Monday, November 18, 2013

Drinking Christians

11 Experimental Theology by Richard Beck  
I like dark beer, red wine and whiskey.

When I drink, that's what I like. I like Guinness (or local stouts), Merlot, and sipping whiskey (no ice or water).

That said, I don't drink a lot. Mainly, to be honest, because it's so expensive. Sort of like playing golf. I can't justify it economically. Especially since I'm just as happy having a glass of sweet tea.

Anyhow, this is a post about drinking Christians.

A lot of post-evangelicals drink. And many of them drink a lot. Freed from the "don't drink" prohibitions of their conservative upbringings, these are Christians who are now enjoying the freedom they find in Christ to drink alcohol.

And yet, perhaps you've noticed this, a lot of this drinking has a neurotic edge to it. This manifests in two ways.

First, when the drinking is emotionally reactionary--a sign of emancipation from a painful past--the drinking can be aggressive, angry and excessive. Drinking a lot, even getting drunk, functions sort of like a big "f--- you" toward the past. And that's not healthy and can be symptomatic of drinking that is being used to numb some unresolved pain that needs to be dealt with. When you are drinking to mask, numb, or cope--when you are drinking to cover up the pain of an evangelical past--you are self-medicating. And that doesn't end well.

A second way post-evangelicals drink neurotically is when the drinking becomes a sign of superiority, even a large part of your identity. Drinking, in this instance, is a sign of theological sophistication. When you drink you signal that you are more enlightened than those conservative Christians with bad atonement theology. These feelings of theological superiority can become such an important source of self-esteem that we begin to intellectually invest in our drinking, cultivating a peer status of connoisseur--from mixed drinks to wine to beer. For these Christians, it's not just that they drink, it's that they drink well.

Consequently, in a lot of progressive, post-evangelical circles there is a lot of drinking going on. And everyone, it seems, wants to have church in a bar. That conflation--church in a bar--is sort of a sign that you've reached escape velocity from your evangelical past. Drinking is a way to put those conservative ghosts to rest.

And to reiterate, I have no problem with drinking. One of the things I love more than just about anything is good conversation over beers.

And yet, I'm still environmentally and socially sensitive about drinking. And I wish more progressive, post-evangelical Christians were as well.

Many years ago Jana and I were a part of an Easter passion play, a cooperative effort put on by a few local churches. After the last show we all went to the cast party being hosted by some cast members who were progressive, post-evangelical Christians. So there was alcohol there. This was only a problem because a young couple who were members of the cast were also new Christians. They had each come out of a past full of heavy, heavy drinking. In becoming Christians they had turned their backs on that lifestyle and had given up drinking. So they were really looking forward to their first "party" with their new Christian friends. On arrival they were disillusioned and confused to find alcohol there. Which bothered Jana and I. So to make them feel comfortable and to honor their choices and new lifestyle Jana and I didn't drink that night.

The point of my telling this story is that I don't ever want my Christian liberty to be a cause of stumbling for others. And new Christians aside, I think it's important for progressive Christians to have hard conversations about alcoholism. That's a downer, to be sure, but in our enjoyment of drinking I fear we have occasionally failed to give our attention to the darkness in our churches associated with alcohol abuse and dependence.

In my estimation this blindness is the biggest problem with the sorts of reactionary drinking I described above. When you come out of a stifling, guilt-ridden evangelical past drinking is so emotionally and theologically liberating. It's a deep and visceral breaking free. And in the flood of those positive feelings--that first drink is sort of an Emancipation Proclamation from a troubled, Puritanical past--the risks and dangers associated with drinking, for yourself and for others, can become eclipsed.

We can all see the tension: you've finally been set free from the guilt, fear, and shame associated with drinking (among other things) and you're supposed start worrying about it all over again? Isn't that going back to a past that you swore you would never return to?

That's the dark side of post-evangelical drinking. Given that drinking is a sign of liberation from a troubled past, many progressive Christians find it emotionally difficult to address alcoholism, or to put the drinks away because of a "weaker brother" in our midst.

And yet, I do think progressive, post-evangelical Christianity needs to start having a hard conversation about drinking. Church in a bar isn't always a good idea when there are people struggling with alcoholism. I spend some time mentoring men struggling with addictions. I can't imagine inviting them to church in a bar or for theological talk over microbrews. Sometimes what seems cool and hip can actually be hurtful. And we get confused about this because evangelical ghosts are still haunting us.

