Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Meaning of Life

As I start typing this, my intention is to devote only one blog entry to the meaning of life. That makes the discussion tough, since normally it takes two entries to exhaustively explore the meaning of life :)

My wife actually deserves credit for this (or the blame). She was pondering the meaning of life last night during her Scripture reading. She said that for her as a Christian, the 'macro' meaning of life is to know Christ and to make him known. But how that plays out in the details and day to day circumstances of life is tougher to definitize. Here's my attempt:

For me, as a Christian, the meaning of life inexorably revolves around the idea that the Kingdom of God came in its infancy through Christ, and is continuing and expanding now through his church, which includes individual believers. The continuation of the Kingdom now is leading to the final consummation of the Kingdom at the Parousia, when all the struggles and strains of life that we are all too familiar with will be eradicated for those who have been saved. What does any of this have to do with the meaning of life?

Richard Pratt was (and is) fond of saying that soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc are really all about cosmetology. Not cosmology, cosmetology. Christians have been given the commission to beautify the earth in righteousness and stewardship. Why? Because the King is coming back to rule. If we knew Queen Elizabeth was coming to our home, what would we do? We would very likely go to great lengths to pretty up our home, clean it thoroughly, and make it as immaculate as possible, because she's the queen. How much more is this applicable to those of us who worship the cosmic King who is coming back to finalize the reclamation of all creation, including our souls? Our job as Christians is to expand the Kingdom of God and beautify the earth in anticipation of the King returning to be among us. If we want to know how the grand cosmic eschatology of Christianity plays out in real life, it helps to put it in terms of beautification. The meaning of life as a Christian is about making the world beautiful in every respect we can.

What does this mean for daily living? For me, it means that everytime I lay eyes on another person, I see the image of God that he/she is. As a fellow image-bearer, making the world more beautiful means treating people in such a way that we evoke the image of God within them, rather than provoking the depravity within them that afflicts us all through the Fall. I never do this perfectly, and sometimes I don't even do it well at all. But all this means is that through the power of the Spirit, I can always improve in fulfilling the commission God has given me to beautify the earth. Christians are very unique among the peoples of the world. It is downright kooky to many non-Christians (and even too many Christians) to suggest that we should walk around everyday seeing people as images of God and treating them with the love and dignity that such a status accords. But I ask you, what if the church universal actually did this? How completely different would our conduct be from those who don't see the world this way? How many people would long to know what we know, and to have what we have? And how many people would joyously receive what we have and become part of this spiritual kin? I suggest that the world would never be the same. From a worldview standpoint, Christians are completely unrivaled in having a fundamental ideological basis for human dignity. The Christian doctrine of imago dei demands an attention to the dignity of man that no other worldview can challenge. Instead of us resembling the world's devaluing of human dignity and all it entails, we need to present a stark alternative to a world that is ripe to be persuaded of something better than the 'death of man' reductionism it experiences day after day. This is spiritual cosmetology rooted in Kingdom anthropology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. This is the meaning of life, because it is rooted in divine calling and commission.

So say 'hi' to people in the elevator. Say 'thank you' without fail. Smile at people; be friendly. Say nice things about people rather than bad things. Open your home to neighbors and visitors. Don't cut people off on the roadways (oy!, I've got a ways to go on that one). Defer to the needs of others on minor things and even some major things. Cry with people when they are grieving. Pray with people who are anxious. Include people who are excluded. Comfort those who are lonely. Defend those who are vulnerable. Put simply, beautify the earth.

This great meaning of life is wonderful precisely because it can never be fully grasped. It is so comprehensive, so all-pervasive, so all-encompassing, that there is no area of life that it doesn't touch. It dominates human relationships. It dictates our work ethic. It touches on material things as well, such as our stewardship of nature, our finances, what we do with our possessions, and what we choose to invest in. In everything you do, always ask yourself this question, "Will this make the world more beautiful, or will it add to the ugliness we already have in abundance?" The key to doing the right things in life has a lot to do with whether we're asking the right questions. This is the right question for Christians to be asking. We will still fail, sometimes miserably, as I too often do. But through the power of the Spirit, beauty is achievable - not cosmic beauty, since only Christ's return will achieve that. But we are not called to simply wait around for the grand cosmetologist to get rid of all the ugliness in the world. We are the Body of Christ on earth in the present age. And cosmetology is our permanent spiritual occupation in this life. If we take our job seriously, the Kingdom of Light will get ever brighter while the Kingdom of Darkness will get ever more desperate as it reaches its final defeat.

All aboard!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Katrina Anniversary

There's probably nothing I can say about Katrina that hasn't already been said many times over in the past year. I went on a church relief trip to Mandeville La 2 weeks after Katrina had hit and was there for several days. I loaded cars with food and supplies, I was on a chainsaw gang that got downed trees off people's roofs and trailers, I helped better organize medical supplies for the local medical staff that was treating people in the local parish, and I helped unload trucks bringing supplies into the area. I also went into the flood zone in downtown New Orleans to try and retrieve some belongings of a family who's house had been overrun with the floodwaters.

It was a painful trip in many respects. I had never seen such devastation. When we entered New Orleans from the north, the damage was bad, but was fairly on par with what we had seen elsewhere. But when we crossed over the 17th street canal into the floodzone, it literally felt like we had walked into a dead zone. There were no people, there was hardly any noise. All of the greenery was in the process of dying, and the floodwater had turned totally black and as toxic as lava according to medical personnel we later saw. And then there was the smell; I will never forget the smell. I had never been to New Orleans before. I was amazed at how narrow the canal system was and that in a matter of a couple hundred feet, you could go from a part of the city that was damaged but was already working hard to recover, to being in a complete dead zone.

It quickly became apparent that the degree and breadth of the devastation simply would not allow for a quick and total recovery, no matter how many men and materiel were commited to the area. A disaster like this takes time to recover from, and one year later, the truth of this has become abundantly clear. Whatever your politics are, whoever you most want to blame for the aftermath of the storm, I think the plain reality is that everybody in government screwed up at all levels, and the screw-ups are continuing even now.

But fortunately, my hope doesn't lie in government, and it never has. Government can't solve everything. A disaster like this required a multi-sourced effort. And that's where we came in. The church is a very imperfect institution. We, as the Body of Christ, do many things wrong. We in America in particular are too comfortable, we are unwilling to make hard sacrifices, we fraternize with idols that have become acceptable in the church, and this often leads to misplaced priorities. But this is not the end of the story, for it is also true that the church, warts and all, tends to redeem itself in times of disaster. During the Black Plague in Europe, it was brave Christians who treated the dying knowing that their care would likely result in their own death. When Andrew clobbered South Florida in 1992, it was the church who did a good bit of the rebuilding, and stayed to help long after the government had gone back to DC and the TV cameras had gone home to their urban commune in Midtown. And in the case of Katrina, I witnessed first hand how the church was running circles around the government and the Red Cross in helping people begin to get back on their feet. The church wasn't taking its cues from the government; it was doing what God had convicted it to do - help people. When FEMA was nowhere to be found, the church was there. When the Red Cross was mired in red tape, the church was there. The people in that region know who showed up, and they know who stayed.

I haven't had the privilege of going back to New Orleans since my trip last September. But I know of others in my local church who have organized new relief teams and have used their own vacation time in this last year to go back to the disaster zone to help as much as they can. People like this make me proud to be a Christian, and renew my hope in the supernatural power of the church to move with united power. It's a shame that it took a natural disaster to bring the diverging parts of the church together, and this is a lesson we never seem to learn as Christians.

