Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Review: The Michael Horton Duology

As a sort of early Christmas present, the generous folks over at Baker Books sent me both of Michael Horton's latest books and I have been quite excited to review them. In retrospect, I am happy I was able to read them back to back, and I would suggest anyone else interested in either of the books do the same. Christless Christianity, while an excellent book in it's own right, leans toward a bleak picture without The Gospel-Driven Life to balance it. Of course, if you have heard anything about the duology, you know that's sort of the idea.

Christless Christianity is Michael Horton's diagnosis and prognosis of the state of the Christian church in America. Going into painful detail, he presses in on the places where the church has shifted its focus from God's activity to ours, from Christ as Savior to Christ as coach, from the transforming Good News to our own transformed lives.

Horton says that our narcissism has taken the form of what has been coined "moralistic, therapeutic deism", but he suggests that, at its core, it is simply a repackaged Pelagianism. He calls it "the default setting of the human heart: the religion of self-salvation".

While Horton seems uncomfortably spot on through much of the book, I imagine every reader will find a critique with which they might disagree (or in the case of the fans of Joel Osteen, an entire chapter). Also placed under the microscope are the Emergent Church, fundamentalism and the religious left and right, but his diagnosis is so often returning to the Gospel message that it is hard to argue against it.

While Michael's writing style flows well and moves at a good pace, there was one thing that made this book a slightly harder read: 260 pages were broken up between only seven chapters. I know this is a bit of a juvenile complaint, but long chapters just make a book feel longer.

Christless Christianity is sharp critique of the state of the modern church, and I imagine that no one can walk away from this book perfectly unscathed. However, it is well-reasoned and -argued, and the cuts it makes seem to be the necessary and precise cuts of a surgeon.

If Christless Christianity was Michael Horton's diagnosis of the Christian church, The Gospel-Driven Life is his prescription. Using the lingo of the news room, Michael argues in his sequel that the church needs to reorient to the "Good News" as central to our faith and practice.

Where the former book was bleak, this book is hopeful. The book is split into two halves, the first focuses on getting the elements of the Gospel straight and the second details what sort of a community the true Gospel creates (what he calls a "cross-cultural community" and, yes, pun intended). Horton memorably says that we need to get back to "Drama, Doctrine, Doxology, Discipleship", themes that continually recur throughout the book.

In contrast with the narcissism and Pelagianism that Horton diagnosed as the church's primary problems in Christless Christianity, he offers this as the solution: "The gospel makes us extroverts: looking outside ourselves to Christ in faith and to our neighbor in love."

Again, as in Christless Christianity, Michael is sure to ruffle everyone's theological feathers at some point. For me it came when (I felt) he overstated his case for the sacraments and the inclusion of the believers' children under the new covenant. Still, when it is so relentlessly couched in Gospel, I am more inclined to consider Michael's position, and this is one of the greatest strengths of the book.

I wholeheartedly recommend both of these books to every Christian, but particularly to those involved in church leadership.

This book was a free review copy generously provided by Baker Books.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spiritual Dyspraxia

I must admit I do feel a bit of pressure in starting to write for this blog. Fallen pride means I enter into this wanting to be liked, for my ideas and efforts to be appreciated though not necessarily celebrated. Oh the vanity of life! (c.f. Ecclesiastes 1:2). The pressure comes with wanting to start with a bang. So I struggled in thinking of the subject of my first post, as if there was something I could do about it. Then whilst reflecting over my reading in recent months I have come to appreciate that deeper knowledge of God is a wonderful thing, yet we are indebted to do something with the knowledge we attain. Then I finally came to rest on the tagline for the blog: ‘From orthodoxy to orthopraxis’. In so doing I came to dwell on praxis and just what an interesting word it is.

Praxis derives from the Greek πραξις (doing, a way of acting) and like so many other words contains was utilised by the ancient Greek philosophers to great effect to encapsulate a concept. Aristotle spoke of the three basic actions of man each followed by the next: theoria, poiesis and praxis. Theoria (derived from θεωία, contemplation) relates to the pursuit of truth, leading to poiesis relating to the production of something (from ποιέω, to make) which finally culminates in praxis, or action. That, I guess, is the charge of this blog: literally the correct action.

Clinically and neuropsychologically the term praxis is utilised in a slightly different way from Aristotle. Praxis in this sense is the ability to produce complicated and sequenced actions, which may for instance include dressing or cooking. These actions are often considered key to living as an independent adult. The concept of praxis – the ability to perform complicated actions - is so key that it forms one of the seven core cognitive functions (clinically speaking).

Patients lack nothing of the basic abilities needed to perform complex tasks – they do not lack strength, the ability to move limbs, coordination or even the ability to understand what it is they are asked to do. They are even able to perform basic actions that constitute more complex ones. What they lack is the sequencing of those actions into some product or meaningful action. Their product falls woefully short of their intentions; they do not lack ability, just final product. They are, unfortunately, ineffective. This diversion illustrates what I understand the purpose of this blog to be: Christianity is ultimately about action. We can eulogise about theologians we like or impress others with our extensive knowledge of God or even which blogs we read, yet these are of little value unless put into action. We can have all the constituent parts of a life lived conspicuously for Christ, yet neglect the sequencing of it into a tangible action - an action conducive to spiritual life. The warning here is of spiritual dyspraxia. An ineffective Christian is devastating. Yes, let us rejoice in the great depths of knowledge God allows to have of Himself; yes let us be encouraged in engaging conversation with other Christians; but authentic Christianity should never theoria without its poiesis and praxis - a theological praxis. So it is with God and the Apostle John I finish and surely there is no greater bang than that:

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Note to Readers Who Get Here through Facebook

There are now nine total contributors to Christians in Context: me (Andrew), Norm, Damian, Jared, Jeff, Jenny, Tom, Matt and Ian. Those of you who read our blog via RSS know who wrote each post because the author's name shows up at the top of your reader. Those who read it the old-fashioned way (you know, typing in the URL in the address bar of your browser and pressing enter- an outmoded, horrendously inefficient method that you should be ashamed of employing) presumably scroll to the bottom of the post, look in the little gray box, and see the byline.

But then there is that group of you who click in through facebook. We need to have a little chat.

Here's the thing: three of us (me, Norm, and Jared) have every post on this site, regardless of its author, automatically uploading into our facebook feeds. So when Ian posts, many of you see it on my facebook feed. That does not mean that I wrote it. To find out who did, scroll to the bottom of the post and look in the gray box.

Got it? Good.

Because judging by some of the comments on facebook and on here, some of you apparently were confused.

Glad we could clear that up.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturdays with C. S. Lewis - The First Job

"Some Saturday C. S. Lewis" was introduced and explained here. It's been awhile since I've put up a Lewis post. There is a good reason for this: I am lazy and disorganized. Your forgiveness will not go unappreciated. In any case, while I try to get back on the wagon, here is a well-known section from Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 8. I'm not totally convinced of his use of "Be perfect", but his point still stands, doesn't it?

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussing and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right though. He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, 'Be perfect,' He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder- in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad...

This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else. It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects- education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden- that is what the State is for....

In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

Friday, January 22, 2010

'Where Are You?' is God's Question in Christ

I wish to bring together two quite distinct moments in Scripture, one OT, one NT, in an effort to explore a strange question: how do we find our way back to creatureliness?

