Friday, June 30, 2006

Common Ground Montgomery

CGM is a new ministry that is being undertaken by a seminary mate of mine, Bryan Kelly. This is a ministry that is at least somewhat patterned off Mo Leverett's influential Desire Street ministry in New Orleans. Bryan Kelly is a very good friend of mine, and has a real heart for racial reconciliation and inner-city youth ministry. Montgomery Alabama is a racially divided city not only geographically, but also conceptually. BK and his family have moved into a house in the inner-city neighborhood where they will be ministering, and he has a job lined up at a local high school to work with youth in the neighborhood. He doesn't have a website set up yet, and as part of getting the ministry going, he is trying to raise prayerful and financial support for the ministry. Some of the local churches in the area have expressed an interest in lending financial support and partnering with him, but I don't think anything has been firmly nailed down on that score to date. Meanwhile, BK and his family are trying to jumpstart this ministry and go through the necessary steps of ordination.

To anyone who reads this blog, and particularly evangelicals who have a heart for poverty ministry and are looking for a good evangelical ministry to support, please let me know and I will put you in touch with Bryan. He is doing yeoman's work in that city, and in 10 years, he may be a household name in PCA circles much like Mo Leverett is now. I studied with him for 3 years at seminary, and he's the real deal. He's been doing campus ministry and field work in urban areas for years; he knows what he's doing. He has a solid yet radical vision, and he and his family are completely committed to it. He has a Kingdom vision of urban revitalization, education, hope, and racial reconciliation and mutual growth under the Lordship of Christ. This is the kind of vision that God blesses, and those of us who partner with him on the ground floor will be blessed to be part of something like this. I humbly ask that any readers of this blog prayerfully consider becoming a part of this ministry through prayer and financial giving. And if any of you happen to reside in the Montgomery area and would like to volunteer, BK will certainly listen eagerly and be appreciative of your interest. Tell him 'Spidey' sent ya!

Thursday, June 29, 2006

'Prayer' is the buzzword of the day

In a previous post, I wondered aloud whether two prominent conservative Episcopal churches would leave ECUSA and fall under the care of an African bishop in the Anglican communion. Well, it appears that both Truro and the Falls Church are officially moving in that direction. Dozens more are engaged in a period of prayer and reflection regarding their future with ECUSA, and seem to at least be seriously considering an exit strategy.

In addition, the NWI movement within PCUSA is likewise calling on like-minded congregations to enter into a period of prayer in deciding what their response should be to the PCUSA General Assembly results. Unlike the ECUSA churches, any PCUSA churches who decide to leave the denomination have at least a decent chance of holding on to some or all of their property.

Prayer, prayer, prayer. It is clearly called for in these difficult times. As an outsider, I am saddened by where things stand in these two denominations. The conservative doctrinalist in me says these churches should leave these denominations, and that they really should have left long ago. But the traditionalist in me is very wary of churches up-and-leaving their historical ecclesiastical roots.

Evangelicals have often split from each other over almost everything in the name of preserving their version of sound doctrine. Liberals often decry as schismatic any attempt to hold a church or a denomination to a set of essential theological and doctrinal standards that will, by definition, not include the views of everyone. And around and around we go.

I used to think that a conservative church trapped in a denomination that was clearly abandoning the historic Christian faith should get out without regret and not look back. To me, this was not a difficult decision to make, and is one that I would have made in an instant in the name of upholding the truth of Christ and our faith. But then I spent a number of years conversing with evangelicals who are still in the mainline, and feeling their angst at the thought of leaving their home and turning their backs on their ecclesiastical parents. I came to discover that their emphasis on community and historical continuity is not only noble, but needed as an antidote to radical evangelical individualism that constantly divides us and makes us think that history, tradition, community, and unity are completely expendable whenever it's convenient to toss them overboard.

So we're left with a dilemma. On one side, we have preserving sound doctrine and honoring Christ by standing for the truth. On the other side, we have a commitment to the unity of the Body and the wisdom of the church throughout the ages, and honoring Christ by promoting love and unity among us just as he commanded. What's expendable? What's more important? The answers aren't nearly as simple as either side makes it, and evangelicals in the mainline who are trying to honor both sides are caught in the middle with no easy way out biblically. This is not a cause for rejoicing, but for crying.

In the end, as I've said before, my own conviction would be to leave, because not only would I be standing up for the faith once delivered to the saints, but I would also be standing with my ecclesiastical heritage for most of its history until very recently. In the end, while it would be painful and give me no joy, I would probably conclude that it is the current version of my denomination that has broken away from both Scripture and its historic community and tradition, and is asking me to come along in this schism. As an evangelical who wants to be faithful to Scripture and my theological community and tradition (because I know I need both), I would have to decline this invitation, no matter how much they made their invitation sound like a vote in favor of unity. In the end, it's a vote for supporting their schismatic actions against the special revelation of Scripture and the historic church they descend from but have mostly abandoned.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Sebastian Mallaby wrote an op-ed in the WP today about the increase in loneliness in American society. Mallaby rightly lists several results of loneliness and nibbles on the edges regarding some of the causes of loneliness and individual isolationism (it's ironic to me that those who spurn a foreign policy of 'isolationism' or 'go-it-aloneism' are often the first to embrace such an approach as a personal lifestyle). But while Mallaby's article is good, it doesn't really get into the fundamental and comprehensive nature of the issue. So I wrote a predictably long-winded response to Mallaby today in which I offered the following:

Mr. Mallaby,

I'm Jason Foster, and I appreciated your article today regarding subject. Many of the issues you touch on are valid, but there are underlying issues that you did not really touch on that drive most of the problems you raise.