So on the one year anniversary of Katrina, it would be nice for the nation at large to take a good look at how indispensable the church is in the betterment of society. It's long been fashionable to be obsessed with the perceived negatives about the church. But fair minded people need to do better than that. In addition, the church needs to put first things first ALL the time, not just when there's a crisis. If we want to change the world, if we want the Kingdom to come in its fullness, our response to Katrina must not be extraordinary and isolated, but ordinary and common. The issues of poverty, justice, substandard living conditions, crime, access to capital and other resources, and spiritual hunger that Katrina exposed for all the world to see are not confined to New Orleans. These are global problems of immense severity that only the church can comprehensively address. Why aren't we? For those who ask why Jesus hasn't come back yet, it would be wise for them to look in the mirror and realize that God's Bride is not holy, and that a lack of commitment to these global issues of strife is a serious sin that begs for fervent repentance.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

So Much for Pluto

I'm not a scientist and am not comprehensively familiar with the apparently long-running debate about whether Pluto should be (or ever should have been) considered a planet. I'm not up on planetology and the criteria that is used to decide whether an astral body is a planet or something else. But it now appears that after its initial discovery and planet designation in 1930, scientific wisdom has now decided to strip Pluto of its planetary status. Folks who publish science textbooks for grade school use must be thrilled, because they're probably gonna get a huge rush of book orders for the next school year which will reflect this change.

Why am I writing about this? Well, I've always been a little interested in astronomy and space. My interest was never enough to overcome my severe deficiencies in science aptitude, and this is why any thoughts I had of pursuing a job in a scientific field were short-lived. But I've always been interested in the subject matter, at least recreationally.

But the "Puzzling over Pluto" (pretty good huh?!) is instructive as it relates to Christianity generally, and apologetics particularly. Scientific wisdom is constantly in flux, and previous theories and postulates that once seemed beyond challenge are always up for revision. This is not a recent phenomenon, but goes back a number of centuries. The lesson to be learned by Christians is that it is a mistake, I think, to tie our faith and the reasons why we believe too closely to the scientific wisdom of the moment. It's not that science is an unwise discipline, or that scientists are too indecisive for their own good; not at all. It just means that our study of the cosmos is never complete, and our knowledge of it will never be exhaustive. As Christians, we understand the limitations of human reason and ontology, and realize that the mysteries of the cosmos will never be entirely solved by fallible humans who are limited in their capacities. Therefore, we should expect that scientific theories and accepted thinking will periodically change as more is discovered, as thought patterns and philosophies change, and as our values change.

Given this, Christians should learn from the Galilean controversy. Non-christians love to point to the resistance and even persecution that Galileo had to endure at the hands of the Church as proof that the Church is not interested in intellectual discovery if it contradicts dogmatic teaching. Well, to frame the controversy this way is, by itself, heavily dogmatic and highly distortive. Rome's principal problem was not Galileo's support of Copernican heliocentrism, though Rome did indeed take issue with it. Rome's mistake was that it was too tied to Aristotelian thought regarding science. They had a problem with Galileo primarily because Galileo properly rejected Aristotle by insisting on quantitative observation and experimentation, just as various monks in Europe also did. But because this isn't nearly as sexy as saying that the Church is anti-science and anti-intellectual, the truth about the controversy rarely penetrates the mythology that atheists have swallowed whole. Nonetheless, Rome's strict and too often uncritical adherence to Aristotelian philosophy resulted in Rome being too tied to a particular method of science that yielded certain conclusions that evidential observation ultimately refuted.

We would do well to learn from this, and the apparent change in Pluto's status is helpful in this regard. I don't know anyone who has tried to argue for the truth of Christian doctrine based on the premise that our solar system has 9 planets instead of 8 or 10. But there are a number of prominent Christian apologists who do tend to put almost all their chips for the veracity of God's existence on the Big Bang Theory. We need to ask the question, "What happens if a day comes when, like Pluto's planetary status, scientific wisdom determines that the Big Bang is no longer the best way to explain the origins of the universe?" If this sounds silly or even anti-intellectual, don't get too confident. A growing number of scientists, particularly of the atheist variety, have advanced an eternal oscillation theory as being better than the Big Bang when it comes the universe's origins. Christian apologists are right in saying that the Big Bang, by definition, requires a First Cause. Scientists and the general public together, of course, disagree on what this First Cause was. But the point is that the Big Bang is very consistent with a Christian view of origins. The Big Bang does not disprove the existence of God, and if anything, lends credence to God's existence. Atheists know this, which is why Sagan and others have always preferred an eternal oscillation theory of expansion and contraction because they think this allows them to get around the First Cause problem (even though it doesn't).

So what happens if one day, oscillation theory supersedes and replaces Big Bang theory as the dominant paradigm of how we should understand the universe? I would submit that if this ever happens, folks like Bill Craig who have so much of their apologetic method invested in the Big Bang will seriously have to go back to the drawing board, because their apologetic method will have been shattered. Pluto's demotion is a healthy warning to Christians - don't tie too much of your doctrine or your reasons for believing God in supposed scientific facts, because those facts are constantly being revised for both good and bad reasons.

Christianity transcends science, and makes science possible. Job 40 and on clearly demonstrate that God is in control of every last object of scientific observation. Col. 1:16ff tell us that through Christ all things were created and they are sustained by him. No God, no science. No divine order over the cosmos, no predictable and natural interactions for science to study and postulate. Christianity and science have much to learn from each other, contra Barth. But as Christians, we have to be especially careful to recognize that God transcends science, and as such, it is a mistake to tie our faith so closely to the wisdom of fallible scientists that it becomes unraveled when that fallible wisdom shifts. As Christians, we should fully expect such shifts, and fully expect that our faith can accommodate fresh discoveries, or persuasively cite flaws in the latest accepted wisdom of our day.

Gumbel, Wilbon, and Speech Rights

Bryant Gumbel's big mouth has once again gotten him into some hot water. On his latest on-air gig with the NFL Network, Gumbel recently declared that NFLPA president Gene Upshaw was nothing more than a lapdog on a leash for the owners, and that Upshaw and the owners have essentially been in cahoots with each other for years protecting everyone's interests except the interests of the players. The NFL is apparently considering cutting Gumbel loose as a result of these not-so-subtle 'Uncle Tom'-ism comments.

Today in the WP, Michael Wilbon predictably offered a spirited defense of Gumbel. While disagreeing somewhat with Gumbel's opinions, he strongly maintained that Gumbel has the right to voice such views without fear of penalty. For Wilbon, the NFL Network, in order for it to be considered a credible network of hard-hitting coverage rather than just a mouthpiece for the league, needs to have 'independent' voices like Gumbel on the air (this, of course, is laughable since Gumbel has never been independent, but has towed a very liberal party line since day 1). And besides, says Wilbon, the NFL had to know what it was getting when they approached Gumbel, since Gumbel has a long record of 'provocative' on-air comments. Because the NFL had to know they were pursuing someone who theoretically wasn't going to lay down for anyone, they should have expected the bombastic Gumbel to be the bombastic Gumbel some have loved to love, and many have loved to despise. Therefore, the NFL cannot, as a basic matter of integrity, now cry foul and attempt to dismiss Gumbel just because Gumbel is doing what he's always done.

Some of what Wilbon says is right. He's certainly correct that the NFL should have been abundantly aware of who they were getting when they brought Gumbel on board. If they were looking for someone who would be a respected voice of straight reporting, it made absolutely no sense to hire Gumbel, because that's never been who he is. Alternatively, if the NFL was looking for someone who would provide a sharp edge to their coverage, then Gumbel was certainly their man. Like lots of other TV and radio stations who knowingly hire tactless performers who enjoy getting a rise out of people, an argument can be made that you have to live with the consequences that inevitably come when you give people like this an open mic. Sooner or later, these people are going to say something stupid, insensitive, offensive, and beyond the pale dumb. Gumbel's done it many times before, and he will certainly do it again.

Where Wilbon fails in his argument is at the same place where most of his media colleagues fail. Wilbon strongly implies that because Gumbel 'has the right' to say what he wants to say, he also has the right to do so without consequence. This is a common bridge that free speech/media people make, but it is entirely invalid. It is true that Gumbel has the right to say what he wants. But nowhere in the Constitution does the First Amendment guarantee the right to an audience. Nowhere does the Constitution say that the exercise of free speech is without consequence. Nowhere does the law say that in addition to having the right of free speech, someone also has the right to his own TV show, or syndicated newspaper column, or sweet book deal to disseminate his views. Such a bridge is not a function of law, but a societal function of entitlement coupled with a fervent resistance to taking any responsibility when people abuse or pervert the freedoms they have.