The first is Genesis 3.8-9. You know the story. The fruit of the tree has been eaten; A&E just kicked off the first clothing line on earth; God is heard walking in the garden, 'in the cool of the day', and his creatures, made in the image of God, scramble to hide. I just recently realised they scramble not, it seems, out of a sense of shame, but out of fear (3.10). I'll get back to that.

But here the main point I want to emphasise is this - God asks A&E a peculiar question: where are you? (3.9). Mind you the open theists generally do murder to this question. They bring out all that is evil in Calvinists, whilst Arminians can't help but act smug. Here's my two cents: settle down, you three. No one 'gets' this question by starting with a nuisance philosophical idea. For St. Augustine will have us see that this question is what invites us to confess, not first to analyse. That is, in where are you? divine justice is all mixed up with divine love: God is in search of man, and this seeks to expose more about us than it does about Him - though of course it tells us something about Him as well. This brings me, then, to the next time God is in search of man.

For this I turn to Luke 22.54-62, also well-known. This is the moment in Christ's Passion where St. Peter, very friend of God, confessor of the Christ, denies this Christ three times. We drop into the narrative at the moment the cock crows: 'And the Lord turned and looked at Peter' (22.61). The Lord turns and looks: why? I believe I have elsewhere expounded on this look, if not on this blog then somewhere! For what it's worth, I think Kierkegaard does a masterful job in his Works of Love to emphasise in what this look consists. Our purpose here is to draw Christ's look into the 'looking' God does for A&E in Genesis 3. Suppose the look of Christ asks Peter: where are you? What is the invitation to? What is being asked of Peter? What is being done for Peter? And for us by extension, now?

Well, here's my thought. Over the last few months I have been preoccupied with the strange idea that we humans are, well, not just humans, but creatures. We are all creatures created out of nothing, ex nihilo. For most of my Christian life, though, if I thought of creatureliness at all, I assumed I knew what it was. I 'presupposed' it, you could say, every time I spoke of 'man' or 'humanity' or read in St. John or St. Paul about 'the world' etc.

Yet after reading Augustine, and taking into consideration the challenge of confession which he points me to, I've had to abandon this facile presumption, and in the following way. I have come to see, in essence, that it is a hard thing to embrace our creatureliness. It is a hard thing, not least because it calls us forward into confession. It calls us forward, you could say, into a kind of existence that we do not always want to exist in. For my evidence, just look at A&E; just look at Peter.

Adam and Eve
After the episode with the serpent, A&E rush to put on fig leaves. When they hear the Lord, they hide among the trees in the garden. What are they doing? Maybe they are ashamed, sexually so - that's a legitimate reading. But note that it is not shame that Adam confesses, but fear. He was in fear of God, so he and Eve rushed to hide among the trees. No doubt they were afraid because of the one command they knew they broke. Bearing the image of God, they must have known, in so far as all the other animals shared no such command, that they possessed a kind of existence that was different. They were called to something different, an accountability you could say. But now look what they do: they rush into the garden, in fig leaves, and hide behind other creatures - trees - thus they try to 'blend in' with the rest of creation. What's this? They want to fade back in to the third or fifth day of creation. Not the sixth, the crowning day of creation. That would be to identify with the creature made in the image of God. That creatureliness is something to fear. It calls forth from us too much.

Peter
Now to Peter: the look of Christ follows upon three efforts on Peter's part to 'blend in' with the rest of the crowd. Not wanting to be identified as the disciple of Jesus Christ, Peter is content to throw away that friendship. No doubt he is afraid - as A&E in the garden, the Lord walking in the cool of the day to meet them, his friends, Adam says he was 'afraid' when he heard Him approach. Now with Peter, however, shame has also set in. Perhaps most of all, Peter is ashamed of the humanity of the man he recently confessed was the Christ. For we almost sense, in reading Gen. 3.10, that A&E don't really 'get it' when it comes to what they've done. They cannot feel the shame 'all the way down' - thus the ease with which they confess to God might strike us as rather naive and unfamiliar. Peter, however, knows his shame. He knows his shame because he sees His shame - the shame of the cross, on which the Christ, the very Son of God, is about to die. Peter knows his shame, the shame of creatureliness, because he sees it displayed and so carried in the one true representative of human creatures, the 'second Adam' - Jesus, the Christ. Peter does not want to identify with it. So Christ's look: where are you? So God's looking: where are you? This is the question that hangs over the door of our creatureliness.

And it is a burdensome question, to be sure. Remember, though: Christ as the 'true humanity' is Christ as the true image of God (Col. 1.15). We are called to find our way back to creatureliness - called, that is, for we only search because we are being sought. The 'looking' for us which Gen. 3.9 and Luke 22.61 reveal is what sustains our quest and draws us back. Christ draws us back, as Christ drew Peter back. With the 'looking' of God we find that God stands in the way of our lost sense of creatureliness, our lost place as God's friend. He holds that position in place, as it were, despite our hiding in fig leaves among the trees. He is not abandoning us. He looks for us, as He also shows us the way.

One final thought: God does not only ask 'where are you?' to us in the look of Christ, but He also allows Christ to ask that of Himself: on the cross, God's Son asks God the Father, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' (cf. Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34). This is finally a question put to God, which God Himself asks. I don't know if I can say much more about that. It will take me eternity, I'm afraid, to grasp what it might mean.

But the road back to our creatureliness: does it not begin with a question?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith

In the The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith addresses many of the "false narratives" that Christians believe about themselves and God. These narratives (such as "I change by my own willpower", "God is angry with me" or "God blesses me when I'm good and punishes me when I'm bad") shape the way believers live their Christian life and can quickly lead to failure and disillusionment. Speaking of Jesus' teachings and parables, Smith suggests "If we adopt Jesus' narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow". In other words, orthodoxy in the believer will lead to orthopraxy.

I liked the premise of the book and more than a few of his corrective narratives (I hope you can tolerate that word, by the way, he uses it a lot). I think he pinpointed many of the imbalanced views that many Christians have of God and made some good arguments from a counter-narrative.

However, I was disappointed at a couple of points with the seeming lack of balance in his counter arguments. While the false narratives he addresses are caricatures of God (exaggerations that are popular because they are at least somewhat true) it seems his corrective narratives could also be caricatures on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you are turning the magnifying glass on the bad theology (and thus bad orthopraxy) of some Christians, you better be ready to have the magnifying glass turned on your theology as well.

I noticed this particularly in the area of mankind's sin. As I hear more about the idea of "therapeutic moralistic deism", I see more of it's influence in the way people talk about their sin. For instance: "God does not want us to sin, and God does want us to do well. But that is only because sin harms us, and acts of goodness are healing both to us and to the recipients of our goodness" or "God hates sin because it hurts his children". I would suggest that God hates sin and doesn't want his children to sin primarily because of who He is (holy, righteous, and the One whose image we bear) and not because of what it does to us.

I also had a couple red flags go up in the chapter entitled "God Is Holy". While he had some very interesting things to say about God's wrath as being pathos and not passion, he also said that God's wrath is a temporary and just verdict on sin and evil. Smith also says, "Hell is simply isolation from God. A person—even a person others think of as decent and upright—who rejects God is experiencing hell on earth". Neither of those sound like the narrative I read from Jesus.

While I do have a couple concerns about the ideas of sin and hell that Smith suggests as a correction to "false narratives", he overall has given us a worthwhile read on spiritual formation. In the end, he does have a lot of good (and beautiful) things to say about our God. I know . . . that was terrible.