There are times, perhaps, to let those spirits rest.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Faith Has No Formula

Nov 17 2013 @ 12:33pm
Wittgenstein once wrote that “Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.” Reviewing Nathan Schneider’s God in Proof, Robert Bolger believes the statement captures how arguments for the divine actually function:
Assenting to a proof for God is similar; it is couched in the language of rationality — it argues for the existence of something. Yet, as I hint at in my own book, Kneeling at the Altar of Science, the impetus behind accepting a religious proof as valid comes from a person’s gut (or soul) and not merely from her mind. The proofs are only meaningful for certain people; whether they mean anything has more to do with what we bring to the proofs rather than what the proofs brings to us. Isn’t this odd? It certainly is because it is odd to say that proofs “prove” only if we are in a position to see them as proofs. But the oddity disappears when we realize that this is actually what we mean by “proof” in a religious context. Schneider writes, “Assent, like this, is a convergence — a meeting of circumstances, choices, and the best of one’s knowledge.”
What the book might teach us about the search for God:
[T]his leads to another radical claim, namely, that the truth of a religious proof cannot be known except by those who accept it. This is an important point to make since it lets us see that searching for God is not simply searching for some thing among others, a being among other beings, or a creature that is strong and powerful but lives far away. If God could be found at the end of a logical proof, then finding God would be like finding a solution to a math problem or surmising a previously unknown planet by the laws of physics. It is only in the failure of the religious proofs to function in the way other proofs do that we learn something about the meaning of the word “God.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Atonement thinking from the Internet Monk  (Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed)
As I was driving today, the verse heading this post came to my mind. It immediately struck me as yet another clue to the unfathomable love and grace of God toward you and me:

“…love covers a multitude of sins.”

These words were written to suffering followers of Jesus Christ, encouraging them to show deep love for one another. The author reminds them what love does — it covers sins. That is, it overlooks them, it regards them as of no account. Love is generous with others and releases them from expectations of sinless perfection. If you love me, you will not hold my sins against me. You will accept me in spite of my weaknesses, failures, and offenses…

If this is what love is, and if God is love, why then can’t we factor in this same attitude in our thinking about how God views us and deals with us in our sins?

Are humans, who show this kind of love to each other, more gracious and loving than God?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian preacher or teacher say,

“God loves you, and he overlooks your sins.”

“God won’t let your sins stand between you and him.”

“God values you too much to hold your weaknesses and failures against you.”

“God loves you so much that not even sin can separate you from him.”

Perhaps he is like the father of the Prodigal Son, and not just like a righteous judge upholding the law.

Love covers a multitude of sins.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Authority in The Kingdom is Different


A Theological Excursus on the authority/power in the Kingdom versus the world.

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Matt 23:8-12

Summary Statement

Authority in the Kingdom is different than authority in the world.

The way authority operates in the Kingdom is a whole different dynamic. This is not to say that this authority is not at work in the world (through Christians). It is just operates differently than the way authority operates in the world in independence from God. And so I think it is incumbent upon church people and leaders to understand this authority because it is the way God works to change the world. Unfortunately, many if not most churches operate on an authority of the world.

I’ve been reading Scot McKnight’s manuscript for his upcoming book on the Kingdom. It has caused me to reflect again on how nebulous this word ‘Kingdom’ is in American Christianity. Many times, in our churches, public conversations, preaching, and Christian publishing, it really means nothing in concrete terms. Scot McKnight aims to correct this problem in his upcoming book.

I’ve also been reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God (my review is coming next week). I come away from reading this book convinced that the power dynamic of Christ’s Kingdom – the way the authority of the living Christ works in the church and among the world – is not understood in concrete terms by the average church, the average Christian (what this has to do with Andy Crouch I will discuss in the upcoming review).

We do not get how different authority functions in the Kingdom versus how it functions in the world in autonomy from God (I need to clarify the church world distinction to avoid numerous misunderstandings, but
I will leave this for another time). I feel Crouch misses on this point.