There are reasons why much of the world looks upon the United States with great confusion, and it's not really about politics. Our way of life is confusing. In most of the world, close community is simply a given, because it is a necessity for economic reasons if nothing else. With great wealth comes great access to all the tools we need to isolate ourselves from other people. Technology in particular allows us to embrace casual rather than committed relationships, which reenforces the uniquely individualistic outlook this country has always had. Individualism these days is no longer about promoting individual rights, but living isolated lives as individuals. It's mind-boggling to think of the everyday 'givens' in our society that, one way or the other, promote individual isolation and discourage face-to-face relationship (the garage door-opener, cable TV, delivered food, email, etc). Democracy and technology intensify each other, and the result is a society that considers individualism to be the supreme value because it has become an inviolable principle of the American experience. Authentic community inevitably gets sacrificed in this equation, and loneliness is one of the results.

Neil Postman and others have written on this to some degree in discussing how Americans are trying desperately to entertain themselves to death, in part, as a really bad substitute for the hard work of close relationships. This is true in all aspects of society, from the workplace, to the meet-market, to religious practice.

So I applaud your article. I would urge you, however, to consider just how comprehensive and pervasive the issue is. You appropriately deal with some consequences, but it would be helpful to deal with the societal 'givens' of individualism and technology that have come to dominate an increasing amount of the American lifestyle.

In kind regards, I remain

Jason Foster

It used to be that TV was a tool of isolation, and it no doubt is. But TV, even today, still has the ability to draw a crowd, so that actual people do tend to congregate together, even if it's only to watch the television. But with the internet now usurping TV as the essential piece of technology that most of us can't do without, isolation through technology has become even more pronounced. Yes, we can communicate with others through the internet, but only virtually. People congregate at the world wide web, but not together. More than ever, the internet provides a filter, a buffer, a go-between, that separates people from each other and isolates them even while bringing them together in a virtual way.

As ever-smaller families move into ever-bigger houses, isolation even within the family unit can increase exponentially. Gone are the days when middle-income American families would sit around the one TV the family had in a very modest-sized home. It used to be that the size of our homes brought us together because there just wasn't a lot of room to spread out. But as the homes have gotten bigger, with almost every room wired for internet and cable, even family units can break off and do their own thing. And in most homes, that is what many members of the family prefer to do. Would this be true to this degree if technology didn't foster such radical individualism and isolationism?

We really need to consider how technology has changed us and changed how we live and perceive life, not to mention our value systems. We increasingly prefer to isolate ourselves and either web-surf or channel-surf with nobody else around. We build homes and buy technology that feed this desire. This is a large part of the reason why we become irate when our technology doesn't work the way it should. When our cable is out, or when the internet connection isn't working, it feels like a direct assault on our basic way of life, and it unnerves us. Technology, and the isolating lifestyle it often brings, has become the latest 'staple' of American life, and to go without it is often as unbearable as finding the food shelves empty on the other side of a pre-blizzard panic. What does this say about us? Is this what progress looks like?

We have to realize that this phenomenon is not the way it has always been, and it certainly is not the way things currently are in much of the rest of the world. This is something new, at least to the extent that it has been mainstreamed within a large societal milieu. We don't want to be lonely. We tend to want authentic relationships, and many of us sincerely believe we're willing and ready to work hard in cultivating such relationships. Yet, we build fences around our homes, have our food delivered to our own door, and live in houses that are ridiculously big in proportion to the family unit they house because their function is the ability to spread out and isolate. It's a great paradox of our society that Mallaby properly highlights as a paradox that has consequences that aren't that great. While his somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal of relationship through car pooling is one answer, the much better answer is a sober look at our society as a whole and where it's headed under the guise of technological advancement and progress. It doesn't feel like progress in the souls of many these days.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Now What?

With both ECUSA and PCUSA, to differing degrees, thumbing their noses at Scripture, the historic church, their own theological tradition, and their own creeds/constitutions with their actions this week, the question now becomes, "Now what?" Will conservatives leave in droves and drive the membership of both denominations down to its true critical mass? Or will conservatives try to hang on in these denominations, given the certain fights over property and pensions with the denomination that principled separation will bring?

No doubt, there will be some evangelicals in these denominations (and some outsiders too) who will confidently predict that the sky is officially falling and that the actions of the national leadership this week are the last straw. They will offer bold predictions about mass defections of evangelicals in the coming year as a reaction to what has happened this week. There will likely be obituaries pronounced on these denominations. But I wonder. In the case of ECUSA, conservatives are a decided minority in both the pulpits and the pews across the country. They have no power to change things at the national level, and they know it. They also have no power to stop liberal dioceses from seizing assets, replacing rectors, and taking over conservative parishes if they grumble too loudly about what the national leadership is doing. This is particularly true if the parish is small, as most conservative parishes are. In the case of larger conservative parishes such as The Falls Church and Truro church, will they really leave ECUSA and submit themselves to an evangelical bishop from Africa and then fight the fights they will inevitably have to fight with their current diocese to maintain their property? Are they going to be willing to part with their impressive facilities and 'start over' with virtually no tangible property in a geographic area where good property is extremely expensive and hard to come by? These are very tough questions, and they are a large part of the reason why conservatives stay put, despite all the huffing and puffing about apocalyptic defections that we often hear after each national meeting.

It's easy for me to make a blog entry discussing all this, because I'm not part of ECUSA or PCUSA. It's easy for me to simplify the very real turmoil that exists in the hearts of people who are in these denominations and feel as if they are in exile because of the direction the national leadership has taken. I take Scripture's repeated call for unity very seriously, and as an evangelical, it pains me when other evangelicals flippantly dismiss the command of unity on the altar of protecting truth. The truth is that true truth leads to unity among the Body; they are not opposed to each other. Truth is not subservient to unity as liberals like to maintain, but unity based on truth is essential to carrying out the Great Commission and living out the 2 great commandments. But Scripture is also clear that unity based in falsehood, sin, and fleshly motives is not unity, but self-deception. By claiming that their actions foster unity and justice, the liberal leadership of these denominations are deceiving themselves. The truth is that their actions are schismatic through and through. They have separated themselves from the clear mandates of Scripture. They have cut themselves off from their own community (past and present). They have made a mockery of their own theological confessions. And they have told evangelicals in their ranks to get with the program. These are not actions of unity, but of schism. They are deliberately going down the very path that is antithetical to their stated principle of unity. They have made truth and unity opposed to each other, and this should serve to demonstrate how far afield their actions are, despite the rhetoric behind them.