I often say that people who so insistently defend the rights of people to say provocative things, but don't equally defend the rights of those who legally protest against such people are no friends of the First Amendment. Hollywood in particular is full of such people. And so is the media. For those of us who have long considered Gumbel's supposed 'provocative' comments to be little more than misinformed partisan bluster will properly celebrate when and if he is finally called to account through a dismissal. If it happens, and I have my doubts, it will be long overdue.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

McLaren vs Pascal vs Neuhaus, Part 3

So what does Neuhaus add to the discussion in Parts 1 and 2? Some observations from his Freedom for Ministry:

While Pascal seems to be to the right (for lack of a better word) of McLaren, Neuhaus actually seems to be to the right of Pascal. The gist of what Neuhaus is saying is that the church, its ministers, and its people should not conform to secular notions of success. He says, “Our certifications and diplomas are as doubtful as are the authorities that issued them.” (p. 68) The church should be radically different in accordance with its radically different worldview. While I see much of what McLaren is saying as utilitarian pragmatism, Neuhaus radically divorces himself from such notions, believing that pragmatic utilitarianism is fundamentally anti-Christian. While McLaren sees the (perceived) weakening of the American church as a sure sign that the church needs to change how it does things, Neuhaus takes a longer view in saying that the church throughout time has enjoyed differing degrees of respect and authority. Our response to the church’s weakened condition is not to adopt secular measurements of success and thought, but to return to character as the doorway to society’s transformation and submission to divine authority. He notes, “The concept of character has a venerable place in the Christian tradition…In current understandings, character has little to do with pastoral counseling, and that is a measure of how thoroughly counseling has become captive to secular ideology.” (p. 89) It is here that we can see a major difference between McLaren and Neuhaus. Neuhaus appeals to the historic Christian tradition as a reliable guide to present and future conduct, while McLaren seems to want to free himself from this same tradition for the sake of relevancy. What Neuhaus is saying is that ongoing relevancy is actually tied to some degree to previous ideas of relevancy. Like Pascal, Neuhaus is arguing for a Christianity that is eternally relevant because it uniquely speaks to each cultural shift and offers consistent remedies for its ailments. Neuhaus and Pascal both believe the viability of the Christian faith is fundamentally rooted in the history of God's people and His church.

Where Neuhaus seems to differ from Pascal is in his tendency to truly dissociate from social science disciplines. Pascal never did this. While suspicious of human reason, Pascal never swore off human reason as illegitimate and anti-Christian. Neuhaus would have been on better ground taking the same approach to the social sciences. But instead, he seems to go farther by implying that the church should have nothing to do with such things. While saying that “the ministry should not be scornful of psychology…” he goes on to say that “the dominance of counseling theory and technique in many seminaries and many ministries reflects a massive failure of nerve, perhaps even the idolatry of wanting…” (p. 85) He concludes, “It is at least unbecoming and probably blasphemous to norm the Christian life by the criteria of the therapeutic…If we rummage through what Yeats called ‘the rag and bone shop’ of the human heart, the discoveries are ghastly.” (p. 87) But to me, this is exactly what Pascal set out to do, with the result that his thoughts remain profound and relevant 300+ years later. Neuhaus is right to call us to engage the world with great discernment, since Pascal called for the same thing. But the views of Neuhaus of an almost strict separation from the world’s disciplines and thinking need to be tempered by the approach of Pascal, who sought to engage the world by finding commonalities with it, and then offering the Christian faith as the best explanation of realities all people acknowledge. This is the best course of action in being the church in the world.

We need to engage the culture without being thoroughly assimilated into the culture. In my view, where both McLaren and Neuhaus offer us differing degrees of imbalance in our interaction with the emerging generation, Pascal offers an approach that best incorporates the seemingly paradoxical emphases of engagement and separation that the NT gives us.

McLaren vs Pascal vs Neuhaus, Part 2

This blog focuses on Pascal and how he compares to McLaren in Part 1.

Like McLaren, Pascal exhibits considerable distrust in human reason as a supremely reliable guide for interpreting reality. Pascal has a strong view of sin, believing it thoroughly taints everything, including our reasoning faculties. Pascal wanted to rein in human reason by seeing it within a proper context of sin. So Pascal, like McLaren, warns against both the rationalist and the dogmatist. He notes, “We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome.” (406) In some ways, McLaren and Pascal seem to be fighting against some of the same things. However, while McLaren’s mistrust of rationalism seems to be based more on what he believes is a cultural shift away from modernist thinking, Pascal’s mistrust lies more within a Biblical framework of the corrosive effects of sin upon humanity’s entire condition. In addition, unlike McLaren, Pascal puts forth a philosophy of conversing with emerging generations that seems far more rooted in the history of God’s people and his church. Pascal’s method of cultural engagement is to start with shared experiences that bridge the gap with people. Then, the questions we ask should come from that shared human experience. But as we think about these things, we should reflect and consider what the worthwhile questions are, versus other questions that are less helpful.

So how did Pascal determine what was worth thinking about? His main criteria are the contradictions in human behavior. Humans are both great and wretched at the same time. Pascal notes, “In a word man knows he is wretched. Thus he is wretched because he is so, but he is truly great because he knows it.” (122, see also 114) Pascal then unpacks this greatness and wretchedness and applies the Biblical story to these aspects. He notes, “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness. It must also account for such amazing contradictions.” (149) Early on, Pascal is not yet arguing for Christianity through this paradox. Rather, he is simply communicating with culture through the shared experiences of life and death, good and evil, happiness and sadness (148), truth and falsehood, creation and destruction, success and failure. He notes, “We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only wretchedness and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and incapable of either certainty or happiness. We have been left with this desire as much as a punishment as to make us feel how far we have fallen.” (401) Christians and non-Christians alike (of every stripe) can relate to this paradox because they ARE this paradox. This is not uniquely Christian; it’s simply a reflection on the nature of human experience. Pascal graphically notes, “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe!” (131) Pascal’s observations place him in the cultural conversation of the past few centuries. Nietzche highlighted both the will to life and the tendency to decline. Freud wondered why we are so bored. We should ask where we see human greatness and wretchedness in both society and especially ourselves. We love our wives deeply, yet we also give them very little attention sometimes. We’re willing to give our lives for our children, but we’re unwilling to take 5 minutes to enter their world on their terms because it’s inconvenient for us to do so. We love our neighbor, but usually not as ourselves. This doesn’t mean we don’t really love our wives, children and neighbors; it just means that we are walking paradoxes. Whatever the truth is about human beings, it is going to need to make sense out of both the greatness and wretchedness of man.

Pascal argues that the biblical doctrines of Creation and Fall help us make sense of the paradoxes that we find in ourselves and the world (Creation referring to greatness; Fall referring to wretchedness; the two doctrines together help explain the sense of loss and malaise we often feel). The greatness and wretchedness of JC as the great, yet dispossessed king who saved people and yet suffered a ruinous death highlight this great paradox. Pascal notes, “All these examples of wretchedness prove his greatness. It is the wretchedness of a great lord, the wretchedness of a dispossessed king.” (116) The sense of loss that we have is similar to being born into a great dynasty and yet having the royal household we were born into exiled, and feeling like we had been cheated of what we were meant for. Our discontent has this nature. Man was made for true happiness, but since we’ve lost this true good, we try to satisfy it in everything except God and are left with only traces of happiness rather than the real thing. Pascal notes, “Who indeed would think himself unhappy not to be king except one who had been dispossessed.” (117) We have pushed God out, but the image of God is still in us and drives us to idols in order to find happiness. Pascal says, “God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place…” (148)

Pascal’s understanding of the paradox of man and the wisdom of the Biblical response is everywhere in our culture. For example, in sports, there are wonderful moments of triumph standing side by side with ugly incidents of failure and fallout. Howard Stern’s moral zeal to expose hypocrisy and deal with stuff at the root, while reveling in depravity at the same time, also unwittingly highlights the human paradox and makes the Bible make perfect sense. We can find both Creation and Fall in Howard Stern and everyone else. In its simplicity, the Bible explains the culture and helps the culture understand itself if only the culture would be willing to see itself within the Scriptural mirror as Pascal says, “There is no denying it; one must admit that there is something astonishing about Christianity. ‘It is because you were born in it,’ they will say. Far from it; I stiffen myself against it for that very reason, for fear of being corrupted by prejudice. But, though I was born in it, I cannot help finding it astonishing.” (817). Pascal has given us a reliable way to incorporate 1 Cor. 9 into our lives and our engagement with culture, because it inevitably leads to the Cross. The paradox is resolved in Jesus Christ, and we understand ourselves fully in Him and regain the true happiness we have lost, along with understanding God as well as we can by seeing Jesus Christ on the Cross. Jesus Christ is THE revelation of both God AND man.