In my own upcoming book to be released in 2015, I explore the power/authority dynamic inaugurated in the Kingdom by Jesus Christ. Jesus stands at the mount of His ascension and proclaims “All power in heaven and on earth is given unto me … now go.” And so the disciples, indeed the entire church, is sent out under this newly established cosmic (“all power in heaven and on earth”) authority of Christ. The coming of this new dynamic of authority is in fulfillment of God’s promise to return the world to His rule and make all things right. The Kingdom of God has begun to be fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah as Lord. It is now on its way to being consummated in the future (Rev 21-22). It is into this power dynamic that we are sent making disciples of all nations as we go. But this power dynamic inaugurated in Christ is distinctly different than that of the world in autonomy from God. I feel this is missed by the church. As a result, the church takes on the ways of (and looks a lot like) just another human institution. It frustrates me to no end.

This Authority/Power Dynamic is Characterized By Three Things

The authority/power dynamic of the Kingdom is characterized by three things. This authority/power comes only
1.) By submission to His reign. We enter into Christ’s authority by faith, submitting to His reign. We participate in this authority by submitting our lives to it. If we step out of this radical dependence upon Christ in the Spirit, His power and authority is gone. But when we come together as a people in submission, a social space is formed. His authority ‘breaks in.’ The reality of the Kingdom becomes visible. This social space is the church.

2.) Via No Coercion. There is no coercion in this authority of Christ. Indeed this authority is given as a part of mutual participation in God’s life and work in the world. If one seeks to usurp, again His authority is lost (Matt 23:8-12). This pattern flows through the entire Bible from the garden, to Babel, to Davidic Kingdom to Christ.  If power is exercised in autonomy from God (apart from faith and dependence upon Him), then his power becomes mute. The authority in Christ’s Kingdom is always exercised in mutuality with others (1 Cor 14: 26-36), never in autonomy from others. It is always exercised in relationship. It of course is never possible in autonomy from God.

3.) As a Gift, in total dependence upon God, always exercised in mutual submission. This authority always comes as a gift from God, in dependence upon Him, never to be possessed for our own agendas/purposes, and always exercised in mutual dependence and submission to others in the Kingdom. When we set ourselves up above the community or in autonomy from God, this authority becomes something to be grasped (the opposite of Phil 2:5) and it turns ugly eventually. When we usurp we are in essence reenacting the fall and the sin of usurping God in the garden. The abuse and coercion of hierarchy eventually wields its ugliness. But when we exercise our gifts in the Spirit under His authority in mutuality with others (how this works is explained in say Eph 4), His power and authority becomes manifest. God works. It is this power and authority that is so lacking in the world today (and in our churches as well).
This way of the authority/power of Christ’s rule, via submission to Christ’s reign, no coercion, as a gift in mutual submission, is the way God shall work in the world. It is how His power works. This implies that we Christians cannot exercise authority in the ‘world’ on the world terms and still have it be Kingdom. We can only participate in God’s Kingdom in the world via the authority in Christ’s rule (the Kingdom authority dynamic). This is what I think perhaps Andy Crouch has missed in his latest book Playing God (review forthcoming).

This Authority is a Dynamic First and Only Then Becomes A Structure

I propose this authority should be seen in terms of this dynamic first, and only then as a structure. If we somehow skip the dynamic of God’s authority in Christ and move right to the structure of this authority in the church we shall in essence bypass God’s presence and authority in Christ. We will end up locating the authority in the structure itself becoming just another human organization. We must therefore maintain the difference between the dynamic of Christ’s rule in this in between time and the structure which often results from the exercise of such authority and makes possible a space for this authority.

Often we institutionalize authority in the church apart from the manifestation of it in the gifts of the Spirit. We give authority via the institution separate from the charisma (we rationalize it via Max Weber’s old categories). Office, or structure is good when it follows the authority of the Spirit in the community (and in the world when we cooperate with God). But this structure can never become a structure unto itself.

Because once the authority becomes ensconced in structure, separate from the Spirit, once it becomes coercive, autonomous from God, all power and authority of Christ is lost. In other words, when authority is preserved in structures via hierachical offices, we in essence have made a step away from the Kingdom. The rudiments of power may continue.  Out of sociological habit people may still obey, but it loses the power and authority of God the inbreaking Kingdom. We often then enter maintenance mode as an organization. Worse, coercion and antagonism rules our lives. And the organization loses its force for the Kingdom and becomes grounded in other purposes (money, ego aggrandizement etc.)

