Monday, November 30, 2009

Guides to the Mountain of the LORD

Consider Micah 4:1-2:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.'
2,000 years ago, this began to be fulfilled in our hearing. The "mountain of the LORD" is a euphemism for the temple mount in Jerusalem. When Jesus came along and proclaimed himself to be the new temple (Jn. 2:13-22) then died and rose again so that sinners like you and me could come to God with confidence, the mountain of the LORD was established as the highest of the mountains. The nations are indeed coming to Jesus, and they have been ever since the gospel made its initial forays out of Jerusalem and toward the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8).

But Micah 4 is yet to be totally fulfilled. The nations are certainly not beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, as v. 3 predicts as part of the prophecy. Like all prophecy that is fulfilled in the NT, we have to see it in the framework of inaugurated eschatology (i.e. that the kingdom is here, but it is also not yet). The nations are coming to Jesus, the True Temple, but not as fully as they one day will. The kingdom is here. The kingdom is not yet.

What strikes me this morning as I read in Micah is the means by which God has decided to bring people to that True Temple. God brings sinful people to Jesus through other sinful people. Indeed, it is the very mission of the Church to take the hands of sinners and guide them to Jesus.

This is a point that I easily forget in my daily Christian walk, especially as a pastor. It is not my job to fix or heal people. It is my job to take them to the Great Physician who in turn will do the work, not unlike the friends of the paralytic in Mk. 2:12. They don't heal the paralytic themselves. Indeed, they can't heal him. They bring him to Jesus, so Jesus can heal him.

This is the task of all Christian ministry. The Good Shepherd stands ready to guide his people. Helpless sheep lead helpless sheep to his care. Jesus makes the chief of sinners into an apostle, and the apostle in turn gives him the glory- for he did the work (1 Tim. 1:12-17).

The Christian minister is a guide to the mountain of the LORD. The mountain is lifted up. We just show people how to get there.

On the Manhattan Declaration

This post is in response to the Manhattan Declaration, along with three interpretations of it. Like most ‘evangelicals’ in the USA I am deeply divided over the relation of church and state. Yet, having read (enough of) my Hauerwas, O’Donovan, Yoder, Grant, Milbank, I know when to smell a rat. This is what troubles me. Three pillars of the MD are:
1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life;
2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and;
3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.
Set aside possible good intentions for the moment. Why do theses 3 points sound so, well, American? Because they are. They are not, it seems to me, pillars based in the Gospel. They are not pillars based in any major strand of historic Christian political thought.

To take but one example: appeal to the imago Dei in (1) is distressing to me. Since when has the image of God ensured us ‘inherent rights of equal dignity and life’? If anything, I thought the imago Dei, set in the context of the creation story, showed just how much life was a gift, and so not a right.

And yet the drafters of the MD show no regard whatsoever for the historically variegated interpretations of what the imago Dei teaches us Christians. Instead their appeal is to human rights language, in complete neglect over how human rights (as a concept) puts the challenge to Christian theological tradition in the most striking way. Do Christians have nothing to say to this dubious concept? Do we not have two millennia of tradition based in natural right, which has emphasised the very good moral question, not ‘what are my rights’ but rather ‘what is right’? Don't we want to start there?

In this vein, I fail to understand why the MD has the unflinching support of American Christian leaders whom I respect. Justin Taylor says it is a ‘well-reasoned natural law rationale’ – is it? No not quite. It is not natural law, but new natural law. The kind of natural law advocated by people like Robert P. George and John Finnis – a version of natural law that does not find the law grounded in nature extra nos, but in the human person. Taylor may very well believe this is a far superior natural law theory to that espoused by the majority of Christian thinkers (not to mention classical, scholastic, Reformation and even some early modern thinkers, Christian or not) throughout history, including many today. But well, can you say as much? Should we not address why the Christian tradition thought (and to a large extent, still thinks) differently? Or justify why the MD is all too conveniently and worryingly wedded to the political philosophy of that remorseless, incorrigible late-modern experiment, the United States of America?

Then there is the response, voiced by other evangelicals like Chailles and John MacArthur, which shows reservation for this joint statement on the basis of the Gospel – i.e. Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not have the Gospel right, so how could we in good conscience sign MD? Frankly I’m just befuddled as to why this matters – American evangelicals seem so very eager to enlist Catholic support in their moral majority campaigns. When someone tries to justify on paper why they agree, however, it becomes clear that no one really can say. Is it for political expediency that we rally the votes of those who don’t have the ‘Gospel’ like we do? That’s dubious enough, but let me press things further: what, I should like to know, would this group of dissenting evangelicals change about the MD? My fear is not much. For to critique this document requires that they demonstrate historical debt to the Western and mostly Catholic theological tradition, which for good or ill is the solitary mother of our now-gone-prodigal Western political philosophy. But the very American MD just does not promote such critical reflection. It does not help us Americans see what might be wrong with the way late-modern liberalism, i.e. America and its First Amendment, defines morality in terms of rights.

The third response is to those like Halden, who vigorously critiques the MD on the basis of its pursuit of cultural hegemony. Halden is very Hauerwasian in his position, and for this I am very satisfied. It is a political message that needs to be heard, but I worry is not being heard, in churches and in small groups across the American evangelical spectrum. What I do not find appealing about Halden’s position, however, is that it fails to help us think about America within the wider context of modernity and the world. What would happen if American Christians saw America for what it was? That it directly opposed the Western political theological traditions of an older Europe? That it implies a history of progress that treats democracy as the sine qua non of any good political theory, without which the ancients (with their foolish kings and hierarchies) could not sustain a reasonable and thus (for today) politically relevant discussion? The cultural hegemony button is a good one to press in criticising the Church. But is it the only button? Should we not also press the political factors that in many ways force Christian political participation to operate in this way? It seems to me, in fact, that the MD is doing exactly what Charles Taylor advocates faith communities do in this rabid modern political climate – and did not Hauerwas enthusiastically endorse Taylor's thesis, after all?

All this I submit with some reservation, of course. Following Thanksgiving it may seem a bit unkind that I should sound so un-American and raise so many problems with those older and likely wiser than myself. The question invariably turns to this: how should Christians in America act politically? I confess I have no real good answers. But this does not in any way mean that Christians in America should capitulate to the prevailing political lingo in an effort to express themselves, in an effort to be culturally relevant. But what did others think? Did the MD rub anyone else the wrong way? Am I way off in where it offended?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Two Kinds of Popularity

Tim Keller, drawing from a letter from Calvin to a hot-tempered preacher friend, has some good wisdom for preachers (and really, for every Christian), on what kind of popularity is good to seek, and what is vainglorious:
    There are two very different motivations for adapting and accommodating our message to the sensibilities of a group of people. The first motive is ‘ambition’ — we do it for our sake, for our own glory and approval. The other reason we may accommodate people is for their sake, so that we can gradually win their trust until they become open to the truth they need so much. The first motive will so control us that we will never offend people. The second motive will help us choose our battles and not offend people unnecessarily.
Read here, including the relevant section from Calvin's letter.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis: - Unsatisfied Desires, and their Satisfaction

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. A couple weeks ago I quoted the beginning of of the scene where Aslan creates Narnia from The Magician's Nephew, and promised that I would continue that scene. Alas, I forgot my copy of that book, so you're stuck waiting a little longer. The following is a quote from Mere Christianity, which I'm still happy with because it fits nicely with my previous post on hopeless Christianity and one that is scheduled to go up on Monday. Enjoy.