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Prophets of Vain Hope

Every time I read a passage like Jer. 23:16-17, I tremble a little bit:
    Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, "It shall be well with you"; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, "No disaster shall come upon you."'
Elsewhere the Lord indicates with sobering clarity what such "prophets" can expect in return from Him.

Eugene Peterson articulated the image of today's American evangelical pastor best when he called him "the chaplain of the culture." The pastor is the man who presides over your marriage, visits you when you're sick, preaches comforting sermons, and calls you when your mother dies. None of these things are wrong and all of them are useful, but they are also all harmless.

The Bible has no such category for any leader of God's people. The prophet who refuses to confront sin (and thus, the sinners who commit it) faces the same judgment as the one who himself sins. "Confrontational"- is this a word that you associate with "pastor"?

I suspect that it is not. Perhaps it is because we are too concerned with church growth to confront sinners. Perhaps it is because the ultimate value of the American religion is tolerance. Perhaps, more simply, it is just so personally difficult to tell someone that he is wrong.

Whatever the reason, pastors need to read and re-read passages like the one above and remind ourselves that our job description is not to make sure that people are in the seats on Sundays- it is to lead them into deeper relationship with the one and only Lord and God. That Lord hates sin because he loves his people, and he will not stand idly by while you or I let them go on with their idolatry as if it didn't matter.

The non-confrontational pastor is the modern day prophet of vain hope. Vanity. Uselessness. Futility. These are words that I pray will never be associated with my ministry. Will it be associated with yours?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Edinburgh calling...

As the newest member of the CiC team and the first international member, I thought it appropriate that I say a few words by way of introduction. In case you're wondering how it is a Brit (well, an Englishman anyway; I'll probably never explain the difference) comes to be on the team, well, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Ian, one of my great friends in Edinburgh and at our church Charlotte Chapel. The photo is poor but it's all I have at the minute (but there is a great story behind it).

By way of biography I am a doctor living and working in Edinburgh, UK but originally hail from Oxford. I trained in Edinburgh gaining a BSc in Neuroscience in 2004 and finally my medical degrees in 2007. Since then I have been working for the National Health Service (NHS) and have specialised into internal medicine and intend to head into neurology in about 18 months time. I was raised in a loving atheist family, but was called by God seven years ago (almost exactly). Honestly, I have struggled with faith at various times along my pilgrimage, but God in His eternal grace continues to guide and direct me towards the image of His Son. I started out with a many rough edges, which are gradually been hewn from me into some semblance of spiritual stability. What stage I am at in this I am not sure, but Christ calls me to continue forging ahead regardless. What I do know is that I love God, Jesus, the Spirit and the Bible.

My interests are largely unsurprising: neuroscience, neurology, apologetics and mind-brain issues. God-willing I will eventually head into part-time academia with research into perception and cognition and aspects of personhood and consciousness. I am, in effect, a frustrated scientist at heart, but it has given me direction for future ministry and I'll briefly explain why.

In the early days of my faith I was concerned with the intellectual consequences of belief in Christ. I was scared by quotes such as:

"Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It's not - it's a failure to expain, a shrug of the shoulders, an 'I dunno' dressed up in spirituality and ritual..." Quoted from "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins (pg 161).

I was scared by the big bad wolf. There was a strange tension in my belief - I was torn between sheer joy in the forgiveness of sins and the merciful grace of God, but yet I was uneasy. It felt that years of academic striving would cease and that despite the joy of forgiveness I would never fulfill my meagre intellectual ambitions or desires. Unfortunately, there was some pride in this - the almost Greek tragedy-esque example of a man giving up everything he may achieve for love. After all who wouldn't want to be Hector? God, however, does not demand intellectual impoverishment - no He drives us towards the full knowledge of Himself through science. I stand full square beneath the theological giants (always wary of idolatry) of Alister McGrath, John Lennox, John Stott and more latterly John Wyatt. These men have greatly shaped my view of science and theology and what we may achieve through it.

Furthermore, the men referenced above galvanised my faith - or rather God did it through them - and helped me grow in my love for God. Here were men steadfast in their faith in God, yet developed cogent, powerful reasons for God and His existence and how science does not lead us away from God. Moreover, it gave me the bravery and strength to confess 'ABBA Father'. In Christ we have no foes and no fears. That been said, as helpful as other brothers and sisters are for our walk with Christ, God Himself does not leave us ill-equipped. I'll conclude my ramblings with the verse that strengthens me day-to-day:

"What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9.

There is no question we can ask that God cannot answer. There is no greater encouragement than that. I thank you brothers and sisters for joining me on this journey. Praise and glory be His forever and ever.

The Institutes: Book I, Chapter III

Chapter III of Book I of Calvin's Institutes: "The Knowledge of God Has Been Naturally Implanted in the Minds of Men."

Calvin's point in this short chapter is that humans are naturally religious. He says that a certain type of divine knowledge has been "inscribed" or "implanted" in our hearts, so much so that no matter how primitive a people group you could locate, they would have some knowledge of the divine in their hearts. Calvin says that even man's constant idolatry is proof of this--why else would haughty man be so eager to continuously set up something higher than himself to worship?

Calvin acknowledges that religion has from time to time been imposed upon people to gain an advantage over them, but says that this would never have been successful were it not for the natural tendency and innate need to worship. So strong is this need for worship, so real the knowledge of a transcendent God, that even those who ardently deny God's existence express great fear and dread of suffering his wrath.

Calvin finishes by saying that this innate knowledge of the divine and the need to worship, implanted in us, is what sets us above the beasts.

I'm not sure what to make of this chapter of The Institutes. As was mentioned with the last chapter, we need to be sure to read this one in the context of what is coming after, specifically as Calvin moves from describing man in his primitive (pre-fall) state and into describing man's relationship to God now, after sin and chaos have entered the scene. With that said, Calvin isn't merely trying to describe man in his purity here, as evidenced by his references to the pagans who have knowledge of God as part of their nature. As it relates to this discussion, I can't help but wonder whether or not it is proper for us to describe man's lack and corruption as an innate "knowledge of God." That is, I'm not sure that the answer is implied in the questions man asks about the world, life, and existence. It seems that Calvin assumes, however, that this is the case.

I also think it is questionable to refer to man's religious nature as evidence that all people have innate knowledge of God. Do we see someone worshiping an idol and claim that this person has knowledge of God? Is it right to call this idol "God," if we mean to refer to the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ?

Of course, there is a way to save Calvin from this condemnation. We can understand him as a Christian theologian with a theological starting point, explaining man's religiosity and idolatry in light of the revelation of God and man effected in Jesus Christ. If this is the case, although Calvin appears to be starting from the bottom up and moving from man to God in this chapter, it would probably be better to see him as assuming the biblical witness and explaining the phenomena of man's existence with a theological or Christological starting point. From what we know of Calvin, I'm quite certain at this point that this is how we should interpret him.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Animism, Creationism, and Worldview: Chris Faris on Avatar

A bit of insight from my brother's excellent review of Avatar (emphasis mine):
    Spirituality is also a big component of the film. Like the believability of Cameron’s visual world where things look like ours but aren’t the same, the spiritual connection he strives for is Pandoran but it borrows from a lot of animism. The trees, animals and flowers all seem to have souls and spirits. It is perplexing to me that people find a spirit inside nature but somehow are closed off to the idea that nature points to its actual Creator. Granted, the people and world of “Avatar” are made up, but we are kidding ourselves if we don’t recognize that all creative endeavors inherently express some type of worldview.
As for his thoughts on the movie as a whole, here is his conclusion:
    It would be unfair to say that “Avatar” is like a beautiful woman with no brains, because “Avatar [sic] is not a garbage film. “Avatar” is just an average film. No amount of visual pop and creative 3D can overcome how tired the story felt. How could I be held in suspense if the ending was in plain sight before it happened? How am I supposed to care about the characters if they feel like stereotypes that have little depth? And seriously, do you really expect me to buy into a love story between an alien and a human (complete with a brief sex scene)? Sci-fi and fantasy enthusiasts may get more out of the experience than I did, but once was enough for me.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Review: Word Pictures by Brian Godawa

If there has been one publisher in the last year that has been an absolute delight to work with, it has InterVarsity Press. Their generosity in review material and eager participation in our blogging efforts have made this relationship a joyful surprise. And if one author has likewise been a joyful surprise, it has been one from their roster, Brian Godawa.