How many of us have seen churches self-destruct in these ways? How many businesses, if we ran them according to the ‘new dynamic of authority of the Kingdom’ would flourish in ways unimagined? …

Ephesians 4 as an Example of This Authority Dynamic

Ephesians 4 :7-16 is a fine picture of this dynamic of Kingdom authority in Christ fleshing itself out in the church. In this text we notice that this authority granted in the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is given from the seat of Christ’s Lordship as ascended (vs.8-10). This authority is an extension of Christ’s rule into the community. But this authority is not exercised over the community by one office holder over the others, but in mutual relationship. Notice how each gifted person is to stay within his or her gifted place (vs. 7, vs11, according to the measure – within the boundaries of his her said gift.) These are gifts received by ‘grace’ (vs 7) exercised in mutual submission. They can only be exercised out of dependence upon that activity of God for the church and world. In Rom 12:6,7 Paul says these same thing.

The gifts are limited by faith, dependence upon God. When we exercise this authority in mutuality, submission one to another, the fullness of Christ becomes manifest among us (vs 13). As opposed to one superman pastor, the fullness of Christ, the ‘mature person’ comes only out of a plurality of gifted leaders submitting to each other.

I see Ephesians 4 as a marvelous exposition of the ‘new’ authority dynamic inaugurated in Jesus Christ for the world. I contend we have lost this sense of God’s rule and authority in and through Jesus Christ. We have institutionalized and hierarchicalized this inbreaking authority out of existence in many of our practices of church leadership. We need to return to this simple practice of authority in the church and also in the world. We need to bring these practices of leadership under His authority as members of His reign in the neighborhood. Out of mutual submission exercising our gifts in relationship to one another with no coercion, the Kingdom, God’s reconciling power can restore and bring new life.

The 5 fold gifting practice is meant for neighborhood fellowships, Bible studies, and the way we discern the Kingdom on the streets.

OK, what do you think?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

How are you remembering the 50th Anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s Death?
I’ll be at Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Longview, TX enjoying Turkish Delight, Coffee and Fellowship and giving a presentation on “The Aslan We’ve Never Known: How Knowing Aslan in Narnia Helps Us Know and Experience Jesus Here."

3800 Judson Rd.
November 22, 7:00 - 8:30 pm. (Childcare provided)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Convincing Biblical Argument for Patriarchalism and Male Headship

The only convincing argument for patriarchalism and male headship is this: from the beginning God wanted to make it as hard on himself as possible. He knew the women would get the job done, so he put men in charge on the supposition that if he could whip men into shape, he could easily do the same with women, animals, etc. That's why the sly rascal the snake in the garden went after woman. He attacked God's real mover and shaker while the man stood by like a mute dolt! History may challenge the wisdom of this strategy on God's part but it makes abundantly clear that this has been his strategy! :-)

A Missional Community Diagnostic

doctor-performing-diagnosisA Missional Community Diagnostic: Some Questions To Ask In Order to Discern Whether We’re On the Right Track

Over several years now I’ve been visiting/coaching and leading the birthing of missional communities. Whether it’s a one time visit, a regular coaching relationship or ten years at our own church just leading alongside other leaders, I’ve gathered a list of questions I think are worth asking and discerning together. Often I have found that some of the topic heading of these questions have been avoided entirely by missional communities. For instance “gathering” can often be an anathema for missional communities. But if done out of a Kingdom posture, it is life giving, very clarifying, more often discipleship, and never turns into salesmanship.  It should not therefore be avoided. (Paul after all did gathering at the synagogues).
These questions are never meant to evaluate whether there are MORE things missional leaders should be doing that they are not already doing. Rather the intent of these questions is to a.) ask whether all of what you’re doing is really germane to the task of cultivating a community in mission (and if not maybe you should cut it), and b.) ask whether you might reorient what you’re already doing in a manner that shapes a people for participating in mission as everyday life (as opposed to being consumers of some good Christianity for an hour or two on Sunday and 2 or 3 hours during the week).
So, here are my questions offered as a sort of diagnostic for cultivators of mission in context. Tell me what you think? what you’d add or subtract?.