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were not meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Benefits of Salvation: A Thanksgiving Reflection

Many of you this last Sunday no doubt heard your pastor say something like, "Make sure to not let Thanksgiving pass you by without using it as an opportunity to truly thank God for His kindness to you." I hear something like that just about every year, yet I admit that I typically fail to heed the advice. This year I decided to buck my lamentable trend and do some reflecting on thankfulness and share it with my adult Sunady School class. The following thoughts have grown out of that reflection.

I can't back this claim up with scientific data, but I have a feeling that most of us do not appreciate the massive place that thankfulness is supposed to play in daily Christian living. The Bible sees thankfulness as both the right reason for Christian living (Deut 6:4-12, where the reason for the Law's centrality in the home is God's past gracious work) and part of the necessary means of pleasing God (Col. 1:9-14, where "giving thanks" in v. 12 is an adverbial participle of means, subordinate to the call to "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him" in v. 10). Indeed, says the Apostle, "abounding in thanksgiving" is part and parcel of "walking in Christ Jesus" (Col. 2:6-7).

The paramount object of truly Christian thankfulness is our salvation in Christ. Inherent in this is the recognition that salvation is God's work, not ours. We are saved by grace and faith alone, and since this was totally by God's own doing, we are uniquely thankful to Him.

Further, thankfulness is one of the main ingredients in a life that is truly centered on the glory of God. What is thaknfulness to God if it is not the praise of His goodness and His greatness as seen in His work? The very nature of this is a God-centered attitude, which of course should be primary for us.

With that in mind, I have come up with what I hope is a helpful if not exhaustive list of some of the aspects of the salvation that God has worked for us that deserve our thanks. There are more passages that could go with each aspect, but I picked the ones that came most easily to mind. Here is the list:
  • Eternal Life - Jn. 3:16
  • Knowledge of God - Jn. 17:3; Jer. 31:31-34/Heb. 8:8-12
  • Access to God - Heb. 4:14-16
  • New Creation - 2 Cor. 5:17
  • A New, Fleshly Heart - Ez. 36:26-27
  • Incorporation into Christ - Rom. 6:4-11; Eph. 2:4-7
  • Election by God from Before the Foundation of the World - Eph. 1:4
  • Forgiveness of Sin - Eph. 1:7
  • Peace with God - Rom. 5:1
  • Peace with Every Other Christian, Regardless of Usual Human Separations - Eph. 2:11-22
  • Justification Before God - Rom. 3:24
  • Propitation for Sin - (i.e. Jesus Receives the Wrath of God in our Place) - Rom. 3:25
  • Freedom from Slavery to Sin - Rom. 6:17-18
  • Membership in God's Kingdom - Col. 1:13
  • Victory Over Satan and Demons - Col. 2:15
  • Adoption into God's Family, so that God is Truly our Father - Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5
  • The Indwelling Holy Spirit - Jn. 16:7, 13
  • Being Filled with the Fullness of God in Christ - Col. 1:9-10
  • Hope & Future Glory - Col. 1:5; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; Rom. 8:18-25
  • Joy - Phil. 4:4
  • Reception of God's Love - Rom. 5:8; 8:37-39; Eph. 2:4; 3:18-19
  • The Ability to Praise God's Glory - Rom. 11:33-36; Eph. 3:20-21; Phil. 1:9-11
My prayer is that somebody can use this list as a guide for some Thanksgiving reflection tomorrow. If this post feels a day early, that's why: if anyone does want to use it, they now have time to print it out and have it on hand before tomorrow morning. My Sunday School class read through every one of these passages together and I found myself thrilled as I listened to the overwhelming benefits of being in Christ from one text after another.

I can think of no more appropriate way to end this post than by quoting Eph. 3:20-21: "Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What the Church Really Needs...

Speaking of great quotes, my dad put up this one from Dallas Willard's The Great Omission, and I thought it was, indeed, a great quote:
    Now, some might be shocked to hear that what the "church" -- the disciples gathered -- really needs is not more people, more money, better buildings or programs, more education, or more prestige. Christ's gathered people, the church, has always been at its best when it had little or none of these. All it needs to fulfill Christ's purposes on earth is the quality of life He makes real in the life of His disciples. Given that quality, the church will prosper from everything that comes its way as it makes clear and available on earth the "life that is life indeed...

    So the greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as "Christians" will become disciples -- students, apprentices, practitioners -- of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from Him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence. Will they break out of the churches to be His Church -- to be, without human force or violence, His mighty force for good on earth, drawing the churches after them toward the eternal purposes of God?
My dad also added some of his own comments. Go check out his full post.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Grace Quotes...

For those of you who have noticed the "not so new" quotes which have been added to the top of the site under the banner, I wanted to share with you where I've been getting them. I've had the pleasure of accessing just about all of them from Grace Tabernacle Church out of Lake Como, NJ. Their site features a section called "Grace Quotes." It might be the largest database of Christian quotes on the internet. I can't thank them enough for putting this together. If you're looking to be edified, head on over and look up one of their 500+ categories.

Here's a short vignette from their Pastor, Randy Smith....

Have you ever seen one of those Christian calendars that have great quotes from the Bible or other Christian leaders? Have you ever wished that you could access a database full of great Christian quotes that are topically arranged? Perhaps you want to learn more about a truth of theology or Christian concept. Perhaps you are a pastor looking for that perfect quote from a well-known Christian that succinctly illustrates an important Bible verse or theme. If so, you will love this resource. Grace Quotes is a compilation of thousands of Christian quotes arranged over hundreds of topics. The sources are from solid, well-respected theologians, authors and Christian heroes from across the centuries. It has taken years of research to compile and my hope and prayer is that it becomes for you an invaluable tool to grow in the knowledge of our awesome God and further the ministry He has entrusted to your care...

Coming Soon: Augmented "Reality"

NPR's On The Media aired a story this past weekend about the future of Augmented Reality (AR) technology. You'll have to give it a listen (it's about 5 minutes long) and decide for yourself whether the story is credible or incredulous, but according to experts at think tanks and institutions like MIT, this technology will soon permeate our society, allowing individuals to wear devices that will be able to censor images and even other people at the discretion of the wearer.

The futurists and AR engineers can see it now: you'll be walking down the street with a thin, futuristic looking pair of glasses on, experiencing reality in a whole new, amazing way. Your software will have your friends' images captured and will alert you to their approach, even in a large crowd of people. Others, those with whom you may have a known disagreement with or dislike for, will also be recognized and you will be warned to avoid them. The glasses will also be able to block out advertisements and obscene images, and may perhaps even be able to project other images in their place, images that you find more palatable. Parents could keep their children from being exposed to sexual images or political ideas, ensuring that the apple falls closer to the tree than ever! Teachers could cause the software to randomly project formulas, equations, and elements on blank walls, improving standardized test scores. What an exciting future, right?

