Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Cost of Christianity

In most church circles, the notion that America is now 'post-Christian' has become rote. Churches and denominations of all stripes have spent well over a decade contemplating this sea change and, with varying degrees of panic, have tried to adjust themselves to be effective in this new environment. Some of this is legitimate, some of it isn't. And while a great deal of ink (and sweat) have been spilled over the here and now of this phenomenon, I have found that most of this effort lacks the kind of longer view that puts immediate circumstances into some context.

Too many folks who are caught up in analyzing this phenomenon and trying to function in it have, in my view, actually minimized the challenge before us. It would be nice if all we had to worry about was the kind of preaching styles, church decor/architecture, worship music, and aesthetic moods that will work as enticing carrots in our present situation. It wouldn't even be so bad if the extent of our problems were taking a hard look at our philosophy of ministry or swallowing hard and becoming technologically cutting edge to reach the next 'generation'. Oh if only the challenge could be met by things like this!

But no. I'm afraid the challenge is much greater. While all of the above things are legitimate to discuss and contemplate, we have to realize that such conversations are the kinds of conversations we have the luxury of having in our present environment. There seems to be an assumption that the present environment has some staying power, so that addressing these kinds of issues will result in some kind of enduring success. Therein lies the problem.

We may be living in an increasingly post-Christian America. But today, one can still be a comfortable Christian where the faith we subscribe to doesn't really cost us that much. America may be post-Christian, but as a whole, it is not yet anti-Christian, at least not expressively or legally. Now as some of my previous posts make clear, this is not universally true. Evangelicals in particular routinely pay a price in the Academy if they insist on holding firm to a number of traditional beliefs. And anyone who spends any amount of time perusing the 'On Faith' community at washingtonpost.com will quickly get a healthy dose of anti-Christian fervor. So there are exceptions to the general rule, and such exceptions should not be minimized, because they are precursors of what's coming.

The challenge facing the church in post-Christian America is still very much at the minor league level right now. But it seems to me that America is slowly moving in the direction of not just being post-Christian, but of exhibiting hostility toward Christians and Christianity. And if this is right, we have much more to worry about than debating whether it's okay to have sermon (excuse me, 'message') time in a coffee house or bookstore setting. Instead, if the church is truly forward-looking and forward-thinking, it needs to be asking much tougher and more basic questions right now, rather than ducking them with euphemistic slogans that avoid the real issues facing us. Questions such as:

1) How many people in my church would fall away from the church and perhaps the faith altogether if society started making them pay a painful price for their religious affiliation?

2) If people in our church were forced to choose between their religious affiliation and being respected pillars in their community and jobsite and the comfortable perks that come with it, which would they choose?

3) Where do the ultimate loyalties of our people lie, and how tested is that loyalty?

Just to be clear, I'm not an 'end times nut', and I don't believe America is literally going to hell. This post is not rooted in any political overtones. But I do think America, for a variety of reasons, has begun exhibiting Christianity fatigue and is very much in the mood to move on, not unlike Europe in the wake of the medieval religious wars that plagued the continent. And if this diagnosis turns out to be fairly correct in 50 years, church leaders need to be thinking now about the kind of faith that will weather the type of storms that seriously challenge a person's faith and ultimate loyalties.

I would submit that only a vibrant, robust, and firm belief in the person of Christ and his holy salvific work will engender the kind of loyalty that will stare down far more potent opposition than anything we're grappling with today. Churches and denominations that are currently fudging on things like the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, his demands for holy living, and his exclusivity in salvation need to seriously reckon with whether this kind of lineup is going to command lasting loyalty that will withstand not just indifference, but hostility. Are people really going to pay much of a price to stay loyal to a Christianity that doesn't teach that Christ alone saves, or that Scripture is uniquely inspired, or that our good works matter only because God sovereignly rules and are in accord with his (not ours) ideas of holiness and righteousness? In other words, how exactly does a Christianity without doctrinal, ethical, or practical boundaries and limits distinguish itself enough from a culture that likewise wants no boundaries that folks will be willing to pay a price to proclaim themselves as Christians?