In the end, Pascal is to be preferred over McLaren for a number of reasons. McLaren has chosen to align himself too closely to a cultural movement that will come and go like all such movements do. In urging the church to join the fast-break pace of cultural movements and keep up with them, he is in great danger of reducing the Gospel to entirely situational material, rather than something normative that continues to abide regardless of where the cultural winds blow. In saying, “Will you continue to live loyally in the fading world…of modernity…or will you venture ahead…to practice your faith and devotion to Christ in the new emerging culture of postmodernity,” McLaren is reducing the Christian faith to legitimate and illegitimate situational expressions that change with each new situation. In contrast, by focusing on the great questions of humanity and existence as his starting point, Pascal’s approach to dialogue more easily transcends the limits of situational cultural shifts that come and go, and in doing so, actually gets to the heart of the problem much better than McLaren does. More so than McLaren, Pascal is addressing the great issues of life that are universally applicable to all peoples and cultures at all times. Thus, in arguing for the viability of the Christian doctrines of Creation, Fall, and redemption, Pascal is allowing the Christian story to speak normatively to virtually all cultural situations. This is in contrast to McLaren, who is essentially arguing for a situational Christianity that may or may not be based upon or lead to normative truth. We are still reading and pondering Pascal over 300 years after his death. He is still relevant because he continues to speak to each emerging generation. In contrast, I can hardly imagine a scenario where anyone will be reading McLaren 300 years from now. In bringing the Gospel to emerging generations, we must be sensitive to situational realities. But we must do this always with the understanding that the very reason why the Gospel can speak to different cultural situations and shifts is because in the end, it transcends them with an eternal metanarrative that is not so tied to any particular cultural shift that it becomes irrelevant when the next shift happens. We can appreciate McLaren’s appeal to speak constructively to emerging generations, although the emerging generation McLaren is interested in is really only a preferred slice of the emerging generation. But this does not mean that the Gospel of each new emerging generation overwrites, supersedes, and replaces all previous expressions of the Gospel to previous generations. By building the Christian story in the context of the history of God’s people and the importance of God’s church, Pascal’s approach more readily enables us to see each new expression of Christianity as adding on to an already rich story that relies on the wisdom of what has come before to help guide what comes next.

McLaren vs Pascal vs Neuhaus, Part 1

Every generation and culture has something like an 'emerging generation' that is all the rage right now in Christian worship circles. While Brian McLaren is the big star name in emergent church circles, there is nothing new about McLaren's views or the challenge of aligning, in a biblical way, how the church does church that is relevant to the emerging generation. I am occasionally asked about my views on McLaren. So in the next three blogs, I'm going to discuss and compare how McLaren, Blaise Pascal, and Richard Neuhaus see the church's relationship with the world and what it looks like. This particular blog will focus on McLaren and his views as articulated in his A New Kind of Christian. A good bit of all 3 posts will come from an answer I gave to a final exam question earlier this year. I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

In attempting to better align the church to speak relevantly to the larger culture in its latest form, McLaren seeks to do a number of things; some good, some not so good. McLaren is right to question the gap between cultural Christianity and the Christ of Scripture. The organizational church has subsumed Christianity so that it is no longer the church to the unchurched. In previous generations, it made sense to assume that a certain amount of Biblical literacy and familiarity with the Christian story existed among those who did not attend church. But to assume such a thing today is perilous, and McLaren is right in urging the church to better reckon with the environment it finds itself in and adjust its worship and ministry accordingly. He is also right to point out that we are far more affected by culture than we think we are, and that there is a divide between our culture-shaped Christianity and Jesus. He is offering a critique of the modernist church, particularly consumerism, individualism, rationalism, institutionalism, etc. American Christianity is not the only legitimate manifestation of Christianity, and we should not dismiss the degree to which our Christianity is tied to our particular cultural expression. This is especially vital in light of America’s ever-increasing cultural diversity. McLaren believes modern rationalism and the scientific method really drive our interpretation of Scripture, and this is problematic. McLaren is clearly rebelling against what he believes is something of a hermeneutical tyranny that insists that Scripture be read through modernist lenses. To the extent he is insisting on other legitimate approaches to Scripture interpretation and how that plays out in the church, he is doing the church a predominately good service. In some ways, the culture has moved past a scientistic approach to understanding reality. McLaren is correct in saying that the church cannot be enslaved to a way of presenting the Gospel that has less and less points of contact with the emerging generation.

Unfortunately, his alternative to a systematic approach to reading the Bible is that truth is contextualized, and the challenge is considerable in moving between the original context and ours. He advocates a personal engagement in which the Bible should read us. This is good. But just as rationalism can abuse the text, so can the loose approach of McLaren, in which Scripture offers us possibilities for meaning, instead of presenting us with meaning. The problem is that his loose approach to the text is not derived from the text itself any more than the rationalist approach that McLaren wants to free the church from. He’s adopting the same kind of hermeneutical tyranny that he’s fighting against. All he’s doing is putting a different roof on top. McLaren’s approach brings into question whether there is a ‘best meaning’ to the text, because his approach is anti-essential. He says, “So the authoritative text is never what I say about the text or even what I understand the text to say but rather what God means the text to say…So the real authority does not reside in the text itself…instead, the real authority lies in God, who is there behind the text or beyond it or above it.” (p. 50) The text becomes a resource in which individuals find stuff to work with in an individualistic way. But Scripture presents itself as something that has meaning given to it, so there is a best meaning. So when he says that the Bible should read us, he doesn’t actually apply it; instead, he’s bringing his perspective to the text every bit as much as the modernist and is not allowing the Bible to read him. The text offers possibilities for generating meanings, and that’s it. But that’s not what Scripture itself says. McLaren is far more tied to larger cultural trends than he thinks. He has adopted the anti-essentialist framework of modernist and postmodernist culture and has applied it to questions of hermeneutics and worship without asking whether this culture has any points of contact with Scripture itself.

McLaren holds an uncritical attitude toward postmodernity, in large part because he doesn’t seem to realize how much in common his postmodernity has with the modernity he’s trying to undo. The great pillars of Western modernity (democracy, technology, and capitalism) are all very present in McLaren’s thinking. Democracy’s endless proliferation of individual freedoms has resulted in the lack of any universal idea of the highest good, or even the shared good. The lack of boundaries to individual freedom is seen in McLaren’s thinking about Scripture, in which Scripture offers a plethora of potential meanings to its readers that they then actualize. It’s the ultimate form of American democracy applied to hermeneutics and interpretation. He also seems to apply it to the question of comparative religion when he says, “[M]y understanding of the gospel tells me that religion is always a mixed bag, whether it’s Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Some of it reflects people’s sincere attempts to find the truth, and some of it represents people’s attempts to evade the truth through hypocrisy….I don’t think Christianity has, on the whole, proved itself much better than Peter. But isn’t that the point of the gospel – that we’re all a mess, whatever our religion, in need of God’s grace?” (p. 66) The religions of the world are like choices in the voting booth, with each having pluses and minuses, each having about the same track record, and each containing about the same kind of people.