I want to be careful not to decry new technology as such. Amish I am not. I don't think the advent of the internet necessarily means the downfall of our societies, nor do I think that there are not any positive uses of such a technology as AR. Perhaps there are some ways in which AR could help people in certain lines of work as they go about their daily task. In fact, as I think about it, there are probably thousands of ways such a technology, once developed, could be harnessed to promote peace and prosperity. I'm not at all competent to write on the uses of AR. I will, however, offer some theological thoughts related to this technology. Keep in mind, I am basing my comments on the mp3 story linked above, which talks about the frontiers of AR and not about its current capacities. So what preliminary theological reflections does the prospect of AR technology raise? Let's assume the dream of the futurists and wonder what it would mean for us as the people of God.

First, there is a real sense in which accepting the Lordship of Jesus Christ means accepting the world as it is given to us. By pursuing a technology which allows an altering of our sensory perceptions of the world, we choose to shut our eyes to this world, which is God's. I am sure that some could marshal "Christian" arguments for using AR to censor out things that pose threats to Christian purity. This reasoning must be rejected, however, because Jesus Christ reigns not over an abstract, ideal world, but over this world with all of its sin and lasciviousness. The Christian is called to love, serve, and even confront this world as it is, not create a world that is more suited to their particularities.

Second, and this is merely an expansion on the first point, our second-highest calling is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love was not hatred but indifference. Surely by censoring out those with whom we disagree we would avoid all sorts of conflict and the much-dreaded awkwardness of social interaction. Would this lead to a more peaceful, loving world? I think not. Surely those who are fighting with each other in some sense affirm the existence and legitimacy of the other party. Those who block others out completely deny the very existence of the person whom they are called to love. This would be a futuristic version of passing over to the other side of the road (Luke 10:25-37). Pharisees everywhere could rejoice at the advent of AR, not realizing that it isn't the opposing political opinions or harsh words from others that defile a person, but the hatred and sin that proceeds from our own hearts.

Finally, assuming it could ever achieve the dreams that scientists and engineers have for it--and given the undeniable marvels of modern technology it is not insane to grant them at least this possibility--some applications of AR technology might imply nothing less than a loss of hope for this world. When we want to change our perception of reality, effectively deceiving ourselves, we may have reached the point where we no longer have hope that anything redemptive can occur in this world. We no longer believe that our dialogue with others or our words to them (or their words to us!) can be the sacramental voice of God. We no longer believe that a broken world can be redeemed. In fact, I think that we are saying that there is not only no hope (or at least there is less hope) for the world, we are saying that our actions and words are of little or no importance.

Even if this news story is kind of silly, even if the reality of this technology is far-fetched, there is a serious development of AR being attempted by some of the brightest minds in our society. If this is the application of some of our best, what does this say about us as a society and as individuals? Is there something to all this, even as a way to see the truth of the human condition? I think it's possible and it makes theological sense: we are still those who want to be our own Lord, we are still those who love ourselves first and foremost, and we are still those who are unaware of genuine hope. This is reality that cannot be augmented, except by the Lord of this reality.

Book Review: We Become What We Worship by G.K. Beale

I've had We Become What We Worship in my wish list for months now, so when the opportunity came to review it for free, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, there have not been many books that I was so predisposed to like that have been such a struggle for me to finish. Not because of poor writing or a disagreement with the author, but rather in part due to my own expectations, as the author's intent was to write "a biblical theology of idolatry". This is a well-written and thorough treatment of idolatry that is quite academic in nature.

This book grew out of a message G.K. Beale delivered entitled "What You Revere You Resemble, Either For Ruin or Restoration" and he has certainly done his research. The hangup of the book for the average reader is that he takes us step by step along the same journey of study with him which turns the book into a monster of biblical exegesis . Of course, the average reader was not Beale's audience to begin with, and the academic community stands only benefit from this biblical exegesis on idolatry (which, again, was his expressed intent).

I basically agreed with his premise two pages into the first chapter, but he spent a chapter each on building his case from the Old Testament, Gospels, Epistles, Revelation, and even the intertestamental/apocryphal books. Beale first began to formulate his thesis during an extensive study of Isaiah 6, thus his first chapter focuses solely there for his opening argument. The first 250 pages are spent building a textual argument for his ideas before finally getting to a very good (but all too short) 60 pages of application and conclusion.

While this book was well-researched and written, it will be too in-depth for the average reader and is best suited for pastors preaching on idolatry and the academic community. But if they ever come out with a Clif Notes version, I want to be at the top of the list.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press Academic.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Chris Faris Reviews Twilight: New Moon

My C. S. Lewis post, if you cared, will be up tomorrow. In the mean time, my ever-insightful brother has a great review of the second Twilight movie. Not that I've read or seen any of it, but his plot summary line alone should indicate that the review is worth a read: "The Twilight Saga: New Moon is about a 104 year-old mentally retarded pedophile who falls for a personality-less emo girl."

I think I'll save the 10 bucks and just enjoy Chris's review.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cassidy: Amish Vampiress of the Tribulation

There's not usually a point in linking to Challies because so many of you no doubt already him. But I find in myself no power to resist mentioning what might just be the greatest post in that blogger's history.

What is this great post, you ask? Well, Tim Challies has crafted the ultimate Christan novel: Cassidy: Amish Vampiress of the Tribulation.

If you like making fun of Christian culture even a little bit, I implore you with everything within me to go read the post, which includes the back cover description and an excerpt from the book itself.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Might As Well Face It, I'm Addicted to David Platt

I first learned about David Platt, like so many, by watching this sermon from the SBC conference, which is absolutely one of the best sermons I've ever seen or heard. No doubt part of what makes it so good is the fact that some 30 year old gives a humble, stirring, and totally biblical wake-up call to the many seasoned pastors who undoubtedly were and are content to "die in their religion", to use his phrase. In any case, if you haven't seen Platt's call to "die in our devotion", you need to take the 40 or so minutes and watch it- especially if you are in ministry.

My excitement about that sermon led me to read this interview (HT: JT) where Dr. Platt reminds us of the simple yet easily forgotten truth that the only thing any of us has to offer is the Word of God. That's it. So we must remind ourselves constantly that "the Word does the work." My interest was piqued all the more.

From there I've become a full-blown addict. I have now gone through a number of sermons from some of the series' at the church where Platt pastors. Most of them are good, but I particularly want to commend his four week series on Ruth, which is absolutely amazing.

Perhaps what it is that resonates most is that Platt is relatively unremarkable: he just knows the text really well and tells people what it says while making broad theological connections and maintaining good-but-not-flashy dynamic. No real bells and whistles- just the Word of God presented with clarity and passion. All of this and the fact that he is rarely funny makes me think of Platt as basically a younger John Piper, though I suspect he'd reject such a prestigious comparison in the Reformed world.

