. But what sort of changes should be implemented? Often it seems churches introduce changes by adding something; a new ministry, or an outreach program. But this can have unintended consequences. If people are already heavily invested in the myriad of programs at a church, why should we suppose they will commit to one more program? Particularly one in which they will be called to do difficult things?

Perhaps it would be better if we introduced change by taking things away. A number of books have already suggested this (like this one and that one). By simplifying church, leaders could remind people of what is central; making discipes of all the nations. What does simplification look like practically? Some have suggested that the church only do three things; a weekly gathering on Sunday, small groups, and service to the community. I don't know if this is the magic bullet, but it's certainly a step in the right direction. I realize simplification doesn't ensure mission. Yet, by stripping the church of programs and events that don't reach the lost/make disciples, it forces believers to ask why the church exists in the first place.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How to Grow in Christ

Growth in true spirituality, which is to say, growth in true Christian godliness, comes from God.

This is so obvious that it can feel like some trite platitude. You will say, "Of course growth in godliness comes from God- didn't they tell you that in all your years of church or in your academic Bible training?"

Yes, they told me that.

But I don't remind myself often enough. We need God to change our hearts, not only to first come into relationship with Him, but subsequently to continue to grow us in that relationship. Again, this seems obvious- the Holy Spirit's residence in Christians is one of the main benefits of receiving Christ, and growing us in our relationship with God through Christ is His job description.

But we overlook it even more than that first statement. We fall into the trap of thinking that once we're saved, then we start doing the work.

The two points are foundational. Not in the sense that you lay them down only to be built on and never again consciously considered, but in the sense that you should always be holding them close to you- never forgetting that if they go, the whole building goes with it.

So Psalm 143:
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!
2 Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you.

3 For the enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.
4 Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

5 I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all that you have done;
I ponder the work of your hands.
6 I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah

7 Answer me quickly, O Lord!
My spirit fails!
Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust.
Make me know the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.

9 Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord!
I have fled to you for refuge!
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God!
Let your good Spirit lead me
on level ground!

11 For your name's sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!

12 And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

It begins with a plea for mercy because no one deserves anything but judgment before our righteous God (vv. 1-2). Sin is the problem.

Then the "appalling" realization that the enemy (and uncharacteristically for the Psalms, the context and language seem to indicate that the "enemy" is directly spiritual rather than human opposition) has at least somewhat successfully pursued David's soul (vv. 3-4). On his own, David is helpless before spiritual attack.

But meditation on God's past actions reminds us that God is strong and faithful and can save as He sees fit. Thirsting for Him- both His presence and His action- is the necessary response (vv. 5-6). God must (and will) work on David's behalf if he will have any victory.

So David calls on the LORD again to come near, in particular by reminding him of His steadfast love and teaching Him what he must do (vv. 7-8). God must teach David what to do.

Again, David calls for refuge (v. 9), and more specifically for God to actually guide David's steps by His Spirit (v. 10). God must teach David how to do it and must empower him to do it.

This is all to God's glory and because of His righteousness (v. 11). God gets the glory since He is the One who works.

And because David knows that he is truly God's servant, and that God is unchanging in His faithful, steadfast love, he is sure that God will in fact work (v. 12). Our confidence that we will grow in God is rooted in God, not us.

My point in all of this is to remind you (well, really, to remind myself while you look on) that God must work if we are to grow. The initial statements of Psalm 143 are that David is sinful and unable to overcome the enemy. He is helpless.

And aside from God's working, so am I. And so are you.

Taken wrongly, this could breed antinomian passivity. Yet David's life as seen in the narratives about him and in the rest of his poetry indicate that he did not see it this way.

Go back to verse 1 of this Psalm: for David, it did not breed passivity; it bred prayer.

And so we arrive at the point of this psalm, and of this post, and of what I think God has been teaching me for quite some time now: if you or I are ever going to grow in our knowledge of God, we must be people who express our reliance on God by constantly praying for His presence and help.

Because growth in true Christian godliness comes from God.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Talk about Sex: For Whom? Toward What?

I guess there's no such thing as a given in blogging. Lesson learned: talking about sex does not secure commentary. My last post was salvaged by a charitable 'um?' (thanks Andrew!), which tells me one of two things: 1) I wasn't clear, or 2) I wasn't controversial. Perhaps both true? I fear so.

Even if the topic's spoiled by now, I'm ripe for a remix. Three things I want to say about my post, related to some of the comments in Andrew's. Then on to something else.

[1] There's a very simple point I want to make about sex, rooted in a very simple point I want to make about political liberalism. It is this: sex is unintelligible to Christians in the language of liberal ideals. Consider that the foundation of modern liberal societies is the freedom to choose the way you live your life, as our venerable D. of I. asseverates: 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Consider, too, that marriage for Christians is a binding covenant established between two people who don't know what they're doing when they say 'I do.' A liberal society will not hold you to a marital promise you made when you did not know what you were doing when you made it, as Hauerwas is fond of putting things. In other words, it's well within your right to divorce. So my claim: it makes little sense for Christians to dispute whether marriage is a 'right,' as it equally makes little sense for a liberal society to worry about who remains faithful and who jumps ship. There are no resources in modern political discourse to treat 'faithfulness' as more than a convenient way to avoid legal restrictions; and there are no resources in the Christian tradition that allow us to treat marriage as a right to our own happiness and self-fulfilment. When therefore these two bring up marriage, they're hopelessly at odds with one another. So why aren't we talking about that difference?