Technology’s triumph of the new over the old and the almost obsessive need to update the old with the new with ever greater speed has rendered the old as outdated, rather than wise. By insisting on a ‘new kind of Christian’, he is not only distancing himself from the wisdom of the past, but is also devaluing the institutional church itself as an essential agent of redemptive history. McLaren is not stressing community and relationships, but individual exploration of possibilities (his whole book being an exercise of such exploration), with no concrete restraints or boundaries to govern what is appropriate to explore and what is not. He says, “I can’t tell if I’m being insubordinate in exploring these thoughts or if I need courage to go farther…If I let go or loosen my grip on some things I’ve never before doubted, will I fall away from you?” (p. 25) This is an inevitable consequence of his seemingly eager dissociation from his historical tradition (the church throughout time). He muses, “I’m not against our systematic theologies. I’m beginning to see them as an artifact of worship from the modern era…Medieval theologians had different questions, concerns, and approaches; so did ancient ones and biblical writers and characters.” (p. 24) And while McLaren clearly dislikes the commodification of the American church today, he is advocating a 'commodifying' hermeneutic that encourages people to treat the content of Scripture as a commodity to be put to use in a consumerist manner. It’s ironic that approaching the Biblical text with the intention of extracting bits of data to support the theology we bring to the text led McLaren to a place of great spiritual crisis. Having emerged on the other side of this crisis, he is now advocating the same thing by treating Biblical data as giving the consumer possibilities and options that lead to the consumer making useful choices and becoming the kingmaker of his own theology. He notes, “[2 Timothy] says that Scripture is inspired and useful…That’s a very different job description than we moderns want to give it…When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to rediscover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value to us…a book that tells us who we are and what story we find ourselves in so that we know what to do and how to live.” (p. 52) In doing this, McLaren has turned Scripture (as well as church worship) into a kind of Target or Kohl’s, where the consumer is presented a vast array of choices for how to accessorize their lives, and it is the consumer, not the product, who chooses based on the choices presented, or just goes to a different store if the choices at Kohl’s are not to her liking. McLaren doesn’t seem to see that his eyes are still thoroughly American and rooted in very American modernistic pillars that he is then bringing to Scripture and asking the church to conform with. He himself has not escaped the very thing he perceives to be the problem in the first place.

It’s unclear whether McLaren is just bashing modernity and saying postmodernity is fundamentally better, or is saying that modernity was good when the world was modern, but now that it’s not, we need to change. But either way, his emphasis on the new is ironically thoroughly modern. McLaren has fully adopted the rat race mentality of modernist/postmodernist culture and is telling the church to get with the program. What McLaren doesn’t see is that his program is not rooted in Scripture. The result is that he is advocating that the church replace one culturally-dictated approach to ministry with another without asking whether either cultured approach can be traced back to Scripture. It’s hard to operate within a Biblical framework when the Bible is reduced to possibilities to be tried on in the spiritual dressing room, rather than an authoritative (and divinely inspired) commentary on God, the human condition, redemption, and living in time and space with a Biblical understanding of the goal of all history.

How does this compare with Pascal? Read on...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Imagination and Song

Reggie Kidd is the real deal. He has written a book, With One Voice, that discusses how Christ being the Singing Savior should impact our worship and connectedness with God. For those perspectivalists out there, Reggie comprises a good Framean scalene triangle when it comes to worship (you need to have taken a theology class with Frame to understand the degree to which you get an education in basic triangular geometry as well as theology in his classes). Reggie teaches Worship at RTS (N). He is a pastor of worship at a local PCA church near Orlando (S). And he has a great personal (existential) interest in music that is a major component of his personal faith walk (E).

Early in WOV, Reggie articulates a rather simple but penetrating observation. He says:

Disbelief today is not a function of logic; it stems from a loss of imagination. When a college student is told by her professor that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John cannot be read as literal truth anymore, it's not the supporting evidence he offers that does her in. Nobody has found Jesus's bones in a tomb. No scandalous news bulletin is 'just in' on the apostles. It's the professor's imperious tone of voice - and the fact that when our student looks around the classroom she sees no hands raised in dissent. She doesn't know anybody whose life is governed by the Gospels...Arguably the chief icon-maker of her day, Walt Disney, taught her to 'wish upon a star' but not to pray to a living God. This is what theologian David Kelsey means when he says that faith is faltering because 'plausibility structures' have decayed; 'authoritative community' has been in decline, and a culture of disbelief has taken over. The facts haven't changed. The things that make the Christian hope thinkable have changed. (pp. 22-3)

Reggie then notes that Paul seemingly anticipated this very problem when he said that the church is the pillar and support of the truth in 1 Tim. 3.15. The Bible offers us the plausibility structure that makes the claims of Christianity plausible - the church worshipping the true God in vibrant community. To once again stir up the kind of imagination that makes Christianity plausible to the culture, Reggie says that the culture needs to see this imagination at work among Christians themselves. He ably notes:

In the fact of the deconstruction of the Christian view of reality, the great cultural task of Christians is the reclamation of the imagination. This needs to be worked out across a broad front...[but] as vital as anything is the way they engage the arts: painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, cinema, dance, architecture, and, of course, music. (p. 23)

The rest of the book flushes out this idea in specific regard to music. For Reggie, "music opens the imagination to the possibility that what we see is not all there is." Reggie believes that the Christian faith is necessarily sung because this is part of how we own our faith better and both internalize it more deeply and externally profess it more convincingly.

When we worship in church, we should expect God to show up in song. We should anticipate our imagination being reawakened and renewed through song. If worship is failing to accomplish these things, something's wrong either with the song or with our reception/expression of it, or both. In many ways, Scripture itself can be seen as a lengthy song of redemption. As a practical matter, many sections of both Testaments are obvious songs/hymns, or exhibit clearly hymn-like meter. The 150th Psalm boldly depicts the grand convergence of eschatological worship, where instruments of all kinds (and this alone is an interesting story) join together harmoniously to praise God.

Reggie is right. Worship is not just about us. Through song, we move closer in our intimacy with God, and God moves closer in his intimacy with us. To believe this requires the kind of imagination that the culture has largely lost. But how wonderful is it to firmly believe such a thing, not just because it sounds good, but because we know it's true because we've experienced it personally!! This is the kind of imagination through song that can reclaim a soul, a nation, a cosmos. As with many other things, the duty of the Christian is to show the world the truth and power of this kind of imagination, and witness God multiplying its effects.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Gratitude and Atheism

I know I've written a good bit about atheism this week, and I apologize. I'm not particularly obsessed with atheism and trying to debunk it like some of my fellow brethren are. I wouldn't presume to think that I could debunk atheism even if I wanted to. I do think that atheism is a severely deficient ideology that is plagued with self-inconsistency, and that this has been demonstrated ad nauseum by many folks who are smarter than I. But I also know that there are presuppositional reasons why atheism will always be with us, and that such presuppositions are very difficult to dislodge, even when faced with the absurdities that arise from them.

Case in point, a new article written by Ronald Aronson that recently appeared in The Philosopher's Magazine. Aronson is a professor of Humanities at Wayne State, and considers himself an atheist. In this article, titled 'Thank Who Very Much?', Aronson tackles the question of giving thanks when one does not believe in God. It is a refreshing article that is both thought-provoking and sad. He starts off his article thusly:

Living without God today means facing life and death as no generation before us has done. It entails giving meaning to our lives not only in the absence of a supreme being, but now without the forces and trends that gave hope to the past several generations of secularists. We who live after progress, after Marxism, and after the Holocaust have stopped believing that the world is being transformed by reason and democracy. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the modern faith that human life is heading in a positive direction has been undone, giving way to the earlier religious faith it replaced, or to no faith at all. Alone as never before, in a universe scientifically better understood than ever, we find little in its almost-infinite vastness to guide us towards what our lives mean and how we should live them.