Anyway, go listen to or watch his stuff. It's fantastic, and it'll nourish your soul.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hopeless Christianity

F. F. Bruce, commenting on Col. 1:23, says,
    Indeed, to hold fast to hope is throughout the NT an indispensable condition for attaining the goal of full salvation to be revealed at the parousia of Christ. It is difficult to distinguish between hope as an inward attitude and the object of hope: now the one idea, now the other, is uppermost. The one implies the other. Hope in both senses forms an essential element of the gospel...
True on all counts.

And yet in evangelicalism today, hope appears to be the overlooked step-child in Paul's threefold summary of Christian values: faith, hope, and love. Everyone knows that we need to love more, and the Reformed evangelical world is good at emphasizing faith in Christ and his finished work. But hope is too often a sight unseen.

Perhaps it is because of that Reformed emphasis on Christ's work being finished, or perhaps it is because Americans have little need of hope considering how well we're living. In any case, I for one have never been a part of a church that effectively emphasized Christian hope.

Consider the account of the Thessalonians' conversion in 1 Thess. 1:9-10: "...and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." When was the last time you heard someone's conversion described not only as their turning from idols, but as their expectant waiting for the return of Christ? I hear about the desire to go to heaven, but not the desire for heaven to come to us.

This troubles me for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Col. 1:4-5 says that the Colossians' hope was the basis for their love and faith. So I wonder: is it even possible to develop love and faith without Christian hope? Somehow I doubt that for the Colossians it just so happened to work out that way--something normative seems to lie beneath all this.

Perhaps the reason why hope is so important is because it frees Christians from being married to earthly goods. The one who is sure that her treasures are in heaven and that her life is hidden with Christ will find that shrugging off earthly treasures makes perfect sense. With such realizations comes the freedom to love with abandon and to have faith in God's ability to work.

The significance of this truth for the church is massive, especially considering the ceaseless conversations about how to become truly missional. Maybe all of our talk of church forms and structures and strategies only complicate the issue. Maybe what we need is Christians with steadfast hope in the return of Christ. Maybe this will embolden our witness.

So how do we go about developing hope? That will require more thinking, and another post somewhere down the line. But diagnosing the problem seems to be a good place to start.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis - "A Voice Had Begun to Sing" Part 1

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. The following is the first part of a narration from The Magician's Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of narrative time, but the sixth in terms of authorship order. The scene below comes about when most of the main characters are in a dark void on an unknown earth. The whole scene is too long for one Saturday post, so I will continue it at least one more week, maybe two. Sorry to leave you hanging like that.

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too: he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.

"Gawd!" said the Cabby. "Ain't it lovely?"

Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn't come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out--single stars, constellations, and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bonhoeffer's Ethics 1

Out of the books I've read in 2009, Bonhoeffer's Ethics has stuck with me more than any other. I'm not all that well-acquainted with the discipline of ethics, but I thought it was curious when I saw that Bonhoeffer had written a book on the subject. I associated books of the type with analytic philosophers, not 20th century neo-Orthodox, German theologians. I was right to be intrigued, for Ethics contains a radical re-framing of the whole discipline--a deconstruction, even, of modern ethics. Bonhoeffer saw this work as his one major, unique contribution to the field of Christian theology and I have to agree, so I will take some space here to provide summaries and reflections on the work in the coming weeks. I would encourage you to grab a copy of Ethics and read along. Bonhoeffer is always edifying and, in this case, very stimulating.

The key, in my opinion, to understanding the whole work is to get the first few pages (nay, the first few lines) in your head as the hermeneutical guide. Bonhoeffer writes, "The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge." When I read this, I was both excited and scared; who in their right mind would want to "invalidate" all ethical reflection? Bonhoeffer isn't motivated, however, by any postmodern quest to deconstruct for deconstruction's sake. His goal is to be true to the biblical narrative of Genesis 1-3. He goes on to provide an interpretation of the Fall, in categories of existential estrangement. In our original state, he writes, we were one with God and we knew only God, and knew all things in God and God in all things. God was our "origin" and we lived our lives in dependence upon him. God knew good and evil, but we knew only God and this was a felicitious existence. In our uprising and deception, the eating of the forbidden fruit, we took this knowledge of good and evil upon ourselves and became our own source and origin and this meant the total dissolution of our life. "Man's life is now disunion with God, with men, with things, and with himself."

One of the effects of this existential estrangement is shame, something which permeates all of human life and endeavor. Shame is simply awareness of our separation from our origin, and a longing to return. The human response to shame is both concealment and exposure and both serve to confirm our shame. In all relationships, art, and communication we both expose our shame as we show forth our longing for unity and restoration, but we also must continually cover this shame. (Interesting aside: Bonhoeffer seems to posit that our subconscious self is the fruit of our covering ourselves from ourselves.) This shame cannot be overcome except through the final shaming of forgiveness of sins, where our sin and estrangement are both exposed and done away with in restoration to God and man.

Distinguished from shame is conscience, which Bonhoeffer defines as the estranged man's desperate attempt to maintain unity with himself. Disunited with his origin, conscience summons the man to a false type of unity with himself, by categorizing everything in terms of what is forbidden and what is permitted. What is permitted is good and what is forbidden is evil, and there is no real, positive commandment. In a sense, conscience operates wholly on the presupposition of disunity and shame--it claims to be the judge of good and evil. This achieved knowledge of conscience becomes the basis for relationship to God and others, whereas in our original state this relationship was reversed.

It is in the New Testament, with Jesus as the central point of discussion, that Bonhoeffer sees a "world of recovered unity." The Pharisees (men of conscience in every age) are essentially ethicists, and not shabby ones at that. They take their duty to make decisions and judgments with utter strictness, and they are not beyond refined, nuanced reflections on ethical matters. These men define themselves by the decisions they make and so they must force Jesus to be similarly defined. Jesus will have none of it and this, Bonhoeffer says, is why Jesus so often seems out of touch with his questioners--evasive, missing the point, detached. Jesus leaves the world of conflict behind him, according to Bonhoeffer, and lives in unity with God, doing the will of God. While the Pharisees are humans par excellence, taking conscience with utter seriousness, Jesus lives in humble and simple obedience to the will of God (like Adam and Eve before the Fall). Bonhoeffer explicates this contrast in terms of judging, proving, and doing.

Jesus commanded his followers not to judge (Matt 7:1). The Pharisees do not merely judge unrighteously; in fact, their judgment may be in line with sound principles. However, the fact that they are judges is the essence of man's disunity with God. The Pharisees had actions, too, they were not passive. Springing from disunity as their deeds did, however, meant that they were hypocrites. True action is action that recovers the lost unity, action that does "the will of God." With each ethical pronouncement, the Pharisees served to further confirm the disunity.
With the call to judge not, Jesus is essential summoning man back to his origin. Rather than make pronouncements, we live in a simple obedience to the will of God.