[2] Rather than help things along, I think my point in [1] makes things more difficult. For it seems that in our zeal to be relevant, Christians have by and large forgotten the language that makes our marriages Christian marriages. Many, no doubt, will recognise the moral squalor that 'traditional' marriage in this country has degenerated to, led by Christians as much as anyone. I wonder, however, if we've really felt the friction between the principle of freedom we imbibe as Americans, against the principle of faithfulness that the Gospel commends, no, upholds, no, demands. Moreover, all talk about returning to the 'founding principles' of our nation seems to neglect the fact that America was borne out of efforts to reject most the traditional principles anyway. Whether all the founding fathers believed heterosexual marriage to be a cornerstone of future American society is therefore irrelevant to the principle they clearly did believe in, autonomy, which then took up a life of its own in ways they and the whole world had never seen nor anticipated. And how could they have seen it? The world is not omniscient, and neither were they. At any rate, the founding fathers' opinions are moot, and their emphasis obscures the resources Christians in America should be appealing to in their discussion of what marriage is.

[3] Lastly, several comments after Andrew's post suggest that what Americans need to do is think about what kind of society they want: one that embraces or ostracises the gay community, one that's traditional or pushes for change. I sense some question-begging here, as it takes a starved intellect to swallow these terms wholesale. But aside from this, the question is a good one, but impossibly applied. For if I'm right about the principle of freedom, then it follows that no 'society of Americans' exists that can ask itself whether it wants to be this or that. The reason such a society doesn't exist is because a principle of freedom is a framework that destroys all other frameworks that can produce those societies. Indeed, the very purpose of modern freedom is to deconstruct foundations, to release people from the obligations they did not choose.

For example, consider that the first tenet of social contract theory of government is the claim that you choose to be governed. The will of the people, not natural law, not tradition, not God, is the basis for government; and government is there to serve that will. This is the 'liberal' tradition of which I speak. Now consider: America is the premier experiment in just that form of social contracting. That means whatever collective thinking Americans want to do, is preempted by the principles of the contract we refuse to let go: namely, that we are let free to choose what counts as our obligations, what counts as our identities, what counts as our values. We share only as we will to share; we meet our neighbours only if we will to meet them.

So the question 'what kind of society do we want?' is impossible for Americans to ask: for to what or whom do we appeal as an authority to make sense of that change? the people? the government? the Constitution? Since the government is for the people, and the people rule it; since the people have no shared story, except the Constitution that binds them; and since that Constitution tells the people that their stories are now theirs to tell; it follows that political judgment has no resources outside its own system that can sustain its authority. The authority lies within us, doomed to incoherence.

Back to sex: no one doubts the government should have little say in what we do with our genitals. The problem is religion says a lot. My question, therefore, is what kind of substantive conversation about sex is possible in a tradition like liberalism, already committed as it is to autonomy? is it merely to tell religion to keep out the public square? to let the political process hum away, unthinkingly? And my question to Christians is: do we really think a 'conservative politic' is possible in this climate? that we have a 'right' to our religious opinion about sex? finally, that we have even remained faithful to the language of the Gospel in our own conceptions of marriage?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to Ask a Good Question about Sex

Andrew's last post revives several lines of enquiry for me. Let me make a modest contribution to the discussion by focussing on one: as I see it, the imperative to ask good questions about sex.

My point of departure is the Canadian philosopher George Grant (d. 1988), who to my mind imparts a well-enduring criticism of Western (particularly North American) political liberalism in the age of modernity - that is, our age. Here's a snapshot from his Technology and Empire:
...The languages of historicism and values which were brought to North America to be the servants of the most advanced liberalism and pluralism, now turn their corrosive power on our only indigenous roots-the substance of that practical liberalism itself. The corrosions of nihilism occur in all parts of the community. Moreover, because our roots have been solely practical, this nihilism shares in that shallowness. The old individualism of capitalism, the frontier and Protestantism, becomes the demanded right to one's idiosyncratic wants taken as outside any obligation to the community which provides them. Buoyed by the endless needs of affluence, our art becomes hectic in its experiments with style and violence. Even the surest accounts of our technomania-the sperm-filled visions of Burroughs-are themselves spoken from the shallowness they would describe. Madness itself can only be deep when it comes forth from a society which holds its opposite. Nihilism which has no tradition of contemplation to beat against cannot be the occasion for the amazed reappearance of the 'What for? Whither? and What then?' The tragedy for the young is that when they are forced by its excesses to leave the practical tradition, what other depth is present to them in which they can find substance? The enormous reliance on and expectation from indigenous music is a sign of the craving for substance, and of how thin is the earth where we would find it. When the chthonic has been driven back into itself by the conquests of our environment, it can only manifest itself beautifully in sexuality, although at the same time casting too great a weight upon that isolated sexuality'*
Let's chew on this a bit. Grant is suggesting that North American societies since their inception have harbored within themselves a necessary yet corrosive first principle, viz. conquest. That principle served its initial purpose in the conquering of our literal environment, the subjugation of Natives, the subordination of Nature, etc. Yet it also carried within itself certain primal energies (note the Heideggerian resonance) whose later manifestations inevitably achieve total obfuscation of Nature, tradition, community, and finally, the human subject, who can no longer survive apart from these life-imbuing contexts.