In attempting to formulate an atheology of life and ethics in this environment, Aronson turns to the notion of gratitude. He laments that gratitude, while a mainstay of theistic religion, is mostly ignored in secular life and literature, and arguably for good reason as the title of his article suggests. In atheistic literature, the feeling of gratitude is a serious problem; so much so that Camus never felt grateful for even simple pleasures like the warmth of the sun on a cold day because he knew what the implications of feeling a sense of gratitude would mean to his view of the cosmos as empty and absurd, along with the lives we live. On the other side, atheists like Baggini have suggested that feelings of gratitude are, a la Freud, merely unfortunate vestiges of the supernatural worldviews humans used to hold to but have now shrugged off, but obviously not in their entirety if feelings of gratitude are still floating around in the minds of secularists. In a nutshell, feelings of gratitude in these paradigms are very difficult to deal with and require a good bit of scrambling in order to delegitimize them.

Aronson takes a different approach. He believes that gratitude is a good thing to feel and that the secular worldview would profit from such feelings. He recalls how he himself felt "vague" feelings of gratitude while walking through a scenic wood one day. This feeling, naturally, raised the question of what he was thankful for, and even more on point, who or what should be the object of his thanks? He says that it would have been a very natural thing in his experience to give thanks to God. He believes that "thanking God out here on the trail would tie together everything I see and experience, it would direct me towards its source, and would give me a personal relationship with that being." But of course, being an atheist, God cannot be a proper object of such gratitude. So Aronson tries to find a 'third way' on gratitude by rejecting Camus' vision of cosmic absurdity and also rejecting Baggini's view that feelings of gratitude are illegitimate for those who have left supernaturalism behind.

In the end, Aronson appeals to dependence upon both personal and impersonal forces and agents as the basis for gratitude. He, appropriately in my view, says that the atheist should feel comfortable feeling a sense of thanks toward those humans who have come before him who have enabled him to enjoy and experience pleasure in things like nature. But then he takes a more difficult road, and one that atheism as a whole has never satisfactorily flushed out. Aronson adopts the Sagan-like gratitude for the impersonal universe. He says that such gratitude "is a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible."

The main problem with Aronson's construction is immediately obvious. While Aronson can feel gratitude for the warmth of the sun, he is unable to direct his gratitude to the sun, because the sun isn't listening. The sun, being impersonal, has no clue what gratitude even is. The human who feels gratitude toward the sun knows this. So what Aronson is left with is feeling gratitude toward an impersonal agent that he can't express to that agent. In trying to develop an atheology of gratitude, Aronson is thoroughly confusing categories of ontology without addressing how such a dissonant mix is anything but incoherent. Gratitude is an innate emotion that can only be experienced by the personal. When it is directed toward the impersonal, its meaning and significance are highly questionable to put it nicely. Gratitude means nothing to the impersonal at all, so there is no meaning or significance of the feeling on that side of the equation. So then we have to ask whether giving thanks to the impersonal is meaningful to the personal agent who feels the gratitude. Aronson seems to think so, but his own article betrays a much deeper longing for connection than his proposal can ever allow. He feels gratitude, and apparently wants to express it, but without saying so, he seems to realize that feelings of gratitude are problematic when they are directed toward an impersonal phenomenon or entity that lacks all intentionality. Can we really give thanks for a random, unintentional, unemotional, non-purposeful, haphazard, and impersonal event like the warmth of the sun on a cold day? Doesn't gratitude entail an appreciation of the personal intentionality of that which we are thankful? Can gratitude for the impersonal and random possibly be as meaningful as gratitude for the personal and intentional? I don't think so, and it doesn't sound like Aronson himself is entirely convinced either. So the only way he can express his gratitude of the impersonal is indirectly through articles or conversing with others who are not the object of his gratitude. The only way he can direct his gratitude toward the object of his thanks is to talk to trees. Since he's not prepared to do that, his atheology of gratitude fails because he can't get out of his own way. In the end, he has to default to ultimately directing his gratitude of the impersonal toward other personal agents in order for the feeling of gratitude to be meaningful. He's actually moving closer to the truth in doing this, but he's failing his own litmus test too.

A much better explanation for Aronson's predicament is what Scripture says about the human condition. Aronson is absolutely right in rejecting calls to deny feelings of gratitude. They are legitimate, and the fact that Aronson feels them indicates the truth of the Biblical doctrine of general revelation in Romans 1. People know the truth, even those who deny God. The only thing that's at issue is the degree to which people are willing to suppress what they know to be true and embrace a perversion instead. Aronson is not suppressing the truth as much as those atheistic colleagues who deny the feeling of gratitude right off the top. But Aronson is suppressing the truth by trying to make sense of his true feeling without the true God. When the Christian feels gratitude toward the beauty and order of nature, his affection and gratitude are not directed toward the creation, but toward the Creator who established it and maintains it every second. The Christian's gratitude is not only well-placed, it also makes the most sense as even Aronson seems to imply.

The issue of gratitude is a biggie in worldview conversations. One of the very basic differences between a theistic worldview and an atheistic worldview is over the question of gratitude. Gratitude is a common-sense emotion for the theist; it is a hopeless conundrum for the atheist.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is the World Coming to an End??

Some people seem to think so, from end-times obsessed Christians, to environmentalists, to self-sequestered suburbanites, and other folks in between. Why the renewed concern about impending doom? Among the list of 'signs' are the following that I've heard from various people:

1) Oil/gas prices will never stop rising and threaten the stability of the global economy.

2) The pollution of the environment and deepening threat of global warming threaten the stability of the global economy and contribute to all kinds of natural disasters.

3) Human wars, especially the current strife in the Middle East, may bring about a third World War, which some think could usher in Armaggedon.

4) Increasing radicalism worldwide will make it impossible to ever achieve global peace, or even come all that close.

Perhaps ironically, folks of all stripes who hold to some of these views (or others) are reacting in fairly similar ways - withdrawal. It used to be that those who thought the end of the world was imminent would literally retreat into caves, bomb shelters, communes, or go very deep into undeveloped nature to try and separate and protect themselves from the imminent doom they thought was coming. This 'head for the hills' mentality still exists today, but it looks a little different in our uber-technological society. While many still do head for the hills, even if 'the hills' of today are outer suburbia far enough away from major city centers and high risk terrorist targets, this mentality is complemented by technology. I am finding more and more that people who have 'headed for the hills' are increasingly deriving their version of reality from technology, rather than literally going out into the world and experiencing reality. It is a very dangerous thing to have larger numbers of people derive many of their basic perceptions about life from a combination of virtual mediums, rather than discovering life by breaking away from technology long enough to try out life for themselves. People think they know what's going on in the Middle East because they watch a lot of news, and they form larger worldview paradigms based on such understandings. This is dangerous. This is like saying I know how to drive a car because I took driver's ed in the classroom and saw a few videos while I was there.

News, and the technology that allows us to be news-obsessed, are not bad things. News can indeed be informative, and should be. Technology that allows us greater access to world events and the intricacies of life can indeed be a helpful factor in increasing our understanding and sophistication. But in the end, it's still driver's ed; it's a virtual tour of reality that is not a substitute for the real thing. Too many Americans are making the fatal mistake of substituting the virtual for the real thing, and allowing the virtual to dictate our attitudes about the real thing. In other words, Americans are heading for the hills because virtual reality allows people (so they think) to check out of real life and form their opinions of the world in a vacuum, in isolation, walled off from the world. If this is our orientation, it's not difficult to see why people think the world is coming to an end. It's a vicious circular, where we withdraw from the world so we can be inundated by virtual images of the world that make us want to withdraw even further because we don't like what we see, without realizing the completely imbalanced nature of what we're swallowing and blindly accepting as full-orbed reality.

Is the world coming to an end? The truth is that nobody knows for sure. But I, for one, doubt it. The strife of the Middle East, the threat of an energy crisis, the consequences of environmental plundering, and all the rest are all legitimate concerns. But it ain't the whole story. For every one of these bad events and crises, there is at least one good event and resolution that should give us hope that God has not given up on the world, and neither should we. People need to get out more.