1.) Leadership:

  • Do the leaders here know their giftings/spheres of leadership? (Eph 4: 7-16 APEST)
  • Do the leaders here know how to lead in mutual submission one to another as a group?
  • Are the leaders here recognized by the community as the ones given the responsibility to lead in say evangelism? Apostleship? Teaching/organizing? Pastoring/organizing? Prophetic leadership?
  • Are the leaders empowered to lead and to cultivate more leaders on the ground in the neighborhoods.
  • Are the leaders leading? Submission is a posture of leadership not an abnegation of leadership? Does the leadership function within this dynamic?

2.) Gathering:

  • How many people are in the relational web of this community? versus how many people show up for worship gathering? To me the first question is probably more important than the second (although the second is not unimportant).
  • Is there a road map/a way for outsiders to know how to enter and become part of this community, and what makes this community what it is?
  • How many KCC’s  (kingdom cups of coffee) happen on a monthly basis from this community? (KCC = sitting with someone, listening, discerning what God is doing in someone’s life, whether God has brought them here for a reason? to be part of His Kingdom expression here at this community or another?)
  • Is there a public presence for this community? A way people can identify this community of Kingdom activity from outside the community? Website?  Public celebratory gathering? Is it too early for a public presence?

3.) Engaging – Being Present – in Surrounding Community

  • Do you know what it means/does not mean to be present in the places you live, work, play and raise families?
  • What are those places in your community/neighborhood?
  • How do you train/lead community participants in being present in the community?
  • Where are people being present? Homes, neighborhoods, third places, Moms groups, bars, social service agents, homeless/domestic abuse shelters. Local sports programs etc etc.

4.) Rhythms

  • Are you developing a sustainable life giving weekly rhythm of life together? Are you making space for God to work in and among you and in the neighborhood?
  • Tell me about the development of your worship gathering? How does it shape people in life with God and His mission? How is it woven into the lives of the participants and their everyday lives? Does it focus people too much on Sunday? Or does it lead out into everyday life?
  • Prayer. Where is prayer in the life and rhythms of your community?
  • Meals. How do you eat together? Does the Eucharist on Sunday feed a time of presence with one another in the neighborhood?
  • How do home groups function? Triads function? What do you do there? What is practiced there? Are these groups functioning in God’s presence for His work among people and around people and through people? (In, Up and Out)

5.) Practices

  • How are you leading people into the basic practices of being a people of God in His Kingdom for His Mission? Including:
  • Proclamation of the gospel: Is gospel being proclaimed for this context in the gathering? Are the participants learning how to proclaim gospel in their contexts through their lives? Do people know the difference between proclamation, explanation and or providing information?
  • Eucharist: Are the participants in the community being led into the Real Presence of Christ at the Table, to experience the flooding of God’s forgiveness, love, reconciliation and renewal of all things through the Spirit? Are they then learning how to practice this same presence in their meals in the neighborhood?
  • Reconciliation: Are the participants practicing reconciliation in all conflicts? Are they being led in this? And are they learning how to practice this same reconciliation of Christ in the neighborhoods?
  • Practicing Being With the Hurting/Least of These: Most of all, are the participants learning how to be present with the hurting? Not solve problems, but be present/with hurting people both inside the community and in the course of everyday life. Do your people know the difference between Presence in the community and  finding a Project in the community?
  • Most of all, when we gather together to worship, are we being led into the real presence of Jesus as our Lord and Savior for the world? Are we then being sent?

There are probably many more questions that have not made the list? For all you great missional coaches out there? What category would you include? What questions would you ask that I left out?

Friday, November 8, 2013

American Psychosis

The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people's humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.
The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to "disappear" the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America's Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.
Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.
It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.
We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.
The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture, however, are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back, as the White House economist Lawrence Summers tacitly acknowledges when he talks of a "jobless recovery." The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.
America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions — nearly 8,000 people a day — and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush's secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called "near poverty." One in eight Americans — and one in four children — depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Pep Talks for Successful Living