Brian's second book, Word Pictures (much like his first, Hollywood Worldviews), is intelligent, well-reasoned and compelling (which is somewhat ironic given his subject matter). He suggests that, while the Bible is chock-full of narrative, the European Enlightenment introduced a new paradigm of truth and knowledge that demanded a foundation solely on rationalism and empiricism and Christian thinking quickly followed suit. "The study of theology and apologetics" he proposes, "turned from the narrative text to the factual event behind the text. It's almost as if the biblical narrative became eclipsed by the pursuit of factual empirical verification of the text; a modern scientific obsession". In two early chapters (which also happen to the titles) he contrasts the "Word Versus Image" forms of communication and the "Literal Versus Literary" forms of interpretation.

But the book truly hits stride when Godawa starts talking about the idea of subversion. In subversion, the narrative, images and symbols of one system are discreetly redefined or altered in the new system. Using Acts 17, a chapter often cited in rational apologetics discussions, he argues that Paul was undermining Stoicism, subverting it through the Christian worldview. As Brian describes, "Paul is subverting their concept of God by using common terms with a different defintion that eventually undermines their entire narrative. He begins with their conventional understanding of God but steers them eventually to his own".

If there's one thing I did not like about the book, it was a couple of aesthetic choices. There were pictures scattered throughout, supposedly to support the argument for image, but they were mostly distracting and some were quite arbitrary. Also, each chapter was printed in a different font to accent how "the very art of typography itself influences the way we think". However, the only accent for me was how annoying different fonts in a book can be. In fact, it made one chapter almost unreadable. There is a reason, after all, why most publishers stick with a very few fonts for the body text of their books.

Aside from those few gripes, however, the book was a pleasure to read and a worthy follow up to Hollywood Worldviews. The idea of subversion in our culture was a fascinating concept and one I had not heard articulated before. This idea of subversion carries the second half of the book and I could barely put it down from that point on. It seems clear that subversion is taking place whether Christians are the ones weilding it or not (I had not considered that The Matrix may be an intentional subversion of Christian themes for New Age ideas). As Brian suggests, "We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ".

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

Friday, January 15, 2010

1 John 1:5-10 (Scripture Notebook)

Father of Lights, in whom there is no shadow or variation, please shine the Light of Your Holy Spirit upon our hearts and minds this day so that we may in every way comprehend what You have spoken through Your Son, and through the apostles and the prophets. We desperately need your quickening power to show us our failings and simultaneously reveal yourself as our Savior and strength in our time of need. O Shepherd of our souls, guide us into the green pastures that you have provided for us this day. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

"This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all."
(NASB)

Let it not be thought that the "Word of Life" is without content and that it cannot be communicated. For all it's identity with the Son of God incarnate, it remains something that can be proclaimed by human heralds (at least with the hope of a deeper communication taking place, which humans are powerless to supply). The content of this message is to be stated to people plainly and clearly--"God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all." The coming of the Word of Life into the world provides material content to all utterances of God--He is Light! It also provides material content to all utterances of humans--we are in darkness! Though the Son of God has come in the flesh (vere homo), there is no sense in which he provides a commendation of us as we are. Rather, he reveals us for the first time as the sinners that we are.

If we say that we have fellowship with Jesus and yet walk in darkness, we have only shown that we are still in darkness. The most pressing question for a solid hearing of this passage is this--what is it to "walk in darkness"? What is it that we can do (or not do) that causes us to be 'liars'? If the coming of the Light reveals that we are in darkness, how is it that we remain in the darkness? More importantly, how may we truly enter the Light? Is this even possible?

The passage goes on to show that, paradoxically enough, we only enter the Light when we embrace (in a certain sense of the word) our reality as those in the darkness. The one who is condemned here and remains in darkness is the one who claims fellowship and claims to have no sin. On the other hand, the one who is in the Light is the one who never claims to be without sin, but "confesses" her sins. This continual place of confessing, this relational location that can only be described in terms of faith and repentance, is equivalent to "walking in the Light as He Himself is in the Light." This human response of faith and repentance is accompanied by the covenant blessings of "walking in the Light" and having "fellowship with one another."

One of the great and recurrent heresies found within the church is the notion that man has somehow come to stand on his own two feet before God--even as the "redeemed man!" This type of theology can only represent a return to darkness.

Let us close with the second question from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?

A. Three things:
first, how great my sin and misery are;
second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery;
third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.


Keep close watch on the third thing--it isn't the graduation beyond the first and the second, but the humble and grateful acknowledgment of the liberation found in Christ.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

We Are Michael Scott

Some of my favorite lunchtime conversations over the past few years have consisted of finding counterparts for the characters in The Office in my very own workplace or circle of friends. Little do my fellow church staff members and friends know, but I have indulged this ridiculous impulse with various people. So one week you are helping me find out whether so-and-so is Angela or Kelly and the next week I am with someone else, making the emphatic claim that you are Dwight Schrute! It is quite shameful, really.

So while many of the variables in this equation change due to the fact that I am a spineless, two-faced turncoat, one factor remains constant: I am Jim Halpert. The reasons for this are obvious: I'm good looking, cool, I have a hot wife, and most of all, I am surrounded by idiots. I could never be Andy Bernard: that guy is such a tool, and definitely not intelligent enough to be my analogue. Dwight? No, he's too dark. I'm a nice guy. Michael Scott? "Woe to those who put darkness for light and light for darkness"!

I'm sure that all those who know me would emphatically agree with my self-assessment, right? I am certain that in their private musings, most of my colleagues would crown me with the coveted title of Jim Halpert. I just cannot see it any other way. And therein lies the problem with my watching of The Office! My viewing is incredibly self-righteous in that I put myself in the place of the hero and judge my fellows with the most scathing criticisms (who can deny that terming a colleague 'Kevin' in this context would be tantamount to murder?). While everyone in my circle is subjected to the harshest judgment, I remain immune, glancing to the camera every now and again with a look that mixes mockery, incredulity, and indifference. Kind of like this:


Unfortunately, all of this demonstrates all too well the way I often read the Bible or sit through (or prepare) a sermon. While some texts don't allow this at all (thankfully), far too often other texts have their stinging applications and appropriations elided in favor of something that is more favorable to my ego. How often do I not even consider the fact that I am the bad guy in the text? Do I read the gospels and constantly see myself addressed as one of the Pharisees? Of course not! I am the widow with her two mites or Peter who, while somewhat addicted to chewing on his foot, is still one of Jesus' closest disciples. But me, Judas? It just could not be.