Will evangelicals leave en masse? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.

Monday, June 19, 2006


When was the last time words like 'friendly, organized, and efficient' came to mind when describing a government operation? It's pretty unheard of. Yet, my trip to the Virginia DMV that I dreaded in a post last week came and went Saturday morning and it was downright pleasant. I was in and out in a half hour on a Saturday morning. Now it helped that I got to the DMV an hour before they opened and was one of the first people through the door. The line was about 100 people when the doors opened at 8am, and if I had been at the end of that line, my experience might have been quite different. But even during the half hour that I was there, the DMV was moving people through pretty efficiently; at least, that's how it seemed to me. I expected to be there for hours, and I also thought there was a real possibility that I wouldn't be able to get everything done there that I needed to. I was completely wrong on both counts, and I couldn't be more happy.

Too often, I assume the worst will happen in life. I've always been this way, and I'm actually a little better now than I used to be. But I know that my theology really needs to better inform me. My theology clearly states that while sin is real, comprehensive, deadly, and impacts everything about the human race and the world we live in, there is also a perfect God who through Christ is moving history in the direction of ultimate perfection. We're not just treading water in a world that will never get better. We're not just here to survive the ravages of sin. Sin was defeated at the Cross, and it is being defeated through the Holy Spirit's indwelling of his people. Sin will be finally and fully defeated at the Parousia. There really is a progression in which all the frustrations we endure today, big and small, are coming to an end. The days of sin are numbered, and I really need to remember that in my interaction with the world. We shouldn't be overly positive to the point where we think we can immune ourselves from pain and frustration just because we have Jesus. But we also shouldn't be overly negative by assuming that things aren't getting better, or that it's inevitable that everything will only get worse. My experience at the DMV is a very isolated event, but the attitudes I harbored about it have larger implications and applicability. Part of having a Christian worldview is not to compartmentalize our attitudes. That's where the sacred vs secular dichotomy comes from, and it's a completely wrong orientation to have. If there's something wrong with our attitudes in one area of our life, it would behoove us to see if something larger is going on and whether this particular area is one part of a larger picture that needs to be examined. This is what sanctification is all about, and my trip to the DMV was a sanctificational lesson for me.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Why do I Blog?

This is an age-old question, well not exactly. But it's a good question that I'm sure many bloggers have pondered. I don't read many blogs diligently, so I'm hardly a spokesman for the blogosphere. I have no idea what most bloggers blog about or why they do it. And frankly, I'm not sure why I do it.

So why do I blog? It can't be because people are listening. To my knowledge, absolutely nobody has visited my blog. For all I know, only God, me, and maybe some online blog administrator somewhere even knows this blog is here. And for all I know, it may always be this way. I have no guarantees that anyone will ever read this blog, except me. I don't advertise my blog even to my friends or family, so even most of those closest to me don't know this blog is here. And it may stay that way forever. Steve Brown once said that boatloads of people have written books that nobody has ever read. His point was to people like me who are thinking of teaching and writing professionally in the future. His point - don't wrap your self-worth in supposed literary triumphs, because the chances are good that for most of you, your successes (if we can even call them that) are fleeting and will not be remembered very long if at all. Tough words, but probably accurate for the great majority of both professional and amateur writers.

I'd be lying if I said that I didn't care whether people read my blog or not. On some level, I hope that people might read it from time to time and that I might get the chance to interact with folks I wouldn't have met otherwise. That strikes me as a worthy goal that makes the blog worth it. But is this the reason why I blog? I don't think so. As I've said, I have no guarantees that in the enormous mass of typed script known as the blogosphere, anyone will stumble on to my minuscule piece of the pie.

So why do I blog? I suppose some of it is simply to be part of what some are calling a revolution. Howard Kurtz echoes the views of many when he suggests that the blogosphere is changing the very profession of journalism because it has fundamentally changed information dissemination for good or ill. The blogosphere seems to be important enough that folks of all stripes are diving in to stake their own claim in the latest American dream. Is this why I blog? This may be part of the reason, but it's not the biggest.

So why do I blog? For me, I think it's another way to talk to God. It's not a substitute for prayer, or even a pale immitation. But during my years at seminary, I discovered that in writing many of the papers I had to write, I often wrestled with God through my keyboard. This may sound weird, but I don't think it is. In my preaching classes, professors would often make a lot out of finding God in the sermon study and preparation. When we get into the Word intensely in preparing a sermon, it is not uncommon (and is in fact desperately hoped for) for preachers to have an 'a-ha' moment in the sermon preparation in which the sermon really comes together where it didn't before. This is God at work rewarding the preacher's study and preparation. Well I'm not a preacher, but I think much the same thing happens to me when I pour my heart out on 'paper'. I inevitably find myself searching some of my deepest thoughts, wondering which of those thoughts to share, and literally feeling God shaping those thoughts so that at times, I get the ever-briefest taste of what it means to discover something about God that I didn't know before.

For me, allowing myself the freedom to write is another way of me letting my guard down and allowing God to reveal things to me as a result of focusing on him, even when I'm not writing directly about him. Steve Brown would often say that he has been in the Word so long and so often as a preacher that everything he experiences in life conjures up a Scripture passage in his mind. This is his idea of having a Biblical worldview. It's just a different way of saying what John Frame says, "Theology is the application of Scripture to all of life." In my own way, I think that's what I'm trying to do here. I feel the need to do that, and for whatever reason, I've chosen the blogosphere as one of the places where I try to do it.

In the end, while it matters to me on some level whether anyone reads this blog, what really matters to me is that this blog represents something of a fulfillment of the commission that was given to me at RTS; to take the Christian story into the world and apply it to the concerns of the world. So I guess for me, this blog is one way to be obedient to the calling that God has put on my life. This is why I blog.