Yes, but don’t we need something more from our churches?
Iwas talking with a fellow evangelical Christian, an older woman whose circumstances required that she live with her aging and abusive father. To say the least, this was a trial, but she said she had recently had a breakthrough.
"I was watching Joel Osteen, and he was saying that we should not whine about our circumstances, but accept them as God's way of strengthening us, and use them to love those who make our lives hard. That really helped."
This made me curious: Exactly what was Osteen preaching? I had heard mostly scathing critiques of the best-selling author and Houston pastor. So I listened to a few of his sermons. It's been said that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Osteen is right more frequently than that. As I flipped though the channels and caught messages by other so-called prosperity preachers, I found the same thing. They regularly offered wise counsel on how to strengthen marriage, raise kids, handle suffering, and so forth. They often talked about how trusting God can offer calm and hope in the face of adversity.
Yes, I cringed at the occasional allusions to faith and financial prosperity. But that was rare. Most of what I heard was a combination of biblical and psychological wisdom shaped for an audience that knew hardship. Or, as historian Kate Bowler put it in Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, the prosperity preachers offer "a comprehensive approach to the human condition"—one that gives hope to desperate people.
So what's the problem?
If we look at the preaching and teaching in mainstream evangelical churches, apparently not much. Tune in to many a church website, and you'll find comparable sermon series on improving relationships, raising kids, practicing faith in the workplace, and, in general, living successfully. You'll find lots of good, practical advice, much of it grounded in Scripture, very often the Book of Proverbs. No wonder people flock to such churches; they are some of the few places where they can hear commonsense wisdom about daily life.
But if you think about it, you'll realize that most of that advice can be found in pop psychology books, self-help conferences, and other religions. That's not to slam this content as much as it is to point out that God in his grace has made such principles available far and wide. You don't have to be a Christian to raise good kids or succeed in business or learn from suffering. A little philosophy here and psychology there, and you can construct a life that "works."
The problem is that preachers and teachers of such messages are not telling us the whole truth. They are not giving us a full understanding of the Good News.
Proverbs is only half of wisdom. The other half is found in the Book of Job. And Ecclesiastes. And Jesus at Golgotha. The other part of wisdom—the deeper wisdom—centers on the folly of the Cross.
Not the Cross as a mere rest stop on the way to Resurrection. Not suffering as a means to an end. Not hardship that builds character and makes us better. That's more Proverbs wisdom and is true as far as it goes. That's the theology of glory—if we do this and that, and endure this and that with the right attitude, all will be well.
The theology of the Cross says that God is most deeply met in the suffering itself, not just on the other side of it. Forgiveness of sins is not found after the Cross, but in, with, and under the Cross. This is the "wisdom of the cross" (1 Cor. 1–2) that is folly to the world.
The question, then, is this: When we Christian leaders have this astounding message, one that transcends run-of-the-mill wisdom, that grounds us in unshakable reality, that shows Christ as the end itself, that invites us to meet God in the darkest places, that shows us where God's glory is revealed (John 12)—why do we spend so much time doling out wisdom that is merely helpful?

The Puzzle of Salvation: Crystallizing the Difference Between Augustianian Salvation & Barthian [Evangelical Calvinist] Salvation

by Bobby Grow
George Hunsinger, in his really superb book How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, sketches the difference between Augustinian (classical) salvation, and what Barth offers as a better (in my view) 
puzzlealternative. In this sketch what emerges is very profound, and should help to crystallize further what Myk Habets and myself (and I have been frequently on my blog here over the years) have been trying to articulate in regard to what we have been calling a 'Christ-conditioned' or (pace Barth) 'Christ-concentrated' approach to a doctrine of God, and then subsequent things like in regard to salvation in particular. What emerges in this sketch — at the end of it — is the stumbling block point for so many of the people I have engaged with around this particular question over the years; and usually it stumbles people because they are still trying to appreciate evangelical Calvinism, they are still trying to appreciate Barth through Augustinian and classical categories of conception — I hope what I am about to share from Hunsinger on Barth will finally help to make clear why trying to read us (the Evangelical Calvinists and Barth) this way simply will not work, and in the end always terminates in frustration and not fruit. So without further ado, here is Hunsinger on Barth and the difference in approach between Augustinian trajectory and Barthian trajectory:

Three things are to be noted about the universalist direction evident in Barth's objectivist soteriology. First, the salient difference between Barth's position and more traditional views has primarily to do with the locus of mystery. The great puzzle for more traditional views like those of Augustine or Calvin is why God should decide to save some but not others. Regardless of where the decision is thought to be taken—whether in predestination, in the cross, in the convergence of grace and faith in the individual's spiritual life, in the last judgment, or in some combination of these and similar factors—it is still understood to be primarily a mystery about the inscrutable good pleasure of a deity who loves but does not save all (or who condemns all yet still saves a few). By contrast, the great puzzle for the Barthian view is more nearly anthropological than theological in location. The divine disposition, decision, and work for our salvation are presented in unequivocal terms. No disposition, decision, and work of God are to be found elsewhere than in Jesus Christ, who died to cancel our past, rose again to establish our future, and pleads for us to all eternity.