It is within this matrix that Grant wants us to understand the sexual revolutions of the '60s (and onward) as those desperate attempts for youth and adults to grasp something for and of themselves, something that can give them life, something that can wrest back their humanity. Sexual intimacy bears the burden of the modern identity just at the stage where modernity strips our identities of their deeper obligations and belongings. It becomes who we are because there is nothing closer to us that may be genuinely claimed against the homogenized and polarized wasteland of much Western culture.

And so it is also within this matrix that I wish to make sense of the oftentimes inspiring and moving rhetoric of the LGBT community. It is rhetoric that so clearly clamors against the presiding powers of modernity, whilst at the same time so tragically nourishing itself by the very same principles that make modernity powerful. The same tragedy speaks for many of us. What the language of values, rights and universal equality has done for us is overmatched by what it is doing to us in our desperation to make a tolerable life out of so much thinned-out reality. Sex emerges as that last frontier wherein we seek intelligible connections in an increasingly unintelligible world. The tragedy rests in the presumption that it can withstand the very same conquest that has forced it to be what it is.

This perspective needs be sized up against the very true fact that many in the LGBT movement are deeply committed to the principles and language of modernity, and should very much detest the suggestion that a recovery of premodern traditions and insights represents the desirable way forward. That is where I think it best for Christians to remember that we never know the best way forward for this or that society, and sure as hell don't know what good it would do if we did.

Yet it seems equally clear that the kinds of questions Christians gay and straight should be asking of sex, needs be fundamentally of a different kind than those questions the modern liberal paradigm sustains. The real burden on sexuality, which many of us experience, must be confronted within the real burden of community. Moreover, for that community to be a Christian community it must inter alia believe that history is there for a reason, to be learned from as well as criticised, respected as well as disputed. To ask a good question about sex requires that Christians not discard the origins that tell us who we are, a community of Christians set apart for purposes uncircumscribable within the matrices of this or that historical phenomenon.

'What for? Whither? and What then?' These questions presuppose that there is movement in history that does not wait on us nor bend to us. They are the kinds of questions that cannot admit of facile answers, that must be taken up by the arduous task of practical reason within the strictures of given, inescapable authorities. No doubt for many, existence 'within' anything merely eclipses free expression. Yet it is wisdom that finds within these authorities the richest and deepest sense of what creaturely freedom affords.
* Grant, (1969), 'In Defence of North America,' Technology and Empire, pp. 502-3.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Logical End of Gay Marriage (And How Will the LDS Church Respond?)

I've gone pretty back and forth on how best to think about gay marriage as a Christian.

Well, sort of. I don't believe that, ontologically, gay "marriage" exists, and I have absolutely no qualms calling homosexual practice sinful, and homosexuality in general a result of the fall. But regarding how Christians should think and vote about it- well that's a harder question for me.

In any case, the progression argument (i.e. legalizing gay marriage will necessarily precipitate legalizing all alternative marriages, such as polygamous marriage) has always seemed compelling. When being in love is the only standard for marriage, why wouldn't folks in other forms of alternative relationships lay claim to that "right"?

Well, in fact, they are. Dan Phillips pointed to this article on polyamory (i.e. groups of three or more in one shared relationship, distinct from bigamy/polygamy in that it is not a cluster of individual relationships- it is all one relationship). Yup, it's really happening. And nope, I'm not surprised. Should the polyamorous continue to clamor for marriage rights, what precedent will be used to stop them?

One more thing: I wonder, I really do, how the mainstream LDS church would respond to the legalization of polygamy. In early Mormonism, polygamy was unquestionably an eternal teaching. It first came from Joseph Smith (D&C 132), and was heavily reinforced by Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS church.

In 1855, Young said, "[I]f any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned." In 1862, he said, "Why do we believe in and practice polygamy? Because the Lord introduced it to his servants in a revleation given to Joseph Smith, and the Lord's servants have always practiced it....[T]his is the religion of Abraham, and, unless we do the works of Abraham, we are not Abraham's seed and heirs according to promise." One more from Young in 1866:
The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they canot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them...'Do you think that we shall ever be admitted as a State into the Union without denying the principle of polygamy?' If we are not admitted until then, we shall never be admitted.
Keep in mind: this would not be like Jerry Fallwell standing up and saying something that many of the rest of us Christians disagreed with. Mormons place enormous emphasis on continuing revelation from God that is literally on the same level of authority as Scripture. This primarily comes from the president of the church, who they consider to be a prophet. So Brigham Young was God's voice when he uttered those words.