Happy Father's Day

I'm not a Dad unfortunately (long story). But in a culture that is very schizophrenic when it comes to Dads and fatherhood (Dads and fatherhood are important, but constantly a source of derision at the same time), Dads in particular need a pat on the back. There's a blog on titled 'On Balance', which is ostensibly a blog designed to discuss work-home issues that women have. Well today, the husband of the blog's owner delivered a post on Father's Day in which he basically said that he does more than he's given credit for, most fathers are like him, and so it would be nice to not be a constant source of derision by women because we're doing more than you think and we're doing it better than you think. Well as one might unfortunately expect, a post like this from a man was not exactly well received by a significant portion of the female posters to the blog. This is typical stuff, and most of us simply can't get beyond our own blinders to see how ludicrous and hurtful this all is. Here we have a day, Father's Day, that's designed to celebrate the contributions of fathers. Yet even on this day, fathers get to 'enjoy' the all too familiar sounds of criticism, critique, and belittling of their concerns mainly by those who claim to be members of the more emotionally sensitive gender.

Like other things, the church is not much different. Lost amidst the duststorm of gender roles in the church is a rather depressing reality. The typical evangelical church offers very different messages to men and women on Father's and Mother's Day respectively. Mothers tend to be celebrated from the pulpit, encouraged, loved, and appreciated for all they do. And this is completely appropriate and I say Amen. But is this what the typical Father's Day sermon looks like? In your dreams. Pastors all too often imitate the world in using Father's Day as a special day on the calendar to bash the Dads of the world for not doing a better job. I know Dads who won't go to church on Father's Day because the last thing they want to hear is their own pastor sounding like a group of disgruntled wives sharing war stories about their terrible husbands. Increasing numbers of men and Dads are saying 'Enough already' and are defecting from church not just on Father's Day, but permanently. Men rightly expect better from their church than simply a mirror reflection of the world's often misguided grudges. And thankfully, a lot of women church attendees agree, in part, because they personally know that male flight from the church hurts them and is not what they want to see. So while there are no shortage of female man-haters around, there is thankfully also no shortage of women who are the staunchest allies of men and Dads. For that, I say 'thank you' to these women, because we need you.

Men and women are different, but they are not diametric opposites of each other. Men and women both need to be appreciated. Men and women both need to know that their efforts make a positive difference. Men and women both need encouragement a lot more than a constant barrage of belittling criticism. As a man, I do not claim to be neutral about this. But it has been my experience that for whatever reason, it is simply more acceptable for men to publicly praise women (which is good and appropriate) than it is for women to publicly praise men. I don't know why this is, but I am increasingly convinced that it's a reality. And to whatever degree this is true, it needs to stop. A culture, and a church, that is hesitant to affirm men and Dads and all that they do forfeit the right to then turn around and wonder why the men they know are lethargic, unenthusiastic, and negative. If criticism is most of what they hear, I don't know how in the world we can expect anything else.

So in that vain, Happy Father's Day to those many Dads who work hard, love their wives and children, and live lives of integrity in spite of the culture's drumbeat of negativity that's often directed at them. You deserve better, much better. And there are both women and men who know it, even if they don't control the tenor of the cultural conversation these days.

Christian Hospitality

I greatly hope that this topic (or some variation of it) will be the subject of future studies at the doctoral level if I can convince some school to give me a chance. No doubt, a number of my future posts will deal with this topic and may include snippets of previous writings I've done on the subject which have been favorably received by assorted professors (remember though, I'm anti-tekkie).

Hospitality, regretably, has not been a focus of evangelical scholarship. Nor has it been a particularly pressing concern in the church. This is unfortunate. Most evangelicals, I suspect, don't realize the extent to which the cultural conversation around them touches on this subject, and the enormous amount that our faith tradition can contribute to this discussion in a positive way. Pascal's apologetic brilliance did not necessarily lie in his famous Wager Argument. Rather, his apologetic approach of finding common points of contact with larger culture and then arguing that the Christian story best explains realities common to all of us was superb. For Pascal, the accepted reality that humanity is both great and wretched at the same time became a doorway through which Pascal argued that the Christian story of creation, fall and redemption best explains the paradox of man that both Christians and non-Christians recognize to be true. This is brilliant apologetic strategy, though it takes great work and thought to find those common accepted realities from which to work from. I think hospitality is another such area.

It has been suggested that the Christian life can be seen within the grid of hospitality. A number of liberal scholars, following Derrida, believe that hospitality is an overarching ethical value that should drive Christian ethics as a whole. Now in doing this, a number of scholars, predictably, don't interact well with Derrida's vision of hospitality. I have, and Derrida's program is in severe deviation from the Biblical view of hospitality, especially given to us in the Johannine corpus.

Nonetheless, I do think hospitality as a concept is far more central to the Bible as a whole than is often acknowledged, and that there is great wisdom for seeing the relationship between the Church and the world within a grid of hospitality. Now Richard Horner, who I respect tremendously, has suggested that being the church in the world can be seen in terms of Incarnation and hospitality. By this, he means that just as the Incarnate Jesus entered into the world, we also should be willing to enter into other people's worlds. Hospitality, on the other hand, is the act of letting other people into our world, according to Horner. Now I would disagree with Horner on the margins here, since I view the Incarnation itself as an act of hospitality on the part of God by entering an inhospitable world in order to save it from itself (the Johannine Prologue, I think, really does a great job of setting this up, while the rest of the Fourth Gospel works it out in ways few have recognized). I don't see the need to distinguish Incarnation from hospitality either conceptually or semantically, since I think Incarnation can be seen as part of hospitality. However, Horner's basic point is well taken. The church must be willing to go out into the world and enter into the lives of those who are not part of the church, just as Jesus did. And the church must also be willing to invite outsiders inside in order to get a taste of the Kingdom having come in part.