The mystery pertaining to God as such is not the puzzle of an inscrutable decision to save some, but not all. It is the mystery of an unfathomable mercy that (at great cost) saves all, not just some. But there is still a puzzle of what might be called the "dark mystery," and it corresponds to the puzzle embedded in the more traditional views. The dark mystery for the traditional view is, as noted, that God does not will to save all. For the Barthian view, however, it is rather that not all human beings will to accept God's salvation. The dark mystery is that human beings inexplicably (i.e., "inexplicably" within the terms of Barth's tlnelogy [sic]) are all by appearances actually capable of rejecting the divine disposition, decision, and work in their favor. It is the puzzle of our rejection of grace, the mystery of sin, but here raised to a very high pitch, since salvation is somehow effectively rejected even though it fully avails for those who reject it. This is not the place to explore the intricacies of Barth's conception of sin as a dark mystery. The point is simply that the problem of an inexplicable puzzle has been shifted but not eliminated. The puzzle for the more tradition view is that God's will seems to be truly inconsistent. For the Barthian view it is that the human will to reject the divine grace, while actual, would appear to be truly impossible. It is Barth's contention that the gospel finally leaves us with just this mystery, and not with some other "very different mystery" (IV/2, 520). [1] George Hunsigner, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 129-30.

I often come across things like this, and I am reading them I think: "Sweet, this is awesome, if I share this with folks, this ought to clear an awful lot up in regard to where I am coming from in terms of my Evangelical Calvinism." Then to my chagrin, usually the response is opposite. I would have come to think it is because of what I already mentioned in the prologue of this post; viz. that folks are trying to think scholastically and not dialectically about such things. In other words, folks are still so trained and conditioned by their Augustinian and classical way of thinking about these kinds of questions, that trying to negotiate with what Barth is saying, and what we Evangelical Calvinists are saying in these regards, again, becomes a point for frustration and often times, caricature, instead of an actual appreciation for what Barth and us Evangelical Calvinists, at this point, are trying to communicate — and so the result is that we keep skipping off of each other, and never are able to enter into the same door, to inhabit the same space, wherein actual table-talk and Christian fellowship can prevail (which does not finally mean ultimate agreement about such things). Further, I think another thing that hinders (and it probably should at some level), is that we have inherited the classical/traditional Augustinian approach to a doctrine of salvation so uncritically through our churches, bible studies, and hymns (and choruses); that any other or alternative ideas that might be offered to what we are used to, are automatically considered non-Biblical, and even against the gospel itself.

What I would like to ask of us, is that we would really consider the conceptual stuff itself; on its own merits. This of course will require way more than just reading this blog post (or even multiple ones). You owe it to yourself to genuinely and critically consider these things. If after that you still can affirm the more Augustinian tradition course in regard to thinking about this particular question and salvation in general; then of course, by all means, continue moving forward in that direction. But I have been attempting to (over the years) do this (i.e. critically consider these alternatives), and what I have concluded is that Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance et al. really do offer a better more Christ concentrated way forward relative to the question under consideration in this post, and then of course, in general, in regard to a doctrine of God (which implicates everything else that follows!).
I hope this post has clarified some things. If it hasn't, then please tell me why it hasn't. The point of departure among us, in the end, will be an issue of heremenutical variance and prior theological commitments (which is what I just said above). Just bare this in mind.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Self-Help and the Gospel

Posted: 11/06/2013 1:37 pm

A Joel Osteen tweet crossed my Twitter feed the other day: "You were not created to be unhappy in order to keep everyone else happy. You've got to run your own race."

I couldn't resist the temptation to reply: "That's fine self-help, but it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ."
When I read a Joel Osteen tweet, I assume it represents his public ministry, not his random musings. It may not be fair, but I hold his tweets to a higher standard than my own. Sometimes I tweet about golf or football, but I also post my professional thoughts concerning biblical studies, theology, or ministry. Joel Osteen's tweets all look like pastoral advice. In this case, he's missing the mark.
What's the Matter?