The Atheist/Christian 30 Days Episode

I hate reality tv, mainly because my simpleton head can't get past the obvious misnomer 'reality tv'; it's the definition of an oxymoron. But beyond that, most of what passes as 'reality' in reality tv has nothing to do with reality, and is purposefully staged for maximum dramatic effect. All reality tv is like this to some degree, and the 'reality show' (arrgh, I hate saying that!) 30 Days is no exception. However, I must admit that their fairly recent episode of placing an atheist lady in the house of a 'fundamentalist' Christian family for 30 days was enough to get me to watch.

I'm not really here to comment on the episode itself. The atheist was well chosen by the show. She was reasonable, fairly intelligent, and sober-minded. In other words, she was a respectable version of Newdow. The Christian family, of course, was more stereotypical - inflexible, somewhat intolerant, unable/unwilling to interact with the atheist's views, etc. This is reality tv's version of Intelligent Design, in that nothing about those 30 days was random or happened by chance. Instead, the conflicts and resolutions were thoroughly predictable (and perhaps intentionally designed) based on how the show was framed and the characters chosen. I'm not a partisan devotee of Intelligent Design, but the manner in which this show was 'designed' by a 'higher intelligence' ought to at least make the atheist think for a second or two about how the world works, and how this particular episode might be a microcosm of something infinitely larger. It's hardly unreasonable to draw such an inference.

But anyway, the one thing that really depressed me about the show had nothing to do with the characters. At one point in the show, a familiar statistic was sighted: the overwhelming majority of people in the United States would not vote for someone who expressly stated a disbelief in the existence of God. Now one might think that as a Christian, I would be satisfied with such a thing and would applaud it. And on one level, I suppose I do. I would certainly not vote for someone who did not believe in the existence of God, because I believe the existence of God is a 'properly basic' belief that grounds all reality. Deny the existence of God, and nothing else makes sense; not our laws, not our ethics, not our goals as a nation, etc. Glenn Tinder has written much on this subject at his perch at UMass, and his writings make for interesting and compelling reading.

However, all is not well for committed theists. If most of America will not vote for an atheist as a basic principle, then why has America entered into a post-Christian and even post-theistic period? The desire of most of America to see some kind of theist as President has not stopped many of these same people from radically deemphasizing the transformative nature of theistic religion in the culture. In other words, it's easy for someone to say they won't vote for an atheist, because it doesn't require a whole lot of work other than going in a voting booth once every few years. It's much harder for that same person to put their theistic preferences to work in their neighborhoods, at the jobsite, in the homeless shelter, and in public discourse. This takes work and usually entails rejection. It requires commitment mixed with sensitivity and tolerance. It requires truth and love. Such requirements are often too heavy and numerous, and this is why we have the results we see; we want theistic earthly leadership without having to do any of the heavy lifting ourselves. It's the difference between creed and deed; philosophical orientation versus day to day living. This is a false dichotomy that we are perfecting, and the culture and its 'realities' reflect this unfortunate perfection.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Shared Responsibility = Censorship"...

So says Oliver Stone on the eve of his new 9/11 flick, World Trade Center. In an interview published in the WP today, Stone offers us a fascinating look at himself. While Stone has always admitted that his personal politics are left of center, he has consistently fought against people pigeon-holing him because he genuinely believes that he is capable of respectfully understanding and even portraying on film, those with whom he disagrees. And, as it turns out, WTC may be the movie that convinces some people that Stone's self-appraisal has been right all along. By all accounts, WTC is a movie that casts patriotism, religious faith, and 'American values' in a very positive light. Among many, Stone is known as someone who disdains all of these things. But many prominent conservatives who have already seen the movie are praising it and are heaping kudos onto Stone. While this may strike some as a really oddball phenomenon, Stone himself thinks that despite his own views, he believes he has to give credence to those who cherish religious faith, and/or a strong patriotic devotion to America.

The interview is quite honest and revealing. For example, Stone wishes he could be a pacifist, but he can't bring himself to fully adopt this position given the realities of 'the real world'. In addition, Stone wishes he could ascribe and even dedicate his artistic endeavors to some higher or 'great god', but he can't, presumably for philosophical reasons.

In the end, Stone believes his conscience needs to be accountable only to himself. This then leads to his assertion that adopting some kind of communal or shared responsibility amounts to censorship, because he seems to feel that having to align his conscience (and his art) to a larger shared responsibility is a kind of freedom-quashing submission of his individuality as an artist. It's a very interesting way of thinking, and is, of course, correct in a way. It is certainly true that a person who feels a sense of responsibility to something larger than himself, whether it be to a god, a family, a community, a city, a nation, etc, necessarily means some degree of individual submission to a higher good, whatever that is. It is most ironic that we find the uniquely extremist American obsession with individuality in a guy like Stone who so often has provided us a vision of America that is hardly flattering. Stone recognizes the seeming paradox. He says in the interview that he loves America because America is unique in all the world in allowing people to be themselves or to change themselves at will. Again, the stress on radical individuality that has become a mainstay of American life in the last 50 years can be seen in Stone in spades. He truly is a child of the 60s.

I guess what strikes me as highly interesting is that WTC seems to celebrate the very kind of shared responsibility and shared communal duty that Stone himself intensely resists. His movie is about 2 officers who go into the burning buildings to try and save people they don't know. Selflessness, not selfishness, is what Stone is positively portraying here. And oddly enough, he thinks that such selflessness (shared responsibility) and concern for others is one of the great traits of America that we should take pride in. Yet, he himself resists it fervently as a matter of artistic suppression. This has been Stone's attitude for years. When he was pressed on the consequences of his JFK movie, to when he was dogged by the assertion that his movie Natural Born Killers promoted and glorified senseless violence, Stone always said that he did not have a larger responsibility to the public in his art. He always said that his conscience is beholden only to himself. He absolutely believes that asking his art to be sensitive to larger responsibilities is censorship, pure and simple. Yet in WTC, he is going to depict as noble and courageous, a commitment to shared responsibilities in the most extreme of circumstances. Stone is a smart guy, but I wonder if he sees the irony. Frankly, the same could be said of the American church's creeds of shared responsibility being contradicted day after day by its vigorously individualistic deeds and attitudes. I don't think we're much better than Stone in principle, and that should scare us plenty.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sermon outline for 1John 3:16-20

A skeletal homiletical outline for 1J 3:16-20 follows:

Introduction – In addressing the question of love, John thoroughly integrates doctrinal and practical considerations in 1J 3:16-3:20. He presents to us the Christian definition of supreme love in v16 (the atonement of Christ) and then offers two concrete and practical results of this love in the life of the Christian (love your brother in deed in vv16b-18, and have confidence that you are of the truth in vv19-20).

Main Point #1Christ's love is the starting point for our love. Verse 16 emphasizes the exemplar aspect of the Atonement that we are to imitate. That love would be supremely demonstrated in death is an unpopular view today, but John not only tells us that this is true, he calls us to imitate it if necessary. The Atonement of Christ shows us the seriousness of sin and the kind of love it took to conquer it. A failure to properly respond to this supreme expression of love is to live lives that are misinformed about the nature of love. Our culture reflects the pervasiveness of this misinformation and its consequences. As a community of believers, we need to educate the world about what true love is, what it looks like, and the fruit it produces. How do we do this…

Main Point #2We must radically love one another in deed. It is not enough to give lip service to love; we must back up our words with actions. In particular, we must be willing to die for the sake of our brothers if necessary. But more commonly, we must strive to help fellow believers who are in need of tangible assistance. The church is too often guilty of tolerating the sin of indifference toward the plight of the poor, even in our own ranks. John adds his voice to the larger Biblical witness that hoarding wealth in the midst of great need is not a characteristic of the redeemed, but of those who are condemned (Luke 16).