And that last quote brings up exactly what the problem became: plural marriage was seriously frowned upon by the American government, but Utah, populated almost exclusively by Mormons, was only a territory. It was never going to achieve statehood as long as plural marriage was upheld. For that matter, anti-polygamy laws were putting many LDS members in prison, including some of their "apostles" (the twelve men at the top of the LDS hierarchy, surpassed only by the president in rank).

When Wilford Woodruff became the president of the church in 1887, there was serious trouble. The Supreme Court ruled five to four in 1890 that the American government could close the church if they continued to practice plural marriage. In that same year, Woodruff issued a manifesto semi-couched as revelation from God that declared his and the church's intention to submit to anti-polygamy laws. Thus the church's official renouncement of plural marriage. Utah became a state, but it still took awhile before the practice stopped (it actually increased for a time after statehood was reached).

For that matter, Richard Abanes, whose book One Nation Under Gods is the source of my information and generally a fascinating read on the history of the LDS church, notes that not only is the principle of polygamy still upheld as a sacred belief, but it is still practiced by some. Abanes estimates 60,000 LDS fundamentalists (a break-off from the main LDS church) are practicing plural marriage, which is what we normally think of. But he also has good evidence that there are many polygamous Mormons in the mainstream LDS church keeping a low profile living in urban Salt Lake City. Crazy.

All that history to say this: polygamy was most certainly renounced by the LDS church for political reasons. If polygamy had not been outlawed by the U. S. government, and if those laws were not standing in the way of Utah's statehood, then it surely would have remained a part of Mormonism.

Especially since Spencer W. Kimball was president of the church from 1973 to 1985, the major LDS push seems to be to make Mormonism appear to be a reasonable, regular American religion. They want to fit in.

But therein lies the dilemma: even if polygamy became legalized, it still would be a strange religious belief in the minds of most modern Americans. Therefore, the LDS church would likely be reticent to reinstitute it. But all it would take would be one president to declare that God had revealed to him that polygamy should again be accepted, and the LDS church would have no choice but to receive it as God's authoritative word, and practice could pick up.

A rabbit trail, I know, but a plausible one that happens to be of interest to this blogger.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Vanier on Ideal and Real Community

I've just started perusing Jean Vanier's classic, Community and Growth. Like Bonhoeffer, Vanier is concerned that we do not love our ideal of community more than the community of which we a part. I think his words are especially pertinent in our culture of rampant consumerism...

Too many people come into community to find something, to belong to a dynamic group, to discover a life which approaches the ideal. If we come into community without knowing that the reason we come is to learn to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times, we will soon be disappointed.

Community and Growth, 37.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Death of Christ and the Outpouring of the Spirit

I've got (at least) one more provocative thought from Pryor. He maintains that when Jesus "gave up his spirit" (Jn 19:30), he was releasing the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit became available to the New Covenant community at the point of Christ's death.

...there can be no doubt that John sees a real link between the death of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit as v. 34 demonstrates. We have already noted the association between 7:37-39 and 19:34. For John, the crucifixion scene is a 'visible picture presentation' of Jesus' exaltation and glorification. It is in fact part of that stage of Jesus' work where he functions as glorified Lord. When we remember that water has frequently been the symbol of the revelation and the Spirit which result in eternal life and which are the gifts of Jesus...then we can make sense of the blood and water which flow from the side of Jesus. The blood symbolises the reality of his death, and the water the Spirit which flows out to the believing community. The gift of the Spirit is indeed the fulfillment of the promises of the Scriptures, the inauguration of the age and that 'giving over' (v.30) of the Spirit, that outpouring of the Spirit (v. 34), comes from the crucified/exalted Jesus.

John Pryor, John: Evangelist of the Covenant People, 82.

Perhaps John spent a good deal of time meditating on Ezekiel 47:1-12, where water flows from the temple, bringing fresh creation and healing. Jesus is the true temple (Jn 2:21), and his destruction/restoration causes the water of the Spirit to flow in the hearts of people (Jn 7:37-39).

Monday, May 18, 2009

That the First Thing Is: Christ Is

As the newest blogger here at CIC, I've been asked to spill a few words about myself. The following is my best shot (notwithstanding the photo!):

The single most determinative thing is that I confess Christ as Lord and Saviour. I should like to think that apart from this confession, no single other thing makes sense in or of my life; but no doubt that tempts optimism. Perhaps that is why I still confess, and must confess; indeed, why anyone confesses in these last days.

Even so, I'm wary of too much self-abstraction in the confession, 'I am a Christian.' Perhaps it is better to say that those who know me best affirm that what I confess is true. This is not to supplant the determinative centrality of Christ in my life with the communion of saints who so testify, but merely to recognize that apart from the church, I should not hope to trust in the truth of any of my own well-meaning self-declarations. Christ has not left us to flounder alone; I do not wish to try. That seems to me to be the wisdom in the title 'Christians in Context.' If we're not 'in context' we're not anywhere; and the most determinative context I consider to be the witnessing church.