How many of us think about the Christian life in these terms? The church is usually fairly good about the latter, but usually not so good at the former. How many Christians believe in this model of hospitality, even though it's thoroughly Biblical? How many of us are willing to live like this and put this model of cultural engagement to work? Not many. The reason is because it is very demanding. It's not easy to walk across the street and talk shop to our Muslim neighbor. We'd rather build a fence instead, and that's what we often do. It's not easy to open your home (or your nation for that matter, a la Derrida) to folks who are very different from us either ethnically, religiously, or in their outlook. It's much easier to keep our distance and grumble about them behind closed doors. Now as will be made clear in future posts, I am convinced that the Christian vision of hospitality is actually a combination of hospitality and inhospitality that is patterned off of God's own dealings with the world during this unusual period of Kingdom overlap (yes, I'm an already/not yet guy). But as if often the case, the full vision of Biblical hospitality is often embraced only halfway. And the half that is embraced is usually the half that accords with our previous presuppositions and doesn't demand anything more challenging than what we're already predisposed to do. The result is that the wonderful full-orbed grid of hospitality that Scripture offers to us, in part, to offer to the world as a holistic Christian alternative to secular thinking, is often bypassed by the very people who claim to love Scripture the most. This then results in us not being able to engage the cultural conversation on hospitality with anything better than a half-baked vision that is usually not well thought out. We are missing a wonderful opportunity to engage the world on an issue that is front and center in our culture today (the issue of immigration, for example, is really a debate about what hospitality on a national scale looks like: Is the illegal immigrant my neighbor, yes or no? Christians, above all people, should be ready to answer this question. Yet, most of us aren't even asking the question, much less answering it Scripturally).

Speaking of 'Moderation'...

The PCUSA made, for them, an unusual choice at their GA. They elected a moderate to be Moderator. Rev. Joan Gray seems to be a pretty middle-of-the-road pastor from Georgia. As an evangelical, she is clearly not the best choice from my standpoint for a dying denomination in desperate need of Biblical reform. But as far as the PCUSA goes, Gray is a refreshing change in leadership from previous leaders who actively sought to undermine their own constitution and Book of Order, all the while proclaiming that it was not their job to enforce it. Gray appropriately recognizes that Polity will not save the PCUSA. Coming from an expert on polity, that's a refreshing and wise attitude. She speaks in a manner that while not as definitive as one would like, is nonetheless humble and seems to place the focus on where it belongs - Christ. Now, to say this is not to say very much. The question is really what kind of Christ is our focus, and for years, the PCUSA has had a particularly weak view of the incarnate Christ which has polluted much of what they do and profess. As Moderator, Gray will have the opportunity to help reinstill pride in Christ, though it doesn't sound like she's prepared to do that if her statements regarding the exclusivity of Christ in salvation are any indication. While acknowledging that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, she clearly seems hesitant to forcefully proclaim that confession of Christ as Savior and Lord is the only way for a person to enter into the Kingdom. Here, as in other areas, Gray is wishy-washy in trying to reconcile what Scripture clearly says with what modern culture prefers to believe. This, of course, is emblematic of the sickness that's killing the denomination on a whole host of issues, and it will be regretable if Gray is unable or unwilling to offer clarity to a denomination that desperately needs a major dose of it.

However, with all of that said, the fact is that the PCUSA could have done far worse than Gray, as they have repeatedly done in the recent past. They could have done better, but in the current climate, this is probably about the best evangelicals could have expected. At least for now, she's willing to take a stand on Christian living that while siding with most of the rank-and-file in the denomination, is anathema to much of its leadership, seminaries, and pressure groups. This takes courage, and one can only hope that she will maintain this courage.

Unfortunately for evangelicals, the election of Gray, while probably positive, will not mean much in terms of the long-term future of the denomination. Much more important will be the vote later this week on the so-called 'local option' which would allow congregations to do an end-around the Book of Order on the question of ordaining active homosexuals. Enactment of this provision will render the constitution meaningless and will take the divisiveness of this issue in theory down to the level of actual sanctioned practice. Many evangelicals have threatened to break away if the PCUSA goes down this road. If this happens, the PCUSA may well morph into all-out Unitarianism within the next 50 years, because there will be too few people left who will be willing to fight the slide that has already been underway for some time. Right now, the PCUSA really is different from unitarianism in that most of the PCUSA really does believe in a personal God. Most unitarians do not. But one has to wonder what the PCUSA's concept of God will look like without a vocal evangelical presence that at least tries to hold the denomination accountable. Given the nature of human sin and the market that will always exist for rebellion in a world filled with rebels, I am skeptical that a denomination that has made it intolerable for large numbers of evangelicals to remain will be able to avoid the inevitable slide into unbelief that is now a trademark of the unitarian movement.

The 'Evolution' of Evangelicalism

EJ Dionne wrote a piece in the Wash Post today about the recent SBC election. Dionne, who fancies himself a political liberal with a sensitivity to religion, believes the election of Frank Page to head the Southern Baptist Convention could be a watershed in the 'evolution' of evangelicalism in America. Naturally, the word 'evolution' is used in a positive sense to refer to what Dionne believes is a moderating trend in evangelicalism. Assuming for the moment that such a trend really is occurring, others might look at the same trend and call it 'backsliding', or 'repeating the same mistakes of the past all over again'. This just highlights that readers need to be on guard when interpreting the terminology used by writers in making their points. Dionne, given his personal views, will of course think positively about any moderation in evangelicalism and will use terminology like 'evolution' to communicate the idea that this moderation is a step above what he considers the primitivism of conservative evangelicalism. Put simply, we shouldn't take Dionne's terminology at face value, because it reflects his own biases and worldview. As a columnist rather than a beat reporter, this is fine; he's paid to offer his opinions. But the reader should keep in mind that that's all it is - opinions of someone who is not approaching the question objectively any more than I am.