Sooner or later, most loyalties are tested. And when they are, we discover what our deepest commitments really are. And if we are not cultivating a rigorous Kingdom Christianity of both radical grace and radical righteousness that engenders deep and abiding love and submissive accountability to our King, there is serious cause to wonder whether a Christianity that waters down both really deserves much loyalty from anyone. I suppose that one way to get around all this is to hope that America never reaches the point where it starts exacting a painful price from those who choose to stay loyal to Christ. And part of me hopes for the same thing. After all, I would rather my Christianity not cost me the kinds of worldly things I enjoy. But after some contemplation, I have reached the tentative conclusion that this kind of a hope might well be a false hope, and is something to be believed at one's own risk. The stakes are much higher for church leaders who have whole flocks to think about. Such leaders, more than the rest of us, have to squarely face the loyalty test too. Are they going to risk ticking people off in their pews and presbyteries and start preaching and practicing a truly prophetic Christianity that resembles the church-militant of Matthew 16 and openly and thoroughly repent for failing to do so before now? Or will they continue to avoid paying a price and continue preaching a feather-on-the-wind Christianity because they think that will give them a hearing in the supposedly tolerant and open-minded culture, all the while watching their churches die because the culture has better things to do?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hospitality and Angels

It's quite simple, really. One cannot embrace or practice authentic Christian hospitality if one has heartburn about angels. The Genesis 18 account of the visitation of Abraham by three angelic strangers became the paradigmatic hospitality ethic in Jewish culture, and this ethic is upheld and reinforced by Hebrews 13.2 which draws from this very episode. Hospitality in the Bible is like everything else in the Bible, in that it is a topic that assumes the existence of the supernatural and its involvement in the natural world and its creatures.

For evangelicals who take their Bible seriously, this linking of hospitality to the angelic realm does not present a problem. While we must be careful to distinguish between the biblical presentation of angels vs. many contemporary New Ageish views of the angelic, Scripture is absolutely clear about their existence and periodic visitations. Again, for evangelicals, this shouldn't present a problem.

But for those who feel compelled to desupernaturalize the Bible and the Christian faith more generally, the linking of hospitality to the supernatural creates a problem. This problem is especially relevant given that 'hospitality' has become something of a flavor of the month notion in more liberal circles of the church. But the problem is that at least in the 20th century, it was also the more liberal circles of the church who were most inclined to downplay or explain away the supernaturalism of Scripture to try and make the faith more palatable to scientistic worldviews. My point is that these two strains, embracing 'hospitality' while shunning the supernatural, are altogether incompatible if one is aiming for Christian hospitality. If the angelic and supernatural realm are marginalized, then by definition, one cannot be committed to Christian hospitality that bears any resemblance to how the hospitality theme is presented cover to cover in Scripture. Those who claim to embrace 'hospitality' must also embrace the supernatural with equal fervor, lest they culturalize both.

I suppose this may sound somewhat absolutist, and I suppose that because I'm an evangelical, such a position can be written off by non-evangelicals by considering the source. But the problem is that even Karl Barth recognized this basic irresolvable dynamic in his Church Dogmatics. After spending some time assessing recent (for him) trends in theological liberalism regarding angels, Barth says this:

The consensus of all these modern dogmaticians, both among themselves and with their master Schleiermacher, is overwhelming...These modern thinkers are not prepared to take angels seriously. It does not give them the slightest joy to think of them. They are plainly rather peevish and impatient at having to handle the subject. And if we are told in Hebrews 13.2 not to be neglectful of hospitality, since some have entertained angels unawares, these theologians are almost anxiously concerned to refuse the angels a lodging in their dogmatics, and think that...they should warn others against extending hospitality to them. III.3.415

Hospitality and the supernatural - you can't have one without the other.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I'm Back

I know that in the blogosphere, 2 months offline is like 2,000 years of hibernation, in that people lose interest and move on to other (and better) things to read. But if anyone is still checking in, I want you to know that I'm back.

I've been out of commission for these past couple months because my wife and I have been overseas completing our adoption of a little girl. We were in Pavlodar Kazakhstan and adopted our first child, Katelynn Virginia Foster. We returned to the States this past Friday and are still trying to get oriented (Pavlodar is 10 hours ahead of where we live in America). We are very happy new parents who are learning the back and forth of our new normal.

I hope to begin writing again soon. Despite the much greater personal demands on my time, I still think reading and writing will provide the needed stimulation and respite that will keep the heart pumping. So thanks for persevering with us. It's good to be back.