In this vein, in just that breath which declares Christ is Lord, I surrender my 'I' to a fuller 'we' which is God's grace in my life: the gift of my fiancee, Lauren (shown with me above). If I am not what I declare I am, she knows; if I doubt what I know I am, she declares; if I know what I doubt I am, she is. Si fallor, sum [if I am mistaken, I am] was St Augustine's final word against global scepticism; si fallor, ea est; si fallimur, Christus est - at least one way of putting things for us.

Passing through these to particulars: raised and educated in Midwest America (Chicago), now a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity, I currently focus my research on St Augustine's conception of knowledge and the person under the supervision of Oliver O'Donovan. I hold a B.A. in English and religious studies from the University of Illinois, and I'm completing my first of three years as a recipient of the British Marshall scholarship (hence my status abroad).

Moving right along, my academic interests should include everything: for is that not the great thing about theology? Wittgenstein once quipped that the hardest part about philosophy was knowing when to stop; I should add that this is no less true about theology, save for an essential caveat: true theology rejoices. It rejoices because it has something over which to rejoice: the truth, which is hers to confess, within which all questions and uncertainties may be raised and explored.

Yet despite this universality of interests, I sure do find some things quite boring. That is why you can probably expect from me posts on the following topics: politics, political theology, philosophy (science, religion, history), ethics, epistemology, and technology. I'll do my best to be brief, though I think some things demand further attention.

Last, the authors I read: I'll name one ancient and two modern ones. Obviously my interest in St Augustine is clear - he's made one busy postgraduate out of me. Then I'm very much interested in theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Oliver O'Donovan, two voices at odds with one another in significantly enough ways to merit careful attention. I'm not sure on what side I land for this or that - and there are certainly other sides to consider - but their ongoing discussion will no doubt surface in my contributions. They have certainly influenced the manner in which I dispose of certain questions and raise others.

And so many thanks for this auto-biographical moment, which I expect to be my last. Again, a great privilege to correspond with friends and strangers through this medium, which I have observed producing some great stuff. May all to the glory of Christ be committed.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Does a Reformation View of Justification Paralyze Social Action?

Now I'm just an amateur when it comes to studies in Paul and the Law and justification, etc., but I can't say I loved Blomberg's review of N. T.'s new book. I'll leave the detailed interactions for Jeff, but Doug Wilson reviewed Blomberg's review, critiquing Wright's emphasis (which Blomberg likes) on the grand scale renewal of all things vis-a-vis the Reformation emphasis on an individual's reconciliation with God.

Blomberg writes, "Fixate on the Reformers’ (understandable) preoccupation with how an individual becomes right with God (crucial in its day against medieval Catholicism) and one may miss the bigger picture, in which the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham through the children of Israel as progenitor of the Messiah looms even larger."

Wilson's response is powerful:
Notice what is being juxtaposed here. The Reformers had a individualistic fixation on getting individuals into heaven when they die. But we, upon whom the new perspective has shone, now understand that there is a "bigger picture." I see. And what did the Reformers do with their narrow vision? Well, they toppled kings, transformed laws, overhauled cultures, settled a continent, built nations, founded schools and colleges, inspired musicians and painters, and we could continue in this vein for quite a while. And what do we do, entranced as we are by the new perspective? We write academic papers, download podcasts of academic lectures that we can listen to in the privacy of our ear buds, and we go white in the face if conservative Christians suggest that Jesus might have an opinion about the ongoing slaughter of the unborn. John Piper, with his preaching on the pro-life issue, challenges the principalities and powers. The soft statism that goes with trendy theology these days does nothing of the kind -- it simply suggests (but not too loudly) that we need kinder, gentler principalities and powers.
Aside from the actual quality of Wilson's critique of Blomberg per se, the point is important. I think of how Wilberforce's theological backbone was exactly that individual justification. It certainly seems that those who just can't get over the forgiveness of their sins and their restored relationship with God are mobilized for remarkable ministry (in all its forms) in this world.

Friday, May 15, 2009

We Need All the Help We Can Get

Following one of his typically provocative lectures, Stanley Hauerwas responded to a question about the role of the Holy Spirit with approximately these words: 'Of course, Father, Son, Holy Spirit - we need 'em all. We need all the help we can get.'*

Whether that will do for expounding a Trinitarian theology I leave for biblical scholars to address. For me, the response captures an attitude that needs be recovered by Christians if we wish to hold any pretensions to faithfulness in this feverish world in which we find ourselves.

What do I mean? Three things come to mind:

We need all the help we can get. We need to draw on our rich traditions and feel no shame in doing so. So many of us swallow the modernist presumption that no substantive conversation was possible until the enlightenment. I plead guilty to this presumption: to think, I once viewed Augustine's Confessions as a simple campfire testimony. That may do on some level, but in the end, such psychological readings only surrender these highly political works to counter-forces hellbent on condemning all religious argument to the private sector. We're killing ourselves by letting others evaluate for us the history that makes us what we are. Time to unleash that great cloud of witnesses on our (increasingly) theologically illiterate minds. They had some things going for them.