But beyond these kind of language games, is there some truth to this trend that Dionne says exists? Well, yes and no. It is true that evangelicals generally have broadened their menu of political and social concerns in the last decade - notice, I said 'last decade'. Dionne, naturally, doesn't remember that evangelicals were a major voice for human rights in Sudan and China long before the 2004 election, and we were fighting against human trafficking back in the 1990s as well. But of course, when evangelicals were offering these principled voices of exhortation to the political leadership in America a decade ago, Bill Clinton was the one in charge, not Dubya. Back then, Dionne was not talking about any 'moderation' or 'evolution' in evangelical thinking, even though a great deal of what we stand for now we stood for then. The difference is that before, we were lobbying a president that Dionne liked and agreed with, so naturally, his perspective on evangelical exhortation was quite different. But now that we are lobbying a president that Dionne doesn't like politically, suddenly evangelicals are maturing in his mind. Again, beware the biased eyes of columnists; they see what they want to see like most of us do.

But having said that, I think there is some truth to the idea that evangelicalism is in a state of flux, although I would argue that this has always been the case. What has changed recently is a simple fact that Dionne does not mention; we've won. Conservative denominations no longer have to fight as hard against heterodoxy in their own ranks. Why? Because we've won that debate, although Dionne would no doubt refer to it as a loss. What Dionne doesn't get and never has gotten is that contrary to popular belief that he often helps perpetuate, evangelicals are not stagnant in their areas of concern and never have been. The idea that evangelicals are only concerned about gay marriage and abortion is a media myth that has never been true. It is true that many of us care about such things, and that a number of us are quite passionate about it. But it has never been true that these two issues are our only concern. This myth is to be expected, since it is usually perpetuated by people who don't know us very well, and rarely if ever associate with us voluntarily and try to get to know us. What we're seeing now in evangelical circles is not really the 'moderation' that Dionne thinks or hopes it is. It's much a more a 'now what' response to the successes we've had. It's true that we don't have to be as concerned about theological liberals as we used to be, because the liberals are dying out and self-destructing. It's entirely believable that they will make a comeback at some point, at which time we will once again have to fully reengage them. But in light of the successes we've had in forcing theological liberals to fend for themselves rather than glum on to the massive resources that evangelicalism has at its disposal, it is only natural that we would want to move on to something more profitable than beating a dead horse.

Evangelicals are a long way from being perfect. I am deeply concerned about the lack of care for the poor both tangibly and mentally that I too often see in my circles. It is good and right for us to be more pronounced in our public activities regarding the poor and the sick. I also wrote a paper in seminary (that's been published in Reformed Perspectives magazine on on evangelical environmentalism. In this paper, I argued that of all people, John Calvin himself is a mostly reliable guide in helping us develop a solid doctrine of environmental stewardship that cares for God's creation and rejoices in its beauty without worshipping it. Evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike would likely be shocked at the degree to which Calvin discussed the created world in his writings and both God's and humanity's relationship to it. To whatever degree evangelicals take up the cause of environmental stewardship, I applaud it. But let's not get carried away by calling this a watershed trend. This is wishful thinking by Dionne that reflects his own bias. One wonders why Dionne doesn't urge liberal denominations to 'evolve' by developing a much more responsible doctrine of the sanctity of human life and the reality of sin in the world. Liberal denominations, I would argue, are far more out of balance in living out the whole Christian experience than most evangelicals are. The fact that Dionne is silent on the 'primitivism' in liberal denominations is a mark against his own sophistication on matters of religion analysis. Or, perhaps Dionne is unwittingly admitting the increasing irrelevance of the liberal denominations through his own silence towards them.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dentist vs DMV

I have to go on what likely will be a day-long field trip to the DMV on Saturday to register my car in Virginia and get a VA Driver's License. I've been a Virginian all my life, and am convinced that if Jesus had had more time to talk, the Beatitude "Blessed are the Virginians, because there is only one Virginia while there are 49 wannabees" would be in our Bibles today.

However, the Virginia Dept of Motor Vehicles is an ever-present reminder of the reality of sin in our world. I have dealt with them a number of times before, and while they generally do the best they can, it is usually a nightmare experience for those of us who pay the taxes that fund it. My wife casually suggested that we go to church on Saturday night in order to meet up with a friend of ours there, and I enthusiastically said 'yes' because I know I'm gonna have a lot to repent of that day.

I feel much the same way about dentists. Imperfect teeth that require dental and orthodontic work are a particularly vicious manifestation of the Curse. After hearing many stories growing up from my grandfather about early 20th century dentistry in the Shenandoah Valley, I refuse to this day to see anyone but a Yankee dentist. Call it treason, but the visual picture in my head of both dentist and patient using great quantities of alcohol as a method of anesthesia is simply too much to overcome. Sadly, all of this is reminding me that I'm overdue to make an appointment with the dentist :(

All of this has naturally gotten me to think about Hell. Thankfully, I'm not going there. But what if Hell consisted of sweating through a chair while some demonic dentist poked around in your mouth for all eternity? Or what if Hell consisted of spending all eternity going slowly from line to line at the DMV, being frustrated beyond belief every step of the way and ultimately not getting anywhere? Or better yet, what if Hell were much much worse than both put together?! Pastors, pay attention. These are pretty good sermon illustrations that would certainly convict me!!!


I often wonder if technology has become a substitute for fleshly human community. I don't know the motives or desires behind the countless numbers of people who blog, but could quasi-community be one of them? Churches struggle with this too. More and more people get their weekly or even daily fix of Christianity through the internet, television, and radio, rather than physically attending the visible church. This observation is hardly news. But what might be new is to consider this question not from the angle of figuring out what this says about the institutional church, but instead in thinking about what this says about people, and especially people in our peculiar culture of individualism. See, to start analyzing the question by putting the focus on the church is itself symptomatic of our general reluctance to put the spotlight on ourselves in any way that might be unflattering. It's easy to say that people get their spirituality through the medium of technology because the institutional church is screwed up for whatever reason. People say this as if this is a revolutionary idea that cuts to the heart of the matter. But the truth is that this news is as old as the church itself, and the church (with some notable and regretable exceptions) is not all that shy about disclosing them. A simple walk through the Pauline and Catholic epistles will show a church plagued with problems and having those problems brought out into the open. So again, this is hardly groundbreaking stuff.