What I am trying to say is this: our reading of the Bible and listening to and preparing sermons (and even our watching of The Office) would be much more profitable--and much more Christian, for that matter--if we put ourselves in the place of the villains just a bit more often. Imagine how much better your boss would be if he could just see, once and for all, that he is Michael Scott! The problem is, he probably watches The Office in precisely the same way you do. Besides, this misses the point. The point is for me to realize that I am Michael Scott (and Andy and Dwight, too).

By the way, I do think New Testament scholar Edwyn C. Hoskyns (The English translator of Barth's Romans) has a little book of lectures on reading the Bible that touches on this topic. It's called We are the Pharisees.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Obama and the Black Psyche

Evangelicals never miss an opportunity to be outraged about something, but we do often miss opportunities to rejoice. That is quite sad. Here's something to rejoice over today:

The number of blacks in this country that are optimistic about their place in society has nearly doubled since before Barack Obama came into office, even though the honeymoon is certainly over by this time. You can read about the poll here or listen to an NPR segment here.

This is something that whites (and for God's sake, white Christians!) should be happy about. It doesn't mean that we rest on our laurels (as if we had any), but it should bring us some joy and some relative measure of hope.

One of the most powerful human capacities, gained through analogy or imagination, is empathy. One component of loving your neighbor is empathizing with them. It is a shame for us as Christians when we fail to empathize with the oppressed.

I remember when I got just an inkling of what Obama could mean for the black psyche. I was driving through one of the most impoverished mostly-black areas of Los Angeles (many whites who live within half an hour or so have never even been) when I saw a huge billboard that looked like this:


(This was, understandably, different from the posters that I had seen in my more suburban context; it was wise of the campaign to keep these Che Guevara-esque posters out of my part of town!)

It was this event (which was a series of events and relationships, really) that brought me into touch just a tiny bit with the meaning that the election of a black president could have for people's souls. I rejoice today knowing that it has done at least something to make some of my fellow humans feel that they are taken seriously as such.



Karl Barth on "Bureaucracy"

I'm currently reading through the Church Dogmatics III.2, Barth's theological anthropology. It has been incredibly edifying (as KB nearly always is). I came across a wonderful little snippet in one of the many excurses and thought I would pass it along. Barth has already at this point established Christology as the basis of anthropology and has now moved from analyzing the humanity of Jesus to explicating how it is that other humans share in this same humanity. Humanity's "basic form" is that of a being in encounter with it's fellow humans. The statement "I am" that man can utter has an immanent "Thou art" embedded within it. One of the ways Barth fleshes out the encounter with his fellow men in which man has his being is by saying that "Being in encounter is a being in which one man looks another man in the eye" (250). Why this as the epitome of man's encounter? Because it is here that man must both see and be seen. Without being consumed by one another, both men are open for one another. There is a sense of both men giving themselves to one another in the encounter. Barth says:

"It is a great and solemn and incomparable moment when two men look themselves in the eye and discover one another. This moment, this mutual look, is in some sense the root-formation of all humanity without which the rest is impossible. But it is to be noted again that in the strict sense it can take place only in duality, as I and Thou look one another in the eye" (251-252).

Not all participation of human beings has this character of eye-to-eye encounter. There is an interaction in which man is not open to his fellow man. What is it?

"Bureaucracy is the form in which man participates with his fellows when this first step into mutual openness is not taken, and not taken because duality is evaded for the sake of the simplicity of a general consideration and a general programme. Bureaucracy is the encounter of the blind with those whom they treat as blind. A bureau is a place where men are grouped in certain classes and treated, dismissed or doctored according to specified plans, principles and regulations....A bureau does not have to be an office. Many a man unwittingly sits and acts all his life in a private bureau from which he considers how to treat and dismiss men according to his private plans, and in the process he may never see the real men and always be invisible to them" (252).

We all know too well the public bureau that is some type of a necessary evil in which we are treated as part of a general class and perhaps dismissed as such. We also know too well the tendency in ourselves or others to "consider how to treat and dismiss men...according to [our] private plans." When we do this we treat our fellow humans as objects and not a genuine Thou who is an I like us. In doing so, we fail to live as humans, according to Barth, and are actually scarily similar to the depiction of Nietzsche given just a few pages prior (231-242). He who has eyes to see, let him see.

(Pardon all the gender-biased language. It's hard to break free after just reading heaps of Barth).



Thanks, Facebook

A couple days ago I changed my Facebook headline to read:

J.D. Greear: "Saying 'Preach the gospel; if necessary use words' is like saying 'Tell me your phone number; if necessary use digits.'"

I got much more feedback on that thought (someone else's thought, mind you) than I expected, and have spent some significant time fielding challenges. So, since I spent a fair amount of time writing over there, and since I haven't posted any original thoughts over here in a bit, I thought I'd share my latest response with you. In case you hadn't noticed, my title is also my prediction for what you're thinking right now.

I make no attempt to dismiss the good of other religions (chuck). I freely admit that many religions motivate people to be better, try harder, and better society for all involved.

But, my point remains, when talking of the Gospel, the "good news" of Christianity, the main idea is not the improvement of the individual or the society (though this should and must be a natural result of the Gospel properly understood).

The Gospel is centrally about the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ objectively at a point in history past to repair the rift between man and God for all who would believe in him.

And while loving action did come first at times in the biblical accounts (as Amy pointed out), this was not a prescriptive model for us and the proclamation of the Gospel as often came first (the woman at the well, or most of Paul's ministry). Of course, I am not suggesting that the first thing you should ever say to every person you meet are the Gospel details, but you must get there!

As I have seen so often, Christians try to preach the Gospel without words and the people they are loving never end up hearing the truth. In fact, I've been involved in conversations where people are shocked when they find out someone is a Christian because, while a nice person, this person has never so much as hinted at the Gospel as the reason they behave so.

In fact, as an outside observer (if I am correct in characterizing you so), Chuck unwittingly has pointed out the problem with thinking we simply preach the Gospel by the way we live. Many religions improve the lot of humanity, and we are fooling ourselves if we think that Christians are living such superior lives as a group that people will be saved by us.

After all, what is the "power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes"? Our compelling lives? Our good deeds? Our far superior moral character? (Note my sarcasm) Certainly we must back up what we say with how we live. We must live out the Gospel and let it take root daily in our lives. And much of the apostolic writings are there to accomplish just that.

But we must get over ourselves. We will never live differently enough to save people. There is no power for salvation within how my (or anyone else's) life is lived.

"I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who belives".

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Religion Made Private Makes Wrong

Once again, Mr. Ross Douthat over at the NY Times is guilty of subverting the status quo of most today's news/opinion columns. I think this is a really good read, folks. Not that challenging the modern liberal privatisation scheme is anything wildly new: American Christians (I hope) are well aware of how problematic this notion of 'private religion' is, whatever end of the severely limited political spectrum they happen to fall on. Then again, tough-and-stuck issues bear repeating. While the incident Douthat employs as a launching pad does not really trouble me in itself, I'm quite in agreement over his challenge to the late-liberal ideology that strives to starve religion by excluding it from the public domain and exchange of ideas. Figuring out how it 'fits in' is, however, another matter entirely.