We need all the help we can get. We need to sink so deeply into the Scriptures that it corrupts our language. It is one thing to make creative use out of the colloquialisms and vocabularies that render modern conversation intelligible, but quite another to accept them as the only terms that determine how such conversations will proceed. For example: it's quite evident to me now, having begun postgraduate studies in Christian ethics, that I have little to no idea how to read the Gospels in a way that critiques my linguistic upbringing. Whatever the Sermon on the Mount is teaching us, it is probably not how we can be better capitalists, materialists, liberals, Americans, the like. If it speaks at all to these categories, it will do so in a language that stinks of Gospel and challenges our presuppositions. Our language should stink and challenge others like that too.

We need all the help we can get. We need some resurgence in the life of the church. Well, first we need some life in the church. No doubt, I'm glad for the many exciting things happening among many congregations across the evangelical world. I pray we keep up the momentum, with preaching, prayer, communion, baptism, and mission defining us. If we realize how much we need each other then this next generation of Christians may yet have some life in it. I pray I'm doing my part in that, as unnatural and strange as church life can be relative to the rest of modern life.

Three things worth pondering. Last, it's a great pleasure to begin posting on this blog, and in this vein, an even greater mystery why I chose the opening that I did. Yet my hope is to follow through with these rough sketches in an attempt to press into service the diverse instruction I've received over the last few years. With some flourish, and maybe some twists, the last thing I want to be is new. Let's hope my sources have merit. I'll need 'em all.

*I was unable to find the exact audio of the Q&A, but the words lodged in my mind. In which case I may need to stand correction.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Misleading Statistics and Evangelical Self-Loathing

Evangelicals love statistics. There's no doubt about that. But there's a problem. Some of evangelicals' most beloved statistics are more than a tad misleading. Statistical and missiological guru Ed Stetzer addresses this issue in a recent Acts 29 presentation. Stetzer is disconcerted by the evangelical infatuation with misleading information. Moreover, he sees a tendency among evangelicals to mercilessly beat themselves with such misinformation.

So why do evangelicals pummel themselves with erroneous statistics?
Stetzer thinks it's a great marketing technique. Create a huge problem, and then people will be interested in whatever book/gimic/program/video series/bracelet you happen to be peddling.

I'll admit it...I love using scary statistics in sermons. And I know exactly why I do it. Such figures instantly create a crisis in the mind of the listener, plus they give your words an air of objectivity. Tell a group of High Schoolers that 80% of them will deny Jesus in college, and they just might listen to what else you have to say.

Christian Smith has some good things to say about this. In a 2007 article for Books and Culture he says,

Evangelicals, by my observation, thrive on fear of impending catastrophe, accelerating decay, apocalyptic crises that demand immediate action (and maybe money). All of that can be energizing and mobilizing. The problem is, it also often distorts, misrepresents, or falsifies what actually happens to be true about reality. And to sacrifice what is actually true for the sake of immediate attention and action is plain wrong. It should be redefined as a very un-evangelical thing to do.

I can't think of another movement engaged in such aggressive erroneous statistical masochism. I know I've used statistical scare-tactics, and have employed facts and figures sloppily. Smith and Stetzer offer a good reminder that zeal devoid of knowledge is helpful to no one.

The Myth of the Dark Ages

Another fantastic post from Fred Sanders:
Here is an example of the myth of the dark ages. In the first pages of Thomas Aquinas’ masterpiece, the Summa Theologia, Thomas is arguing that theology is a real way of knowledge alongside philosophy. He points out that some truths can be known in multiple ways, and for an illustration he uses the roundness of the earth: “For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.” It’s a throwaway illustration for Thomas, which he thinks will be persuasive because it’s not controversial.

Students are often shocked to find this example staring at them from their thirteenth-century book: That everybody knows the earth is round. They try to reconcile that fact with the myth of the dark ages, according to which medievals thought the earth was flat and in 1492 Columbus defied conventional wisdom by sailing right around it without falling off the edge. “Maybe they forgot between 1274 and 1492.” Maybe. Or maybe the flat earth is part of the myth of the dark ages, devised to keep you from looking into the middle ages lest you find powerful allies there.

Read the whole thing, which isn't primarily about the Myth of the Dark Ages but about the Christian tradition we should be glad to claim a part of in the thousand years between Augustine and Luther.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Really Good Book (and Later, a Really Bad Book)

The secretary at my church asked me the other day if I ever read just for fun. I responded that I read constantly for fun, but most of it is theology. I love reading theology. It's fun. She didn't get that.

That is part of why it is surprising that the last two books I have read were novels. I just don't make time for reading novels generally, but for differing reasons, I read Peace Like a River and The Shack in April. Here is my review of the former, and I'll get to the latter next time.