Main Point #3We can have confidence that we are of the truth. Verse 20 is striking. When Scripture invokes God's knowledge of all things, it's often done in the context of warning the wicked that their deeds will not go unpunished because God knows their hearts and deeds (Rev. 3:1, 3:15, along with Pss. 1,2,10 and many others). The knowledge of God is a fearful thing to those who are perishing. Yet here, the knowledge of God is offered as a comfort to believers struggling with guilt and doubt. God knows who his people are and he knows those who are loyal to him (John 10) even though human loyalty is never perfect. For the redeemed, the knowledge of God is a source of confidence rather than a source of fear and judgment.

Conclusion – Go into the world confidently demonstrating the kind of radical love that Jesus says the world doesn't know (John 5:42). By this, we will show true love to a world that desperately needs to see it, and hasten the great Day of the Lord in the process (2 Pet. 3:12).

There's nothing here that's particularly profound, and certainly nothing that's innovative. But this passage is a tightly-knit pericope that thoroughly integrates the doctrinal with the hortatory. It should demolish any suggestion that there is a dichotomy between theology and life. This unit, along with many other units in 1 John, sees theology and living as mutually dependant, and mutually informing each other. This is how we need to look at the Christian life too. Theology that is done in a vacuum and doesn't factor in the Christian life is bookish and irrelevant (not to mention incorrect). Living that is done in a vacuum and doesn't factor in the theology that grounds our faith in the truth of God's revelation is haywire and inconsistent. A good preacher could spend years mining 1 John for pastoral insights that link the theological with the practical, so that his flock might see the two the way 1 John clearly does - inseparable.


Tomorrow, 8/3, is a fast day on the Jewish calendar (the holiday of Tisha B'Av that mourns the destruction of the Temple (twice) as well as other tragedies endured by the Jewish people in the Hebrew month of Av). My knowledge of Jewish holy days is regretably minimal, but the discipline of fasting that has been incorporated into the Jewish calendar from the beginning is perhaps the great discipline that the Christian tradition has misunderstood and left behind. To fast as a discipline of spiritual purification and sacrificial holiness is rarely if ever talked about as a virtue in Christian circles. Fasting is simply seen as self-deprivation that doesn't really accomplish anything. Moreover, fasting, like many other spiritual disciplines, can be easily perverted into ritualism and/or boasting. The fear of lurching in this direction is a healthy one. But too often, this fear is used as an excuse to scuttle the discipline altogether, which is extremely dangerous.

God did not prescribe disciplines such as fasting because he somehow needed us to fast. Repeatedly in the OT, God disdains the very sacrifices he prescribed in the Torah, because the motives of the people in making such sacrifices were out of step with what the sacrifice was supposed to represent and accomplish. Fasting for the sake of fasting is indeed meaningless. But when fasting becomes an act of worship, where we deprive ourselves temporarily in order to open ourselves up to spiritual purification, this is not only a good thing, but it can also be transforming. In the break-neck evangelicalism of our day, when evangelicals are constantly looking for the next big thing in Christianity, and the next big spiritual high that will get them to a deeper place with God, it would be wiser instead to re-embrace the rigor of the spiritual disciplines that have been prescribed by God from the beginning for this very purpose. A lack of practicing spiritual disciplines reflects a lack of loyalty to the God who prescribed them. The complete and total fidelity/loyalty to God as commanded in the Shema (Deut. 6:4ff) takes a serious hit when we spurn disciplines like fasting under the guise of ritualism, in order to embrace a very modern ritualism of trying to keep up with the latest spiritual crazes, often with little accompanying discernment.

The Christian tradition still has much to learn from the Jewish tradition.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Derrida's Vision of Hospitality

I have written a couple of papers that have touched on this, one of which I'm going to try and get published by ThirdMill in the coming weeks. One thing that I stress about this is that Scripture's vision of hospitality is very comprehensive, and so is Derrida's. Given Derrida's stature as the great deconstructionist philosopher of the 20th century, we are obligated to converse with his views. In my view, when we do so, we find Derrida's vision to be profound and quite revolutionary, but also dangerously out of step with Scripture.

If there is a simple way to describe Derrida's views on hospitality, it is as follows:

1) The only kind of hospitality that deserves to be called 'hospitality' is what he calls 'pure hospitality'.

2) Pure hospitality, in order to be pure, does not resemble the actual hospitality practiced by humans. Actual hospitality is preferential, restrictive, and violently conformative. Pure hospitality, on the other hand, is completely open and completely accepting.

3) For Derrida, the practice of actual hospitality is violent because it necessarily excludes people (since we can't invite the entire world over to our house), insists on acceptable standards of conduct (most of us don't invite people over so they can run around our house breaking everything in sight), and perpetuates larger structures of injustice and exclusivity that pure hospitality must eliminate. In affect, actual hospitality reinforces and fosters the very dynamics of injustice, inequality (host vs guest), and coercion that pure hospitality is designed to eliminate. This makes our actual hospitality inhospitable, and also highlights the impossibility of achieving pure hospitality in a violent world, since the possible highlights the impossible each time it is extended.

4) For Derrida, we must embrace a hospitality of visitation rather than a hospitality of invitation. A hospitality of visitation introduces radical surprise into hospitality, in that 'the other' is allowed into our homes/nations (yes, Derrida sees hospitality as a global system of ethics that deeply impacts issues such as immigration, amnesty/asylum). While Derrida's 'other' sounds rather transcendental, and to some extent is so, what he mainly means is having people in our homes whom we literally know absolutely nothing about. This is pure hospitality. Actual hospitality's practice of asking questions and getting to know people before we ever invite them into our homes is not hospitable, but interrogatory, because our questions are never pure, but always tainted in motive. For Derrida, actual hospitality is always tainted by self-serving motives, whether it's the expectation of a gift in return, or a feeling of self-congratulation. In Derrida's mind, actual hospitality is always an economy of exchange, and gift-giving is never purely altruistic.

Derrida draws many implications from this. He is not bashful in saying that pure hospitality might be terrible, because we could be inviting a saint or the devil into our homes. But to Derrida, it doesn't matter who it is, and he emphatically says so. Derrida believes that if our hospitality is not willing to allow for the possibility that the newcomer is coming to destroy our home (if we insist on eliminating this as a possibility beforehand), then we are not being hospitable. Instead, we are exercising power over the guest that is unjust and perpetuates inequality among people. For Derrida, pure hospitality is the act of always leaving the door open, the lock unlocked, and having a willingness to give absolutely everything we have for every other person. There must be absolutely no limit on the extent to which we are willing to be trespassed upon by our guests. If we hold back at all, we are not being hospitable because we are insisting on being the masters and owners of our home, and thus, have the right to dictate terms (even subtle terms) to our guests. For Derrida, pure hospitality necessarily entails giving up the mastery and ownership of our own space so that it in affect is no longer our space. This results in an equally shared space of host and guest where the host has no authority over the guest (because the host no longer has mastery over the space) and places no conditions on the guest's conduct (because the host no longer owns the space).

Derrida thinks that pure hospitality implies certain metaphysical principles as well. The future must be completely open and non-determinate (this gives us the radical surprise of hospitality), and we must recognize that in a sinful world, pure hospitality is impossible to achieve (which literally leaves Derrida in tears in his writings).

As Christians, how do we respond to this? Even if we recoil at the insistence that we have to be willing to invite the devil into our home in order for us to be considered hospitable, it's not that hard to see how Derrida's attack on traditional hospitality is highly thought-provoking. After all, Derrida, in some respects, is not that far from what Francis Schaeffer used to preach at L'Abri in regards to welcoming newcomers who you knew might very well steal from you (shades of Le Miserables). As Christians, we have to be very careful not to dismiss Derrida solely because we just don't like what he says and don't want to do what he says. We have a higher authority than our own predispositions and preferences. We need to be asking what a Biblical response is to Derrida. Is everything he's saying completely out of step with Scripture, some of it, none of it?

Rather than rehearse what I've already written in other papers about this, I'm going to hold off on answering this in a blog in the hopes that one of my papers might be published in the next month or so. If this doesn't happen, I will then offer some thoughts about this in a few blog posts. But hopefully, the interested reader will be able to see a fairly succinct response within the context of a published paper. Stay tuned...