It just so happens I finished a book recently called The Theological Origins of Modernity. While I'm not sure Michael Gillespie says anything new - indeed, I'm somewhat surprised he thinks he has! - he does draw attention to a lot of important history. In fact I would encourage CiC readers to check it out. It's well written, accessible, and drives home the following crucial point: modern Western societies, and the USA in particular, owe a debt to their history. They owe a debt in terms of theoretical principles as well as political institutions they hold dear. This debt is (no surprise) substantially due to the theological developments within the Christian tradition, and in its interaction with and appropriation of the classical and Hebraic traditions. How this debt is to be paid or recognised, of course, is a matter of much dispute. The recent work of Charles Taylor and Mark Lilla, Oliver O'Donovan and John Milbank (to name but a few contemporaries!), plus the legacy of George Grant before them, all come to overlapping but somewhat different conclusions. And yet, that the debate is even happening should mean a great deal to us pastors and theologians and laypersons and citizens (i.e. everyone). It is imperative that this generation think about how its Christian faith is a political faith - which it is; and how the language of the Christian faith matters for how we express it - which it most certainly does.

I'm glad for Ross Douthat. I'm glad for his understanding of Christian faith as political in nature. But where do we go from there? I take my cues from the likes of Gillespie et al: we start by relearning our own history.

Theologian trading cards, anyone?

Book Review: The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges

In The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges again addresses the idea of Christian sanctification, or as he has popularly called it, "the pursuit of holiness". In the spirit and vein of Puritan author John Owen, Bridges presents both a defense for and practical approach toward Christian sanctification that is both motivated and tempered by the grace of God. While not a new book (it was first published in 1994), the subject matter is anything but old and outdated.

This book is one of balances, which is fitting. After all, writing about sanctification can teeter between legalism on the one hand and unbiblical liberality on the other. But by remaining close to the council of Scrpiture, Bridges seems to have found the middleground. A balance between God's role and our role in the pursuit of holiness (as the subtitle suggests). A balance between the grace of God and the effort of the believer. The balance between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Christian in sanctification.

One of the central ideas that Bridges constantly returns to is that we must preach the Gospel to ourselves every day (in fact, it is the title of one of his earlier chapters). This, in fact, is the only way that a Christian avoids both liscence and legalism in the pursuit of holiness. The Gospel properly understood and preached every day kills liscence with the loving sacrifice of Christ and legalism with the grace of the cross.

As the title suggests, The Discipline of Grace draws together ideas that may seem at odds, but under the Gospel find a balance. This balance is greatly needed in Christianity today, and this book makes a needed contribution.

This book was a free review copy provided by NavPress.

Monday, January 11, 2010

My Awards Show Has A First Name, It's O-S-C-A-R

One little game I like to play to pass the time is called “If I Was . . .” For instance, I might ask myself “If I was a contestant on American Idol and it was country music week, what would be my song choice?” and then ponder the answer (it’s currently a tie between Gillian Welch’s “Barroom Girls” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”)

Today I’m going to play, “If I was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which ten movies would I want nominated for Best Picture?” Here are my picks:

(500) Days Of Summer: Much to the chagrin of “Star Wars” fans, “Annie Hall” took home the Oscar for Best Picture of 1977. Perhaps a kinder and slightly less neurotic version of this movie could win the award this year. I think I may have enjoyed "(500) Days Of Summer" more than any other film this year. It masterfully combined whimsy (French film spoofs, a dance number set to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”, a clever time shifting script, a glorious blue wardrobe for Zooey Deschanel) and reality (trips to Ikea, unrequited love, bonding over 80’s TV shows, thinking someone is your soul mate because you share random common interests.) For all its silliness and style, I thought it captured single life in your late 20’s more accurately and thoughtfully than any movie I’ve seen recently. Brilliant.

Adam: Romantic movies are tough. For every “When Harry Met Sally”, there are hundreds like “Message In A Bottle”, “The Mirror Has Two Faces”, and “Love Happens.” That’s why I was so pleased at the amount of solid romantic movies released this year and “Adam” is right at the top of the list. A New York love story between a preschool teacher and a man with Asperger's syndrome could have very easily slipped into Lifetime territory. Instead, this beautiful little film showed the actual process of developing a meaningful relationship through empathy and patience (something we rarely get to see in romances.) I sobbed all the way out of the theater.

Bright Star: Ladies, do you prefer your moody, heartbreaking, and slightly obsessive romances with less vampires and more doomed 19th century poets? May I suggest Jane Campion’s lovely “Bright Star”? It’s a gorgeous and slow building tale of the ill-fated love between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. And if you haven’t spent all your tears on “Adam”, I guarantee that you will weep. A lot. The movie is masterfully shot, the acting is superb, and it convinced me that there are few things men can do that are more attractive than gathering together to sing a cappella. Seriously guys, go out and join your local a cappella group.

The September Issue: This could have been a very dishy doc. After all, the subject was Vogue editor Anna Wintour (the alleged inspiration for ice queen Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada.”) However, the movie wisely stays away from gossip and focuses instead on the remarkable process of producing Vogue’s famed September issue. It was a celebration of creativity and introduced me to the fantastic work of creative director Grace Coddington.

Every Little Step: A swell documentary about casting the Broadway revival of “A Chorus Line.” It’s 100 times better than the actual musical and one of my personal favorites of the year. I’ve seen it three times and would watch it right now if I could.

La Danse: This one might be a bit of a hard sell. It’s three hours long. And features almost nothing but dancing from the Paris Opera Ballet. And is almost entirely in French. But it was spellbinding. I thought I hated ballet until I saw this documentary. There was no background story, no exposition - just incredible dancers performing incredibly choreographed pieces. And it was super to see an established ballet company fully embracing modern dance. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: I’m a big DIY fan and my home is littered with craft projects, the latest being a color wheel wreath made out of embroidery floss. Slick, computer animated children’s movies always feel a bit sterile to me, which is why I loved Wes Anderson’s latest endeavor (the only Wes Anderson film I’ve loved.) “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is an arts and crafts fantasy – it’s like a diorama come to life, complete with miniature corduroy suits and explosions made of cotton balls. The dialogue was snappy, the soundtrack was outstanding (when was the last time you heard “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett?”) and I hope this movie (along with the excellent handmade “Coraline”) starts a trend in kids’ films.

Where The Wild Things Are: I feel that I was perhaps the only member of my generation not excited about this movie. First, I hated the book as a child. The fact that the plot centered on a disobedient boy whose mischief is rewarded with a grand adventure did not sit well with my very rule abiding six year old self. Second, it seemed too hip for its own good. Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, and Karen O. collaborating on a Generation X classic? With Lauren Ambrose and Paul Dano providing the voices? Would any second grader even want to see it? But it was outstanding. One of the most honest representations I’ve ever seen of what it’s like to be a kid, especially the maddening and terrifying lack of control. I don’t think I’ll be able to watch it again soon. But I’m glad I saw it.

Up In The Air: It appears that Jason Reitman can do no wrong. “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” were excellent, but “Up In The Air” is in a league all by itself. It manages to be both timely and classic, addressing the current American struggle with unemployment and the constant American struggle with individualism. And it’s convicting as anything. I mean, I’ve changed behavior in the past week based on conviction from seeing this movie.

The Informant!: Matt Damon is getting a lot of supporting actor buzz for his role in “Invictus”, but I hope that the Academy awards him for his super work in Steven Soderbergh’s dark comedy. And if Melanie Lynskey doesn’t get a nod for her performance in this film, maybe she can snag one for “Up In The Air” or “Away We Go.” Where hasn’t she been great? Anyway, the movie is hilarious, a little disturbing and makes you think. And Marvin Hamlisch’s score is perfect.

Honorable Mention: "Star Trek", "An Education", "It Might Get Loud", "The Soloist", "The Brothers Bloom", and "Anvil! The Story Of Anvil."