The New Testament also exhorts us to prove the will of God (Rom 12:2). This answers the question that was naturally raised at the end of the last paragraph: "Are we supposed to just say a prayer and do the first thing that comes to our mind? Is this what Bonhoeffer would have us think ethical reflection is now to consist in?" No, the Bible says we must "prove" the will of God. And here Bonhoeffer gets to the crux of the matter:

"The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task."

For Bonhoeffer, the will of God is not something that can be codified nor does it come from our own hearts or minds. It is the directive for action (or passivity) that comes to us from the living, personal God. Too "prove" the will of God, we must first be located in Christ, being conformed to His nature. This is not something that happens gradually or permanently, but we must every day raise the question anew: "how here, today and in my present situation I am to remain and be preserved in this new life with God, with Jesus Christ"? And once having raised this question, having humbly sought God, we must take action, believing that God gives us knowledge of His will. Having taken action, we can do nothing to assure ourselves or others that we have done the right thing in an ethically-sticky situation. Instead, we submit ourselves to the (gracious!) judgment of God. This is what Bonhoeffer calls the "simplicity of doing."

What exactly does this "doing" consist in? Bonhoeffer makes a series of distinctions. 1. True Doing vs. False Doing: Man's deed must be set within the deed of God, or it is not to be regarded as doing (Bonhoeffer interprets the "nothing" in John 15:5 as literally as possible). 2. Action vs. Judgment: these are irreconcilable opposites. The judge places himself above the law, and applies it to others. The doer of the law submits to the law and takes action. 3. Hearing vs. Doing: These are no irreconcilable opposites, but rather inseparable realities. It is impossible to separate doing from hearing and hearing from doing. No one can possess the word other than in doing it. So there is both a false doing (action apart from the will of God) and a false hearing (hearing the Word of God that doesn't issue forth in true action).

Bonhoeffer closes this section with a reflection and summary entitled "Love." He asks, what is love? His answer is that "God is love." Who is God? Where do we find Him? In Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ reconciliation comes to man and happens to him, in Jesus Christ we come to know the love of God. We did not know it before, but we know it in Jesus. In Jesus we return to our origin and, presumably, Bonhoeffer has set us up for what ethics will look like for the man who has recovered his unity with God (or perhaps, the man who has been recovered to unity by God).

I'm curious for those who have read this far: what are your initial thoughts about a book on ethics that tries to negate ethics as a "system" and instead summons us to a daily quest after the will of God that is different in every situation, different for every individual? What theological or philosophical questions does this raise?

Book Review: Hidden Worldviews by Wilkens and Sanford

Hidden Worldviews is not your average book addressing worldviews. There are no chapters on nihilism, existentialism, or Eastern monism (though a nod is made to The Universe Next Door, and James Sire even writes a blurb for the back of the book, calling Hidden Worldviews "an excellent compliment" to his own standard work).

Unlike most other writers addressing worldviews, authors Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford deal with what they call "lived worldviews". These lived worldviews include such ideas as individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism and salvation by therapy. They are so called because "we are more likely to absorb them through cultural contact than adopt them through a rational evaluation of competing theories. These lived worldviews are popular philosophies of life that have few intellectual proponents but vast numbers of practitioners".

Because of the subtle nature of these ideas, Wilkens and Sanford suggest that there is a greater risk of such ideas being smuggled into and blended with Christianity almost unknowingly. Indeed, to the extent that the traditional worldviews pose a challenge externally to Christianity, these worldviews seem to be a challenge within Christianity as well as without.

Every chapter deals with a specific lived worldview and details both the truth or good as well as potential problems of each worldview before drawing a conclusion. In this manner, the authors present a very even-handed treatment of each idea without sounding alarmist or too "Chicken Little".

If I have had one frustration that keeps popping up during this first year of setting a significant reading goal for myself, it has been that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes would say, "there is nothing new under the sun". However, this book was an exception, a very refreshing read and quite unique in it's approach and subject matter. Overall, it was a very readable and enjoyable book, and one of my top ten for the year!

This book was a free review copy given by InterVarsity Press Academic.

New Federal Trade Commission Guidelines

The Federal Trade Commission recently revised their guidelines that affect testimonial advertisements, bloggers and celebrity endorsements. "The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service." In the interest of full disclosure and in compliance with the new FTC guidelines, I feel compelled to share the following:
  1. All of the books prior to this post that I have reviewed have been given to me free of charge by the publishers for the sole purpose of a review. No expectation of a positive bias was communicated or implied by any of the publishers. In fact, a cursory reading of some of my reviews will show I don't shirk from a negative review.
  2. No payment or compensation has ever been made to me from the publishers beyond free review materials.

There, I feel better.

Friendship: On Believing What One Does Not See

This little gem from St. Augustine I simply cannot pass up. In a little-known treatise called 'On Faith in Things Not Seen' (399) the good Bishop shows us how belief is intrinsic to the makeup of humanity. The dynamic of friendship is the key.

Why should I believe what cannot be seen? Augustine replies (and apologies for the translation, I'd redo it if I had time!):
But, whosoever thou art who wilt not believe save what thou seest with the eyes of the body, wills and thoughts of things own that are present, because they are in thine own mind, thou seest by the mind itself [i.e. our minds know our own wills and thoughts]; tell me, I pray thee, thy friend's will towards thee, by what eyes seest thou? For no will can be seen by the eyes of the body. What? see you in your own mind this also which is going on in the mind of another? But if you see it not, how do you repay in turn the good will of your friend, if what you cannot see, you believe not?
In other words, you cannot see, with the eyes of your mind any more than the eyes of your body, that the will of your friend is indeed friendly toward you. You must trust, believe, have faith - you must invest yourself in it, or otherwise, consign yourself to loneliness and scepticism (though even this is not without some trust.) The point is that the 'view from nowhere' is really nowhere to be found; the mark of humanity in this present life is its invariable exercise of faith. Once more Augustine:
If this faith be taken away from human affairs, who but must observe how great disorder in them, and how fearful conclusion must follow? For who will be loved by any with mutual affection, (being that the loving itself is invisible,) if what I see not, I ought not to believe? Therefore will the whole of friendship perish...
Perish, indeed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

40 Years of Sesame Street - An Exhortation and Some Good Music

For those who didn't know, Sesame Street has turned 40. Pretty remarkable. I've seen a few blogs mention it in this or that way, but two posts grabbed my attention, and for rather different reasons.

1. The ever thoughtful Russell Moore suggests that the church could learn a few things from Sesame Street:
    Sesame Street was effective because the program didn’t just contexutalize [sic] to the present; it contextualized to the future.

    Remember, after all, when the show started. It was in 1969, the era of George Wallace and the Black Panther Party and campus race riots and the Richard Nixon “Southern Strategy.” From the very start, the program showed kids what few of them had ever seen before: a racially integrated neighborhood.

    Now, Sesame Street could have done this with preachy didactic dialogue....But instead, they showed kids racial equality, and made it normal for them, without ever saying much about it in the process.

    As I read that, it struck me that, years before my Mississippi elementary school was integrated via busing, I’d seen African-American and Latino characters (such as “Gordon” and “Maria”) functioning as equal members of a society, on the television screen of my home....