I first got turned on to Peace Like a River when I was dating my wife. She is a much more literary-minded person than I and was reading it with our good friend Teresa. Teresa actually has her degree in English, so their combined glowing recommendation peaked my interest. Then J. T. posted this quasi-review by Piper. All that to say that I was thrilled when my wife bought it for me for Christmas.

While I don't think that Piper even picked the best quotes from the work, he is on to something even with the title of his review: "Not Heartwarming Christian Fiction." Since my background is not in literature, I lack the language to describe to you both how good this book is and why it is so good. But it is. Peace Like a River is incredibly well-written and it asks great questions, without making the standard Christian fiction mistake of answering them all for you. For that matter this book doesn't read like Christian fiction at all, probably primarily because it isn't bad. Whodda thunkit?

More than anything else it is the sheer quality of writing that makes this book so good. To whet your appetite, here is a piece from the first chapter that introduces the important them of miracles:
Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it's been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week - a miracle people say, as if they've been educated from greeting cards. I'm sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed - though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here's what I saw. Here's how it went. Make of it what you will.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Some Great Advice from Eugene

Jason Goroncy quotes from/links to a Leadership interview with Eugene Peterson. Here are some of the highlights...

You cannot go to a pulpit week after week and preach truth accurately without constant study. Our minds blur on us, and we need that constant sharpening of our minds. And without study, without the use of our mind in a disciplined way, we are sitting ducks for the culture.

I get my job description from the Scriptures, from my ordination vows. If I let the congregation decide what I’m going to do, I’m as bad as a doctor who prescribes drugs on request. Medical societies throw out doctors for doing that kind of thing; we need theological societies to throw out pastors for doing the same thing. And if you give up prayer and study, you will soon give up the third area: people.

Listening, paying attention to people is the most inefficient way to do anything. It’s tedious, and it’s boring, and when you do it, it feels like you’re wasting time and not getting anything done. So when the pressures start to mount, when there are committees to run to and budgets to fix, what’s got to go? Listening to people. Seeing them in their uniqueness, without expecting anything of them. You quit paying attention, and people get categorized and recruited. It doesn’t take long for pastors to become good manipulators. Most of us learn those skills pretty quickly. If you can make a person feel guilty, you can make him or her do almost anything. And who’s better at guilt than pastors?

The person who prays for you from the pulpit on Sunday should be the person who prays for you when you’re dying. Then there’s a connection between this world and the world proclaimed in worship. Classically – and I have not seen anything in the twentieth century that has made me revise my expectation – a pastor is local. You know people’s names, and they know your name. There’s no way to put pastoral work on an assembly line … Pastoral care can be shared, but never delegated. If the congregation perceives that I exempt myself from that kind of work, then I become an expert. I become somehow elitist; I’m no longer on their level. Elitism is an old demon that plagues the church.

My history with Eugene proves the dictum, "don't judge an author by any one book he/she has written." I was first introduced to his work through The Message, which probably wasn't a good thing. At the time I was working on a B.A. in Biblical Studies and Theology, and was cultivating all sorts of prejudices against dynamic equivalent translations. The Message nauseated me. It was, in my sophomoric estimation, an amplified version that utilized contemporary language contemptibly. I decided to hold the book in derision, and therefore dismissed Peterson. Then I read The Contemplative Pastor for a class assignment, and everything changed. The book rattled some things deep inside me. I had to talk to someone about it. I went to the Children's Pastor at my church to discuss the book. He said, "no one has taught me more about what it means to be a pastor than Eugene Peterson." My mindset quickly changed. So, to make a short story less short, I'd urge you to read more than one work by an author before passing judgment on him or her.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

One Anothering

Tim Chester posts some good stuff on "one anothering."

All the New Testament writers refer often to what we are to do to or for ‘one another’ (or ‘each other’ - the Greek is the same). This concept of ‘one anothering’ is a central feature of New Testament ecclesiology, albeit one which receives little attention in contemporary academic discussions. Some time ago I worked through these ‘one anothering’ statements and summarized them in to the following categories. (I’m posting them after a request to do so from someone who listened to my audio talks on ‘rethinking church’.)

* be at peace with one another, forgiving, agreeing, humble, accepting, forbearing, living in harmony and greeting with a kiss
* do not judge, lie or grumble
* show hospitality to one another
* confess your sins to one another
* be kind to one another, concerned, devoted, serving and doing good
* instruct and teach one another
* admonish, exhort and stir up one another
* comfort and encourage one another

Reflection questions
1. Which do you think you (as a church and as an individual) are good at?
2. Which do you think you (as a church and as an individual) are not very good at?
3. What stops you (as a church and as an individual) doing more ‘one anothering’?

I'd add another question; is my/your church structured in a way that inhibits these things from happening?

Here's the original post.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blogging the 2009 Vineyard National Pastors' Conference

Every other year there is a gathering for all of the pastors of Vineyard churches in the USA. This year's started Monday morning in Galveston, TX, and my Dad is there.