What's more telling is the fact that spirituality through technology seems to be a very American phenomenon. Why is this? Is it because we're a wealthy nation with broad access to technologies that few other countries enjoy? Probably. But it's more than that. Technology, as Neil Postman and others have pointed out, helps shape our cultural norms. Technology reinforces the values of capitalism, commodification, and individualism. In a country that loves to have the best and newest stuff, technology only reinforces this national urge. In a country filled with people who are scared and wary of community and vulnerable relationships with other people, technology provides a tailor-made way to experience what I call 'detached community'. As is often said in Christian circles, the Trinity itself reveals a God of eternal community. And because humans are made in God's image, we were made for community too. This desire cannot be eradicated, but it can be distorted and even perverted. Folks who embrace a Christianity that is reduced to Christian radio and a weekly TV sermon miss a vital part of the Christian (and human) experience that Scripture presupposes - community with other believers. Postman argues that TV Christianity fundamentally distorts the Christian religion so that it becomes something different entirely. To Postman, part of what makes Christianity what it is is its communal aspect and all that it entails. While Christians who shun the community of the church may be protecting themselves from being let down, disappointed, or ticked off, they are also depriving themselves of something essential about their faith - ministry through community, and mutual accountability, love, and discipleship through community. In a culture often predisposed to spurn authentic community in favor of superficial individualism that is much safer but far less satisfying, technology provides perhaps THE instrument for such a sentiment to prosper. We want community because that's how we were made, but we don't want too much of it. We want intimacy, but not vulnerability. We want authenticity in our relationships, but not so authentic that we have to actually deal with our stuff. We want to be friends with our neighbors, but we still want to drive our car into the garage and close the door behind us without having to interact with anyone. We want to love Jesus, but not if it means loving other people radically in community that requires work to forge harmony and spiritual fruit.

I'm not saying that God can't work through technology, and that genuine spiritual experiences can only be obtained by being physically present in church. To say this, as Postman seems to, is to deny the doctrine of general revelation. We generally don't tell people who are sick not to go to the hospital because we recognize that God is at work in modern medicine and can heal people on a surgical table just as much as he can anywhere else. The same can approximately be said of technological Christianity. People can get saved through the hearing of the Word through a TV screen. But contrary to popular evangelical belief, getting saved is not where the Christian life starts and stops. The NT is repeatedly emphatic on the importance of community. This is why church membership is rarely if ever mentioned in the Bible - it was the presumed reality of the audience that they would be faithful members of a body of believers. This is what has been lost in too much of America, and I struggle with the way in which the technology I use and appreciate contributes to something that I think is so destructive and disjointed.

Get Urban or Die

The world is becoming increasingly urbanized. Urban centers increasingly have more in common with urban centers in other countries than they do with rural areas of their own countries. New York City, in many ways, has more in common with Tokyo than it does with rural communities in New York State. Tokyo, in turn, has more in common with Paris than it does with other areas of Japan. This is vital to understand in the context of global evangelical ministry. The combination of increasing global urbanization and the commonalities that exist in urban communities with each other means two things. First, if the evangelical church doesn't excel at urban ministry, it will die as the rural areas decrease around the world. Secondly, what works in NYC might be a good model for Tokyo, or Paris, or London, or Calcutta. Evangelicals need to look at the urban ministry successes they have had in America as good starting points for urban ministry around the globe. This is slowly dawning on evangelical missionary organizations, and the extent to which this becomes the dominant thinking is the extent to which we can anticipate evangelical renewal in cities all over the world that know they are lost, despite the bravado they often portray.


I found out a while ago that they're gonna come out with a new Indiana Jones movie. Now in 2 of the 3 previous flicks, the Ark of the Covenant and the chalice of Christ were the artifacts being hunted, and were eventually discovered in the movies. Well, I don't know what relic Harrison Ford will be chasing in the 4th installment, but there's a hard truth to face. The Ark of the Covenant, the chalice of Christ, and even Noah's Ark could all be found tomorrow; and there would still be people who would not believe. Unbelief is not an intellectual problem requiring better evidence; it is a moral problem requiring heartfelt repentance.

I am Exhibit A. I was a card-carrying agnostic for the first 23 years of my life. I looked at the evidential proof in favor of Christianity and found a way to deny all of it without much trouble. But as I was being drawn into an eternal relationship with God, I looked at the evidence anew, and came to believe. This didn't happen because the raw evidence in favor of Christianity had somehow become tons better than it was before. Instead, what changed was my own orientation to the evidence, which is something only the Holy Spirit can do. I had new eyes to see, and a new heart that was willing to believe. Neither Josh McDowell, the cosmological argument, or some great existential epiphany did this to me. It was simply the quiet yet unconquerable work of God to draw me to himself. Belief is indeed a gift that is given. I rejoice in the evidence God has given us of his existence and the trustworthiness and necessity of giving our lives to Christ as the world's singular hope for redemption. But I can rejoice in the evidence while recognizing it for what it is - a tool that God uses to fortify the faith of his own, and even a tool to grease the skids toward belief. But there's a difference between the instrument itself, and the one who operates it. I am a Christian today not because of evidence, but because of God's gracious election of a sinner who once loved darkness and now loves the light. Evidence alone won't convert anyone.