    What would happen if, whenever our culture saw love or reconciliation or peace, our neighbors said, “This is exactly the way that church always made life out to be?”
2. On a lighter note, Glen Smallman found Rolling Stone's top 41 musical performances on Sesame Street and posted the youtubes of his favorites, which are Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Norah Jones, Feist, and James Taylor. They're all really fun. Check out Glen's blog for those videos and the Rolling Stone link.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Does Ephesians 5:21 Teach "Mutual Submission"?

Dr. Allen Yeh is at it again. Over at Scriptorium Daily, Dr. Yeh wrote a second article in defense of egalitarianism as a follow-up to his socio-cultural approach. I responded to the socio-cultural article last week, claryifing why it is not inconsistent for complementarians (like myself) to allow for women to teach in seminaries but not in churches.

This time he gets all theological on us, and I should start by saying that he represents his case well. Most of the article consists of responses to common complementarian arguments rather than a positive defense of egalitarianism. For one thing, there is absolutely no mention of Gal. 3:28 (gasp!). Just thought you should know what you're getting into.

Part of that article includes the following comment that reflects a common egalitarian argument regarding the use of Paul's comments about marriage in Eph. 5: "Ephesians 5 calls for mutual submission. It is a case of proof-texting to only point to v. 22 (“wives, submit to your husbands”) but not v. 21 (“submit to one another”)."

I disagree.

Eph. 5:21 reads as follows: "submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,". "Submitting" is a participle in Greek and is dependent on the command to "be filled with the Holy Spirit" in v. 19, where "be filled" is the main verb. This is to say that "submitting" is either the means of being filled by the Spirit, or the result of being filled by the Spirit. I lean toward the former, which I mention only because if I am right, then this is an important issue indeed! What is at stake here is our being filled with the Spirit- I don't know about you, but I'd say that's a big deal.

In any case, Paul continues the "submitting" thought from v. 21 in v. 22, which I'll provide my own translation of: "wives to your own husbands as to the Lord." Hopefully what you notice is that there is no verb in v. 22. There is nothing especially strange about this in Greek, or for that matter in English. Indeed, the second clause of the sentence immediately preceding this one has no verb, but you all know what I'm saying. What it does indicate is that v. 22 carries on the thought from v. 21. Put another way, Paul begins to flesh out what v. 21 means in v. 22, as indicated by the fact that v. 22 has to borrow the verb from v. 21. Still with me?

I hope so. For what this begins to point toward is that Paul explains v. 21 in the passage that follows. The Ephesians will read and say, "Oh, o.k., we are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ- but what kind of submission?" Paul responds: wives to their own husbands, as to the Lord. The husband's role? Quite the opposite: headship. Cruciform, Christ-modeled headship to be sure, but headship nonetheless. Paul not only completely avoids suggesting husbands submitting to their wives here (and everywhere else, I should add), but he says quite the opposite?

So then, how should we understand the call to "mutual submission" in v. 21? I suggest that it basically functions like a section heading for Paul's explanation of the three relationships that follow: husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and masters. It is as if Paul put a break in the text, then wrote, "Christian Submission in Human Relationships", then proceeded to say that wives are to submit to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters. In this case it is not a call to mutual submission, but a way of introducing the concept of submission, then fleshing out what "submitting to one another" actually means for Christians.

There are a host of other issues here that I am not inclined to get into with this post. My point here has only been to explain why the "mutual submission" that egalitarians are quick to reference in Eph. 5:21 is not something that complementarians avoid because they are, as Dr. Yeh charges, "proof-texting".

Monday, November 9, 2009

What is Prostestantism, Anyway?

Last week my wife and I shared a meal with a few good friends and colleagues from New College. Our host, a Catholic priest, despite repeated insistence he was unaware the date, had the good ecumenical humour to invite us over on the day known to UK natives as Guy Fawkes Day - commemoration of the failed 1605 attempt of some Catholic conspirators to destroy London's House of Parliament. I figured a candlelight vigil but it didn't quite happen.

Instead we got something better: really good, Gospel-affirming conversation. Counting us our group included three couples: two Protestant and one recently 'received' Catholic (they deliberately refused the word 'conversion'.) We ran the gamut on topics of interest, not least of which the recent declaration from the Vatican on reception of Anglicans. Since all of us gladly accepted the adjective 'evangelical' for our own theological orientations, we had much common ground, indeed, I suspect we had very little central material about which we disagreed. That may of course be attributable to my current doctrinal meanderings within Protestantism, but oh well. What mattered I suppose was that I felt very much 'with' them in senses more profound than (important) social considerations: abortion, family, marriage, etc. In fact, I wonder whether others possess similar relationships (which are certainly something a novelty for me); or indeed if this is yet another instance of us academic theologians proving the conventional rule: that the theologian and pastor differ most profoundly in that the latter has to, and indeed does make decisions (which I grant is a sad and lamentable truism, in many respects.)

Anyway. I've always been attracted to what Stanley Hauerwas once said about Protestantism - that it is a 'protest movement within the church catholic' (hence what the word means), and that 'when it becomes an end in itself, we've given it up' (meaning, I suspect, we might as well talk of two kinds of Christianities, and therefore no Christianity.) I think this is probably right. That's not to say we all are destined to return to Rome some day (in the same breath Hauerwas says 'don't run off to Rome; there's no Rome to run to'!). But it is, I think, to situate Protestantism in the proper historical and indeed theological light. We've a lot of things to sort out still, I don't deny it; things which dig deep and no doubt include more than doctrinal formulations.

Yet I also wonder if, in the near future, we may be finding today's evangelical Protestants and 'evangelical Catholics' (what my Catholic friends call themselves; one of them looked at me and said, wryly, 'is there any other kind?'!) much more in need of each other than in previous centuries. None of my Catholic friends wish to dumb down the theology in order to get there; neither, I daresay, do we 'evangelicals'. Then again, I can't think of anything more important within the 'church catholic' than to hope and pray and root for reconciliation. Recent news about Anglicans and Catholics is an inspiring, if somewhat ambiguous start. The media just do not get it, and that just makes me smile. Maybe the intra-church protest is nearing its end after all? I really do hope.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis - There Is No Other Stream

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. And yes, I know that it's Sunday, but I didn't want to double on Ian's post from yesterday, so I decided to save Lewis for today. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. In any case, the following quote is from chapter 2 of The Silver Chair.

"Are you not thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion.
"May I--could I--would you mind going away while I do?," said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
"Will you promise not to--do anything to me, if I do come?," said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?," she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say thisas if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!," said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lay Your Weapons Down, Ye Jars of Clay

The band that has without doubt shaped my Christianity most profoundly is Jars of Clay. Their recent album, 'The Long Fall Back to Earth' (2009) does not disappoint: its subtlety of lyric and adept diagnosis of the modern condition impress upon us Christians the very 'triumph through tragedy' theme so integral to the reality God is unfolding before and within us. I will always consider Jars of Clay's 'Worlds Apart' as their most important contribution - a bias, I should say, totally derivative of what the song meant to me and my fledgling faith some nine years ago. But alongside 'Redemption' 'Needful Hands' 'River Constantine' and 'O My God' (hat tips to any JoC faithful), I can now confidently place the very probing 'Safe to Land' 'Headphones' 'Scenic Route' and 'Weapons' - all of which seem to centre, more or less, on troubled relationships or marriages. (I think, for instance, the lyrics and crescendo in 'Safe to Land' capture the right kind of 'holy stubbornness' - to use my father-in-law's wise term - that need characterise every Christian marriage. Wonderful song.)