So for those interested in the most recent happenings in that crazy charismatic quasi-denomination (in which I was raised, and which I still love despite now being a strange thing they call a "Baptist"), go check out my Dad's blog for a brief recap of the week's events.

Note, by the way, my Dad's excitement about a message delivered by Gordon Fee's daughter. My Dad's blog has the info on how to get to that, and it sounds like it's really worth a listen.

On the Requirements for Pastoral Ministry

Here is something that has troubled me since I first got my job (less than a year ago) as an associate pastor at my little Baptist church: during the interview process I received precisely zero questions about my personal godliness.

Nothing about how consistently I read the Bible, how much time I spend in prayer, what it means to love my wife (well, she was my girlfriend-soon-to-be-fiancee then, which I made known), what kind of effort I put into evangelism, or whether the term "blameless" might come anywhere close to describing me. Now go take a look at 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 2 and come back and tell me whether you think that was a good idea.

Now, I love my church and am convinced that God has called me here. The senior pastor is godly and I respect him. I'd chalk the oversight up partly to the fact that I was recommended by a friend who I would be replacing, and partly to inexperience interviewing potential associate pastors (I am the second our church has had in our senior pastor's time here).

Thing is, at this point I am convinced that what we need more of is pastors who are bent on, above all else, growing in Christ. I once asked Jeff's and Jenny's Dad, a wise, godly, and experienced pastor, what the hardest or most important thing was about pastoring. He responded that the real key is to maintain my own walk with the Lord, and if I did that I'd be fine. I once heard J. Oswald Sanders say something similar in a sermon about how the devil will wage most of his war against pastors in the place where they do their personal devotions. More specifically, he'll try to keep you out of that place.

Not only is it plainly wise to listen to the godlier, older Christians in our lives (e.g. John Bruce and J. Oswald Sanders), but their advice rings true. Give me a bunch of church leaders who are intent on growing in Christ- who organize their lives around growing in Christ- and you're giving me a healthy church.

Amidst all the talk about what to do to fix the American church, allow me to make one simple suggestion: find the godliest men you can, and even if they are average preachers without M.Div's, put them into leadership. At least it might be a place to start.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Steering the Right Course in Small Group Bible Studies

Leading small group Bible studies requires hermeneutical navigation. In my experience, there are two fearsome monsters one must navigate around. One is the Scylla of theological/exegetical overload. I am prone to make this error. Sometimes a group leader will obsess over the meaning of every pericope, clause, and even word in a passage. Every interpretive conundrum must be answered; every erroneous interpretation refuted. The group leader spends long hours in preparation for the discussion. She/He pours over the text, reading commentaries, dictionary articles, etc. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this sort of rigorous study. However, it can create problems when the leader tries to lead others in an inquiry of the text's meaning. The leader enters the conversation disposed to ask all sorts of questions about the passage; questions which might sound like pure gobbledygook to everyone else in the group. If the leader isn't careful, he/she will address issues that are only interesting to him/her. People within the group feel perplexed or intimidated. Before you know it, you're talking about incipient Trinitarianism in John's gospel, while everyone stares blankly into abyss. Then, the new Christian in the group interrupts you; "wait a minute; God is three guys? Zuh?!"

The second error is the Charybdis of endless discussions about "what the text means to me." In this group, the leader poses very general questions. This can be a good thing, as such questions encourage participation. Oftentimes though, the discussion gets untethered from the text, drifting in all sorts of odd directions. There is plenty of discussion in this group. Plenty. But the study devolves into a discussion about how everyone is doing, rather than a cooperative effort to live under the rule of God conveyed in Scripture. People like talking about themselves. It's easier than talking about an archaic and seemingly arcane book.

So what's the key? How do we steer clear of these errors? How do we show appropriate concern for ancient text and modern context?

Here's what I've learned:
  1. I try to study the passage extensively. But, I don't want to ask questions that preclude people from entering the discussion. I want to ask questions that arise from my reading of the text. Then, I try to look for answers in the text. These questions are less polarizing/intimidating than those prompted by reading scholars, since other people in the group are likely to raise similar questions.
  2. I try to give the discussion structure by outlining the passage beforehand. This serves to focus the interaction, since you can work through the text a bit more systematically.
  3. I try (and generally fail) to set limited goals. I want the group to understand the big point of the passage. I want them to get the basic flow of thought. Unless you plan on meeting for 4 hours, I doubt there's time to do much more than this. Groups simply don't have the time to discuss every peculiarity in the text.
  4. I try to ask the "why" question a lot. "Why does this follow this? Why would he say this here? Why would the original hearers of the book have needed to hear this? Why does she respond like that?"
  5. I try (and generally fail) to spend lots of time on application. Applying Scripture is an art, and it takes time to do it well. A bridge needs to be created between text and context, and this isn't always easy.
Now, here's what I'm wondering: What questions do you ask? Do you have standard inductive questions that you ask every time you lead a Bible study? What questions work? What questions don't work? What pitfalls have you encountered? How have you navigated around them? I think this guy does a pretty good job.