So those are my ten. What are your picks for Best Picture of the Year?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

How Theologians Praise God (Acc. to John Webster)

Quoth Dr. Webster, regarding how theology can be helpful:

"…only by recalling itself to its proper calling, which is the praise of God by crafting concepts to turn the mind to the divine splendor. But deeply important as they are, concepts are only serviceable as the handmaids of spiritual apprehension. (from “Life in and of Himself,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God, ed. Bruce McCormack, p. 123)"

Fred Sanders posted this quote here, with a fun remark about Webster from Kevin Vanhoozer to boot.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Dad is a Heretic

At least that's what some fundamentalist website thinks.

My favorite part is...well, uh, it's all too good for me to have just one favorite part actually. Please, go read it.

Then go read my Dad's blog, which is totally non-heretical

And in case you wondered, the "Hell isn't sexy enough anymore" quote from the heretic website is from the beginning of an article on the lack of preaching about hell in evangelical churches in the L. A. Times. My Dad, who by the way at one point preached an entire series on hell (indeed affirming its existence), talked with this reporter for hours and indeed did utter that sentence. But those five words are the only ones from the interviews that the reporter used.

Anyway, my Dad emailed me proudly today to let me know that he is now a real, living heretic. Isn't it great news?

Friday, January 8, 2010

1 John 1:1-4 (Scripture Notebook)

Gracious heavenly Father, you know that we are incompetent to see much more here than words on a page, sounds in our ears, or ideas in our heads. Will you open us to see Truth as He stands before us in this moment? May you continue to use this text as the location in which You reveal Your Son to us as you have done for your church for centuries. We are your people, the sheep of your pasture. Shepherd us, O God, and teach us to find rest for our weary souls in You.

Scripture Notebook on 1 John 1:1-4

Surely we ought to see this passage as speaking of 'The One Who was from the beginning' and not the benign, veiled 'What' of the NASB and other translations. This is important, for the text is not speaking of a 'what' in terms of a message, a fact, or a thing, but it is speaking of a 'Who' in terms of a person who can only be the Lord over all, Jesus Christ.

And He who is from the beginning, the Eternal One, the Living God, has been 'heard,' 'seen' and 'looked at,' and even 'touched with our hands'! The physical, objective character of the Living God is an astounding fact that we can only marvel at and worship before. This astounding passage can only be explained in terms of a Chalcedonian Christology that affirms the deity and humanity of Christ in dynamic union in Christ's person. Lest anyone think that this kind of talk becomes vain speculation, let us hasten on to the next fact: the Eternal God can only be referred to here in his connection with man. He is the "Word of Life." Jesus Christ is the Word. He is not the Word of Death, nor is He the Word of Information. He is rather, the "Word of Life." This means that God wills life--eternal life!--for us. The character of His identity as the "Word of Life" can only be explained by reference to the concrete events of His life, death and resurrection, wherein God's purpose for man was accomplished. To understand this pregnant statement, then, would take a trip far afield into the gospels and into Romans and, if we really were serious, back into the Old Testament, too.

This "Word of Life" can only (!) be proclaimed by the church. The power of proclamation should not be diminished in all zeal to be people of action. Indeed, our primary action, our most important task as the people of God is to be 'proclamation.' Certainly some will quickly object that our actions are proclamation. This may be true, but the emphasis should be first of all on the fact that our proclamation is an action. If we order the sequence this way, then we keep Christ's work as "The Act," rather than making our own actions (liberative, redemptive, merciful, etc.) primary.

Finally, we have to note that the reception of the proclamation (however this comes about!) can only be entrance into fellowship with both God and man. The entrance into the latter is always grounded in the former: the fellowship we have with one another is only by virtue of our new fellowship and partaking of the divine nature in Christ. Whatever understanding we want to have of Christian fellowship must begin with an understanding of the Trinitarian fellowship which precedes it and grounds it. Once we have some rough understanding of this fellowship, then and only then can we see something of what it means to be in fellowship with one another. Sadly, most Christian talk of 'fellowship' in recent years has begun with some vague and humanistic notion of cooperation and mutual interest and then an interpretation of 1 Cor 12 in a metaphorical fashion as a prooftext. This leaves the church impoverished, for our fellowship has much deeper roots than this.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Institutes: Book I, Chapter II

Book I: "The Knowledge of God the Creator."

Chapter II of Book I: "What It Is to Know God, and to What Purpose the Knowledge of Him Tends."


First off, Calvin makes the claim: knowing God is not merely knowing that there is a God, but is also means that we "grasp what benefits us and is proper to his glory....we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety." So Calvin wants us to know that when we deal with knowledge of God the Creator, it isn't merely knowledge of God's existence or power that constitutes true knowledge. Rather, true knowledge of God must be a knowledge that embraces God in love.

This is fascinating because Calvin goes on to say that he is not yet speaking of the sort of knowledge that we find as lost people who encounter God in Christ the Redeemer. That comes later. For now, he wants to limit himself to the knowledge of God as the good maker and sustainer of our lives. Interestingly, he says that this knowledge that he wants to speak of us not the knowledge that man after the Fall can have of God (that would be a redemptive knowledge through Christ) but he is speaking only of the knowledge that we would have been led to us human beings if Adam had not fell and we had remained 'upright.'

Perhaps I'm lurching forward too much in Calvin, but he is essentially speaking of what natural, human piety would look like apart from Christ--but although he doesn't come right out and say it at this point, it is just below the surface that what he is speaking about has never and will never exist. So while this passage could be read as a great description of the way in which man ought to embrace God even apart from Christ (via "general revelation"), I do believe that Calvin is going to be shortly demonstrating that this is a possibility that is no longer possible given our perverted and fallen natures.


At the same time, there may be something helpful here in coming to a definition of 'knowledge of God' or 'piety,' a definition that applies to the person post-redemption:

"I call "piety" that reverence joined with the love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him--they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him."

At the heart of this chapter is the notion that a knowledge of God must go beyond a scholastic knowledge of his 'nature.' In fact, it must even go beyond a fearful dread of punishment. It must be a knowledge of God in His care, nurture, and goodness. It must be a knowledge of these things firsthand and the reverence and delight that these occasion must be in full blossom. This is Calvin's definition of the 'knowledge of God.'

Again, I can anticipate where Calvin is going. He is setting up man as he ought to be so he can show man as he really is (law) and only then will he bring man a remedy for his situation (gospel). However, this approach and procedure brings me to wonder if Calvin has stayed true to what he said he would do at the end of chapter I. He said he would start with the knowledge of God and proceed to the knowledge of man second (keeping in mind that the two are not to be thought of separately). Has he done this? I ask because, while chapter II is called "What it is to know God," it seems to have a decidedly anthropological character. Further, this chapter does not really deal in biblical quotations or exegesis, but seems to be working with something like 'general revelation.' There are two ways of interpreting this approach: 1) Calvin is in reality starting with the revelation of God in Christ and this is his exercise in understanding that revelation (fides quarens intellectum), or 2) he really wants to lay a foundation for his theology with a general notion of man. It seems like the former possibility is much more likely.

Anyhow, that is probably enough on this chapter. What Calvin's doing and establishing here cannot be seen until we get deeper into the work.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Institutes: Book I, Chapter I

Book I is called "The Knowledge of God the Creator." Chapter I of Book I is: "The Knowledge of God and That of Ourselves Are Connected. How They Are Interrelated."