My review of the album about stops there, however, and instead focuses on one of the songs which has for some time haunted me as to its meaning and significance. Track 2 is called 'Weapons'. It elides with the instrumental in track 1 and lyrically opens the album with the following words:
Hallelujah we can finally hear
It's a miracle we feel anything at all
The things we planted on the worst day of the year
Grow to fingers that rip at the joy
And send our backs against the wall.
The chorus follows: lay your weapons down, lay your weapons down, there are no enemies in front of you. It continues with another set of verses, equally well-crafted, which I may as well provide below:
Hallelujah we can finally see
How the bitterness was bruising on our skin
We didn't notice that grace had run so thin
'Till we're falling apart
And the cracks in our heart let the truth sink in.
Again the chorus presides: lay your weapons down, lay your weapons down, there are no enemies in front of you. The point is simple enough. At the relational level, person to person, it is about reconciliation: bitterness is entrenched, suffocating grace and the joy which we probably should have, given the occasion (let's say Christmas family gatherings.) At the ecclesiastical level, however - not forgetting this is a Christian band - the message is no doubt about reconciliation that happens within the Church. We sow seeds which sprout weeds which strangle creeds (to be dreadfully poetic!) We fail to 'hear' and 'see' what God so clearly charges us to do in light of who He is and what He has done. The chorus is one that needs be sung over every congregation that is standing on the wrong foot: lay your weapons down, lay your weapons down, there are no enemies in front of you.

Fine so far. Yet the imagery is tantalising beyond these immediate and obvious applications. It presses the metaphor too far, I grant, but nevertheless I ask, somewhat independently of the song: what weapons do we Christians lay down? Especially upon first being found in the Gospel: how might we describe the transformation from darkness to light, from old self to new self, from hostility to grace, in ways more practical than theoretical, more concrete than abstract, more social/relational than simply psychological?

In other words, Jars of Clay has me thinking again, as I have in a few other posts, about what violence is to the world and to the church. I do not doubt the 'weapons' we lay down in our being reconciled to Christ are bitterness and enmity between God and, by extension, our neighbours (and ourselves, for that matter.) Neither do I mean to suggest these do not have practical implications in our day-to-day 'personal' and even 'social' witness, because they obviously do. Then again, I do not think they effect the way a bullet kills an 'enemy' (and maybe a fellow Christian?) on the battlefield. Does the laying down of weapons stop at metaphor? Is war the one area wherein we Christians must accept the Gospel makes no demands upon us, save that we are faithful to the commands which are given and don't take more than our fair share? (e.g. Luke 3.14 and Matthew 8.5-13)

I raise this discussion in full awareness of its relevance and touchiness today. Recent tragedies in the Middle East and Afghanistan certainly show why war is undesirable, yes, but then they also remind those of us prone to abstraction and reveling in comfort that nothing short of real life is being considered here. That simply shows us why this is a really, really hard debate to begin with; and why staying silent about it, on both sides, is just dead wrong.

So in the spirit of contributing something new, besides the sweet CD, let me just share this one observation which hit me rather forcibly this past month. I was (and still am) reading J.H. Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, in which he quotes another scholar Hendrik Berkhof on the point of Paul's 'armour of God' imagery in Ephesians 6.10-18.
'The believer strives ultimately not against tangible men and objects ("flesh and blood," v. 12), but against the Powers they obey. This war with the Powers must be waged seriously. A man must arm himself for it. The arms that Paul is not contemplating an offensive against the Powers. Though surely the believer must assure his defense against them, he can do this only be standing, simply, by his faith. He is not called to do more than he can do by simply believing. His duty is not to bring the Powers to their knees. This is Jesus Christ's own task. He has taken care of this for us and will continue to do so. We are responsible for the defense, just because He takes care of the offense. Ours is to hold the Powers, their seduction, and their enslavement, at a distance, "to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil" (v. 11, cf. 13). The figurative allusion to weapons points to this defensive role. Girdle, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword (machaira, the short sword) are all defensive arms. Lance, spear, bow and arrow are not named. They are not needed; theese are the weapons Christ Himself bears. Our weapons is to stay close to Him and thus to remain out of the reach of the drawing power of the Powers.' Quoted in J.H.Y. The Politics of Jesus p. 152.
By 'Powers' he (Berkhof through Yoder) means many things, but one of them is political and institutional. The Gospel is a political witness against this earthly power. The Church stands in the radical humility of Christ who defeated and will defeat these powers, thus her battle is purely defensive: it is not about tearing down institutions, without which society and history could not exist, but about distancing ourselves from institutions and their invariable tendency toward collusion, corruption, and yes, acts of violence as well.

That I must confess I had never contemplated about Ephesians: it is a defensive portrayal of the Christian life. The weapons have been laid down. We have surrendered them to Christ. But what are the weapons? What does it look like, today, now, as Christians, under governments, in tough situations, indeed, in a world where it appears to us that without war there can only be chaos, giving rise to the sense that it must be ordained for the Church to participate in these conflicts?

Indeed, I'm asking, quite sheepishly in fact: what does it mean to be a Christian? A Christian who has laid his weapons down, or wants to, and wants to trust this laying down is in proper conformity to the life and witness the Scriptures, and particularly the Gospel, demand.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Doxology Without Substance (And the Solution to that Problem)

Mark Johnston of Ref21 reflects today on why preachers choose what book or topic to preach on, highlighting his recent selection of Ephesians. The whole thing is worth a read, but I especially appreciated this comment, stemming from the observation that Ephesians is so doxological:
    That grasp of doxology desperately needs to be recovered in many churches today. The great irony of course is that many churches are obsessed with doxology (praise and worship) and yet somehow the real thing seems to elude them. They become more and more focused on new songs and innovative approaches; but while these may excite the emotions, they somehow fail to lift our spirit heavenwards. Paul's answer to that is the gospel. It is only as we truly grasp (as he says later on in Ephesians) just how wide, long, high and deep is the love of God for us in Christ that our hearts are genuinely thrilled into adoration.
I am not entirely sure which churches he is referring to. My beloved charismatic background could be in view, or perhaps more likely the oft-targeted shallowness of the seeker/megachurch movement. In any case, Johnston's comment is more than just good exposition of Ephesians: it is a good prescription in light of the symptoms.

The symptom, he notes, is obsession over relevant musical innovation that potentially produces good music but not necessarily real worship. The prescription is the gospel. What could be truer?