The problem with Joel Osteen's comment isn't that it's wrong. The problem is that it's awful Christian theology that has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Like many other preachers, Osteen proclaims the gospel of self-optimization: God loves you, and God wants you to thrive.

The self-optimization gospel sounds good on the surface. God loves us. Surely, then, God wants us to do well. Did not Jesus heal the sick, the lame, and the blind? Doesn't God want people to flourish? This way of seeing things sounds appealing, but it stands a long distance from the call to follow Jesus.

In this case, Osteen advises us that we shouldn't make unreasonable sacrifices to keep "everyone else" happy. We all know why that advice is necessary. Some people spend their whole lives trying to please others. In the process they lose their sense of their own identity and purpose. They exhaust even their friends. Surely wise friends would tell such people: "Don't run yourself to death just to please others. You have to take care of yourself." That's sound advice. I'd offer it myself in some circumstances. But it's not gospel.

A Deeper Calling

The problem with the self-help gospel is that it focuses on our own individual needs without recognizing that Christ calls people to follow him. Self-help preachers tell us how to be happy in marriage, how to be successful in work, how to cultivate peace in our spirits, and so forth. But what about Christ's call to "Take up your cross and follow me" (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27)? It's not entirely obvious what this saying means, but we find it precisely when disciples confront the implications of following Jesus.

It's a long trip from the self-help gospel to the sacrificial model of Jesus, who told his disciples we save our lives by losing them (Matthew 16:25; Mark 9:35; Luke 9:24). And what of the apostle Paul, who called believers to take on Christ's example by giving up their interests for the welfare of others (Philippians 2:4-11), who told them to bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2; Romans 15:1), and who regarded all of life's attainments as shit (his word) so that he might encounter Christ and share in Christ's sufferings (Philippians 3:7-11)?

The problem with the self-help gospel is that it expects nothing from us. In the end, it leaves us unfulfilled. And it stands far removed from what it means to live in Christ.

A Deeper Analysis

Self-help preaching rarely accounts for the real world we actually inhabit. Yes, we want resilient families. Yes, happiness at work provides security at home and a sense of purpose through our days. Yes, we want to love and be loved.

That's all fine, but our world is far more complicated than our individual and familial lives. The world we live in includes war -- not just war in far-off places, but a social order that depends upon military spending and military activity simply to sustain itself. Our world features crushing poverty, with disparities in housing, education, even health that seem intractable. We live in a world of great opportunities and profound injustice.
Jesus Christ entered such a complicated world. He brought blessing to individuals, yes, and he also confronted the wealthy and the powerful. His confrontations in Jerusalem led to his death -- and he called his disciples to follow his example. Jesus' gospel reflects a far deeper analysis of the world we inhabit, and a far more radical engagement with that world, than the self-centered, self-help gospel is willing to imagine.

True Joy

Consider this possibility: What if God does not want us to be happy?

I mean, what if God's call isn't about happiness in the ordinary sense? What if discipleship isn't about positive relationships, self-esteem, personal boundaries, and professional success? What if God calls us to something else?

I strongly doubt that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was happy that God called him to resist the Nazi regime. The calling cost him the chance to marry the love of his life, it cost him months in prison, and it eventually cut his life short. Yet Prisoner Bonhoeffer comforted his suffering neighbors, with many remembering his equanimity and joy.

I cannot imagine the civil right activist Fanny Lou Hamer feeling happy in that Mississippi jail. Beaten nearly to death, her body swollen from head to toe, having suffered injuries that would disable her for life, Fanny Lou Hamer somehow found the strength to sing, "Paul and Silas was bound in jail / Let my people go."

The gospel doesn't promise happiness in the ordinary sense. It gifts us with joy in a profound sense. When we follow Christ's path, we encounter Christ's Spirit among us. We nourish one another's spiritual vitality. Deep springs of living water bubble up within us (John 4:14).

Researchers have discovered that true happiness may not come from the sources we might think. Deep happiness requires meaningful relationships and a sense that our lives are contributing to something worthwhile. A happy family and successful career certainly help, but what about the joy that marks the ministries of people like Jesus and Paul, Bonhoeffer and Hamer? The self-help gospel knows nothing about that.