I suppose theology must have a place to start. The Institutes begin with human existence, but not human existence in abstracto, but human existence as it can only be lived: in indissoluble connection with the God who (as Karl Barth would say) does not will to be God without man. We have the God who is free to exist happily apart from man, but who wills from eternity not to exist in this way, and we have man who can never exist apart from God. This reality--God and man--is where Calvin begins his institutes.

There is something of an insoluble dialectic at work here that needn't be solved. Man needs knowledge of himself and knowledge of God, but how can he come to either? Apart from knowledge of himself, man can have no knowledge of God. (Note: the end, the goal is knowledge of God!) This is Calvin's presupposition which doesn't seem to be explained in any detail. It is merely stated. Now, according to Calvin there are two ways in which we may find a knowledge of God through self-knowledge. First, we might be able to look upon our endowments and, "led as rivulets to the spring itself," ascend to the knowledge of the God who gives these good gifts. Without much deliberation on this prospect, Calvin abandons this tack, in order to say that the real way to God is through an embrace of our poverty and ruin. Only when we see our desperate situation are we led to seek God.

The situation is not so simple, however, because there is no knowledge of self without the prior knowledge of God! As fallen, sinful people we run around in hypocrisy and we take our relative (!) goodness to be absolute goodness, declaring ourselves righteous and holy when we have no vantage point from which we can accurately make such declarations. Until we see God in his holiness, there is no way that we can see ourselves in our sinfulness. In Calvin's words:

"So it happens in estimating our spiritual goods. As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power--the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God."

The situation makes perfect sense: we can't have knowledge of God without knowledge of self, but we also can't have knowledge of self without knowledge of God. (Keep in mind, I don't think Calvin is speaking of some type of ontological knowledge here. He must be using the word "knowledge" in a much deeper, richer sense that this). Yes, it makes logical sense. But this doesn't answer the question: how is it possible?

The answer is this: it happens. It is real. It is possible because it happens. As those in more modern times have said, "what is actual is possible." The biblical witness shows us the reality of those who have been confronted by God and have come to knowledge of themselves in their poverty and God in His glory. Calvin speaks of Abraham, Elijah, Job, and Isaiah as the archetypes of this happening. It is the insoluble dialectic (pardon the term, I know it can be fraught with all kinds of weird meanings) that is the context of this happening of the knowledge of God. This happening is "revelation."

And so revelation comes upon man. This is the presupposition (nay, the reality) that theology must begin from. And this revelation is not information (primarily), it is the presence of the Living God. It has ramifications for man.

"Hence that dread and wonder with which Scripture commonly represents the saints as stricken and overcome whenever they felt the presence of God."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Robert Jenson on Philosophy and Theology


Robert Jenson, if I understand him aright, has something interesting to say about the relationship between theology and philosophy. Now, before we get on with his idea, let's look at some of the ways Christians (and especially Christian theologians) typically think about these things.

There are those who follow (in some vague sense):

Justin Martyr: Justin essentially says that the Greek Logos was identical with Jesus. So those of antiquity who were true to the measure of the Logos that they had received should be counted as Christians. This means that Socrates and Heraclitus are Christians (yes, Justin actually says this). Now these philosophers did not know the full revelation of the Logos which is fully present in Jesus Christ, but they were in some very real way acquainted with the Logos. It seems that Justin means to say that the Logos is present to all people in a very real way, and that the man Christ Jesus is the particular place in which this reality is most fully revealed. So for Justin, good philosophy is very seriously to be taken as divine revelation.

Clement of Alexandria: For Clement, philosophy performs essentially the same function for the Greeks as the Law performed for the Hebrews: it prepared the way for the revelation of Christ. I do not know enough of Clement to accurately expound his teaching on this matter, but I assume it would be something like this: the Law gave certain revelations of the nature of God, showed the people that God was holy, and led the people to see their need for God's redemptive work. In the same way, I assume he would say, philosophy proves the existence of God; shows us the holiness of God as we debate topics like justice, truth, goodness, and beauty; and finally, shows us even our own ultimate ignorance of the Logos or the deity and our need for further revelation. In Clement's mind, philosophy serves to lead a person to the place of receiving the revelation of Christ.

Tertullian: You have to admire Tertullian for going against the grain. Tertullian said that the use of philosophy within the church's theology could only lead to heresy. In his own words: "It is the same subjects which preoccupy both the heretics and the philosophers. Where does evil come from, and why? Where does human nature come from, and how?...What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem, between the Academy and the church? Our system of beliefs comes from the Porch of Solomon, who himself taught that it was necessary to seek God in the simplicity of the heart. So much the worse for those who talk of a "Stoic," "Platonic" or "dialectic" Christianity!"

Augustine: Augustine uses an Exodus metaphor for understanding the use of philosophy by Christian theology. He says that the Christian theologian can plunder pagan philosophy for what is useful in theology, while leaving behind that which is irredeemable. In de doctrina Christiana, he says "pagan learning is not entirely made up of false teachings and superstitions....It contains also some excellent teachings, well suited to be used by truth, and excellent moral values. Indeed, some truths are even found among them which relate to the worship of the one God....The Christian, therefore, can separate these truths from their unfortunate associations, take them away, and put them to proper use for the proclamation of the gospel."

Now, to use these four church fathers as representatives of modern approaches to this issue of theology and philosophy would obviously be somewhat simplistic. Nevertheless, I think it is a good starting point. I simply pulled these four out of Alister McGrath's The Christian Theology Reader and gave brief summaries of the extracts provided therein. Please correct me if I've misrepresented any of the four.

Now, I thought I'd include a fifth approach that I'm not sure fits in with any of the other four. I find this approach somewhat compelling and very interesting and I'm curious to hear what others out there have to say about it. This is the approach of Robert W. Jenson (at least as he goes about his business in Systematic Theology Vol. 1, "What Systematic Theology is About.")

Jenson:
Jenson analyzes the presupposition that, for most of theological history, has remained latent: the notion that philosophy and theology are different kinds of intellectual activity. He says that theology generally does one of two things with philosophy: tries to appeal to it "for foundational purposes" or "defend itself" against it as if it were being attacked. Jenson, it seems, wants to reject both approaches to this issue by rejecting the presupposition. He says the philosophy is not a different kind of activity than philosophy, but is pagan theology of a sort. It is the historically and culturally contingent attempt to talk about God and ultimate reality. In this way, Christian theology must be in dialogue with philosophy, must reason with it and talk with it and even be forever marked by the dialogue, but it cannot accept in any sense the notion that philosophy is somehow a "unilateral judge of the whole" and so it cannot be elevated as the prolegomena to Christian theology.

I'm not sure exactly what Jenson is doing and how this view actually plays out in the theological or ecclesiastical enterprise. I am not even sure if he is all that different from Tertullian, although it seems to me that there is some difference in this approach. One thing I find helpful and thought-provoking about Jenson's short section on this topic (pp. 7-11 in ST) is that he raises some important questions for further reflection:

1. Is philosophy a different kind of activity from theology?

2. Is there some sort of universal philosophy that can carry the day as the judge over the validity of what other disciplines are doing? (I wonder, what would a negative answer to this question mean for theology or for other disciplines?)

3. What would the conversation between theology and philosophy look like if we no longer tried to use philosophy to justify theology, nor did we try to separate the two and keep philosophy far away from theology, nor did we try to prove that all along philosophy has really been speaking about the divine reality manifest in Christ? What type of conversation would this be?

Any thoughts on any of this?