Media Group Therapy

I am a Republican (sorry folks), but not a party-line type. I neither love nor hate Bush, which I guess puts me in a group of about 4 other people in the country. But I am pretty partisan when it comes to the role of the press in disseminating news. You will likely find a number of my future posts addressing this subject in some detail. But for the moment, I would like to make an appeal to the various national political reporters who were forced to report that Karl Rove probably won't go to jail. That appeal - please seek some therapy, cuz you really look heartbroken. Poor Charlie Gibson looked like his cat had just died when he delivered the Rove news on WNT. Poor David Shuster has been very quiet in light of his previous gleeful prediction that Rove would be indicted. I have no great love for Rove, but I do have a rather acute disdain for members of the press who choose to live in their self-deluded fantasy of objectivity and neutrality, rather than admit the obvious - that they, along with everyone else on the planet, is biased and holds certain presuppositions about life that inevitably influences the job they do, the questions they ask, the stories they pursue, and the conclusions they reach. This is a real hobby-horse of mine, which I will no doubt expound upon in future posts.

For those astute readers, yes, I am a Reformed presuppositionalist of the Frame variety.

One more thing...

The problems with the PCUSA are not unique to them; the other mainline groups are infected with the same core problem as well. Conservatives like myself regularly cite what they believe is the mainline's abandonment of Scriptural authority and all that this entails as the real reason behind their demise. And in one sense, I think this is correct. But frankly, I don't think it's the biggest problem. During my years at seminary, I had the privilege of reading liberal Biblical commentaries and systematic theologies; something most of my evangelical brethren have not done. And it has become clear to me that liberal academics, for the most part, take the Bible very seriously. A typical reader would have a hard time reading a commentary from the Hermeneia or Anchor Bible series and concluding that the scholar wasn't seriously interacting with the text. On the contrary, in comparison to most evangelical commentaries, one might conclude with some justification that the most in-depth Biblical scholarship of the last 50 years or so has been conducted by liberal scholars. While the quality of evangelical scholarship has improved considerably in the last 20 years, the point to be made is that liberal academics can't really be accused of abandoning a serious study of Scripture. I think the same can probably be said of most mainline pastors, teachers, and leaders as well.

So where does this leave us? The real problem in the mainline is their abandonment of their own theological tradition and the wisdom of the historic church. Now I know this flies in the face of some scholarship. Apologists for the mainline, like Dr. Bass at Virginia Seminary, argue that if anything, the problems in the mainline can be traced to a stubborn adherence to tradition and an unwillingness to get current and recognize that times have changed. This sounds good, but it is terribly misguided. The mainline's embrace of tradition is, in many ways, purely at the realm of aesthetics. They sing old songs, have traditional orders of worship, and conduct the sacraments in the same old way. But this is hardly the problem. Evangelical churches who have embraced traditional worship are growing for the most part. No, the problem is that underneath the traditional aesthetics, a radical redefining has gone on. There's no power in singing old hymns that few people believe, or conducting the sacraments without really subscribing to the words and actions they are meant to convey. While the mainline looks traditional, they are in fact anti-traditional because they have divorced themselves from the theological underpinnings of their own tradition. This is why they can take Scripture seriously, and yet reach conclusions that are completely at odds with 2,000 years of church wisdom.

Richard Pratt used to accuse evangelicals of having a 'me, Jesus, and the Bible' hermeneutic, and this inevitably resulted in individualistic interpretation of the Bible that lacked external controls and wisdom. While there are no shortage of evangelicals who fall into this category, it is the liberals who have mainly adopted this hermeneutic by scuttling the wisdom of their community throughout history. While they wouldn't refer to their hermeneutic in this way, it is indeed a hermeneutic that stresses individualism at the expense of community wisdom. This allows us to interpret the Bible however we want and come up with whatever kind of Jesus we want, and embrace whatever kind of massaged faith we want. It's a very American approach to spirituality, but it is antithetical to Scripture's own emphasis on community unity and community wisdom. Scripture assumes the sinfulness of man (including his emotional and mental faculties) as a starting point for encouraging the wisdom of community. What Dr. Bass and many others miss is that the mainline is dying because it has chosen to rebel against the wisdom of the historic church so radically that nothing controls what they do in the present (except the to-and-fro of secular culture).

Liberal theologians and pastors would do well to consider a rather simple observation. They don't have a Calvin, a Luther, or an Augustine who's influencing people 500+ years later. They don't have a Spurgeon, Edwards, or a Lloyd-Jones whose sermons are read 100 years later. Liberal sermons aren't read 100 days later. This is the product of being anti-traditional. It is the product of being schismatic in the sense of swearing off one's historic community under the presumption that we know better today and have no need for the wisdom of yesterday to act as a guide for what Christianity should look like today. Again, this is a very American attitude, but it is wholly anti-Christian. Denominations like the PCUSA, whose leadership often espouses anti-American language and condemns American policies, really needs to look in the mirror, because they have embraced a way of doing spirituality that is American through and through.

The State of the PCUSA

I am speaking as an outsider. I have close connections to the PCA, which is the major conservative Presbyterian body in the US. The PCUSA is gathering for its biannual General Assembly in Birmingham amidst a decline in membership that now extends for 40 consecutive years. I wrote an op-ed on this in the Layman (remember when I said I was anti-tekkie; that includes the ability to link stuff. Hey man, I wasn't kidding; I really am incompetent!) in which I suggested that the Stated Clerk of the denomination, Clifton Kirkpatrick, should step down. I argued that whatever the theological/spiritual reasons for the slow death of the denomination, the national headquarters simply doesn't know why most people have abandoned the PCUSA. And for a denomination that loves reflection through committee and analysis through statistics, their inability to attach any statistical confidence to the reasons behind their own death is a textbook case of bad leadership. If we were dying, and our doctor replied to our 'why?' question with, "I don't know", something tells me we would seriously question the ability of this doctor to help cure us. This is the state of the PCUSA, yet most of its members stick with the status-quo, to their own demise.

My New Online Home

I'm here, hopefully for a while. I am an anti-tekkie, and that will no doubt show through the unimaginative and boring blog setup I have. Perhaps my tekkie friends will help me snaz it up in the future. In the meantime, hopefully the words will exceed the presentation...