I have led enough corporate worship to feel the frustration of a disinterested congregation. This always stuns me. Perhaps the music is far worse than I perceive? Perhaps my vocal ability, which I consider average-at-best, is rather worse than that? Why else would "Before the Throne of God Above" (to name one favorite) not grip the hearts of my brothers and sisters singing with me? But then, the same problem exists when others lead at our church, so it must not be just my problem.

The only conclusion I can come to is that we do not appreciate the gospel enough. I find this problem in myself when I am not engaged in the musical worship: I have been willfully sinning, or I have neglected to commune with God through prayer and Scripture that day, or my mind is occupied with other affairs. Whatever the combination of these or other issues, I have shifted my gaze from Christ's work on my behalf.

What we need is gospel-saturation. We need every part of our congregational meetings to be filled with gospel. We need to read Scripture, of which the gospel is the center. We need to pray, which we can only do confidently because of the gospel. We need to sing about the gospel. Since every Christian is a priest, we need to guide each other to Christ- because of the gospel.

I suspect that when churches organize everything they do around the gospel (for what else do we mean by "church"?), and when we do this with unwavering rigor and discipline, we will find our congregations vitalized, not only to sing on Sunday mornings, but to live worshipfully each day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review: Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

Jerry Bridges wrote one of the best books I've ever read on Christian sanctification in Pursuit of Holiness. But if Pursuit of Holiness is Sanctification 101, then Respectable Sins is Sanctification 301. While the former book focused on the broader subject of sanctification and dealt with the more common besetting sins, the latter focuses on the more subtle sins that often go unaddressed.

Before dealing with specific areas of sin, the opening chapters of Respectable Sins set the necessary foundation by addressing sin in general and the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome it. In this way, the first few chapters read like a concise summary of Pursuit of Holiness. The remainder of the book addresses issues like anxiety, unthankfulness, selfishness, and judgmentalism. Each of these chapters follows a similar formula, defining and exposing the sin before giving the reader practical steps of action against it.

The reader must be careful to read this book without any legalism/judgmentalism. Most readers will either be tempted as they read to think "This guy is nuts and completely overboard" or "Ooooh, I can think of some people that need to read this". I confess both thoughts while I read. As my pastor has said, each Christian has areas they struggle with where they need to be legalistic with themselves (meaning there are certain things an individual Christian cannot let themselves do that others may do). So there are points when Bridges shares his own personal areas of legalism, but we must understand it in a context of wisdom for him.

This book is not for everyone. A non-Christian may read it and think Christians are all hyper-paranoid moralists. A legalist may read it and project all their judgments on the Christians around them. But for the Christian using this book with sensitivity and wisdom, this is a wonderful book on many of Christianity's blind spots when it comes to pursuing Christ-likeness.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A New, Important "How To" Book on Cutting Edge Technology for Churches

I found this book at a $1 bookstore by my home and thought I should let our readers know in case one of you would like me to pick it up for them and ship it. There is just no way I could keep such a gem for myself when others most certainly struggle to operate all this high-tech stuff more than us young whipper-snappers! Maybe it will be the next CiC book giveaway.

There is probably a serious point in here somewhere for a sermon illustration or blog post about technology and fads and so on, but I'll settle for laughing about it. Great cover art though, right?

Monday, November 2, 2009

"I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach or Have Authority"... in Seminaries?

Before we get going, I should remind you that I am an evangelical. This includes the belief, among other things, that I am an inerrantist. I am also a complementarian. Just about all of my past writing on CiC on the subject can be found here. Got it? Good, because those are important presupposition for where this post is going.

You won't be surprised that I was none too impressed by Biola Professor Allan Yeh's sociological/cultural musings in defense of egalitarianism at Scriptorium Daily. Apparently David Nilsen of Evangelical Outpost felt the same way, so he wrote this. Yeh responded back here. Don't want to read all that? Fine enough- I skimmed a lot of it myself.

In the process of said skimming, I noticed this exchange, starting with Yeh's original post, then Nilsen's response, then Yeh's counter-response:
    Yeh: I hardly know of anyone at Biola who would have a problem with sitting under the tutelage of a female professor (and professors teach, heaven forbid!). Even Talbot School of Theology, the most strongly Complementarian of the seven schools at Biola, has female professors. And we often have female preachers in Biola’s chapel and nobody seems to mind.

    Nilsen: The only thing that this comment proves is that many evangelicals don’t follow their theology consistently. It doesn’t constitute support for egalitarianism. Moreover, it confuses the office of church elder with that of seminary (or college) professor, which is not even a New Testament category. I am a complementarian, yet I have no scruples about female professors because I do not believe that the Bible prohibits women from teaching in such a capacity. According to complementarianism, the Bible’s restriction of female service in the church is actually an extremely limited one, and thus any honest debate must be equally limited.

    Yeh: I don’t see how you can be OK with female seminary professors but exclude women from preaching in the church...First of all, as I said in my blog, Biola has both female seminary professors (in Talbot School of Theology) and often has female preachers in chapel, so it’s not like only one but not the other is allowed. Secondly, I see seminary professors as analogous to generals in the army. Generals (professors) train their captains (pastors) who train their troops (laity). So why is it OK for the professors (who are teaching theology) to be female, but not for pastors? Theology, which is taught by seminary professors (who are sometimes female), reaches the minds and hearts of male pastors, and trickles down to laypeople via sermons. These are not categories that are mutually exclusive. Can you say that generals and soldiers in the army can be female, but captains can’t? It doesn’t make sense.
In short, the question for complementarians is: why can a woman teach in a seminary but not in a church?

The answer is much simpler than Nilsen's unnecessary vagueness and Yeh's convoluted analogy suggest: it is about authority.

1 Tim. 2 specifically forbids women "teaching and exercising authority" over men. I would suggest three things here: (1) the terms are mutually defining; (2) the thrust of 1 Tim. 2:9-15 as a whole is about authority (with teaching as representative of that authority); (3) "teaching" in the Pastoral Epistles consistently refers to an authoritative kind of teaching unique to church leadership. Put another way, forbidding teaching here does not forbid all teaching, but only that particular authoritative type.

Which is exactly why a woman can teach in a seminary: because a seminary professor simply does not exercise local church authority like a pastor does. Seminarians should be constantly weighing the teaching they are receiving, not submitting to it even when they disagree. Further, professors do not exercise spiritual authority over the lives of their students and cannot discipline them for sin. Church elders, by contrast, deserve a unique measure of submission beacuse they are in some charge of exactly these thigns (Heb. 13:17).

The issue is basically the same with a woman preaching in a chapel setting: she teaches God's Word but otherwise exercises no real authority in that setting, especially if a male is the one in ultimate authority for those chapels (as is the case with Dr. Todd Pickett at Biola). This seems to me to be well within the bounds of Paul's teaching.

Obviously I've not said everything I could about 1 Tim. 2, but I would point you to Kostenberger's remarkably convincing article in Women in the Church on the relationship between "teaching" and "exercising authority" in that passage. In any case, let this be a reminder for both sides on this issue to be more careful: facile charges like Yeh's and vague counter-arguments like Nilsen's simply do not help. We must force ourselves to always return to the teaching of the text.