Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Road to Rome, Constantinople, and the Emergent Village

Every now and again you run across a passage in a book that is just chock-full of fodder for potential discussion and debate. I found just such a passage the other day in Scott Clark's Recovering the Reformed Confession. Under the heading "The Virtues of Being Confessional," he writes:

The evangelical and postevangelical discontent is the result of the two quests that have dominated American evangelical religion for more than two centuries. This explanation accounts for the relatively easy movement of evangelicals into what might seem to be foreign territory. With respect to the QIRE [quest for illegitimate religious experience], having grown up with flannel graphs of the Second Person of the Trinity, it is really only a short step to traditional icons. With respect to the QIRC [quest for illegitimate religious certainty], once one overcomes the predominating ignorance of and bigotry against Rome that permeate North American fundamentalism, once one discovers that Roman Catholics love Jesus and read the Bible, it is not a great step to trade the authoritarianism of fundamentalism for the magisterial authority of the Roman communion. In other words, though they occur in a different setting, Rome, Constantinople, and the Emergent Village each offer to fundamentalism and evangelicalism a more ancient and better-looking version of what already animates them.
As the yutes say, "Oh, snap!"


Saturday, May 30, 2009

"No One Told You It Was Gonna Be This Way...."

We've got a wide variety of readers here at DRD, so I'm hoping some of you can clear up a mystery for me.

Reformed people think they're on the same team with Lutherans, but Lutherans won't even offer the bread and cup to the Reformed. Anglicans often speak of themselves as non-Protestants more akin to Catholics, but Catholics don't understand themselves to be in communion with Anglicans. And it seems that Lutherans think of themselves as being much more Catholic than Calvinistic/Re-formed, while from the vantage point of Rome we're pretty much a gaggle of individualists.

What gives?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Elves in Geneva, Fairies in Heidelberg

In G.K. Chesterton's chapter "The Ethics of Elfland" in Orthodoxy, he writes:

All the terms used in the science books (such as law, necessity, order, tendency, and so on) are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy-books: charm, spell, enchantment. They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
We may smile at the quaintness of Chesterton's sentiments here (though he wouldn't, and neither would he call them "sentiments"), but the fact is that there is an element of wonder, humility, and childlikeness that characterizes Chesterton's writings, as well as that of others like him such as Lewis and Tolkien.

And none of them were Calvinists.

Now, Chesterton was fond of Geneva-bashing, insisting, for example, the the great hymn-writer William Cowper suffered his melancholic bouts of depression as a result of his belief in predest-ination. Of course, it is difficult to know exactly what Chesterton had in mind when he spoke of "Calvinistic determinists," and something tells me it wasn't John Calvin himself, but more likely his late nineteenth-century proponents.

But straw man arguments aside, one has to ask why it is that of all the Christian authors who tend to display the kind of refreshing wonder that Chesterton did, very few are of the Reformed or Presbyterian persuasion.

I, for one, wouldn't mind letting a little bit of Elfland into Geneva, assuming the former would deign to darken the latter's door.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

For the Love of Earth

In his chapter "The Flag of the World" in Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarks that when he was a boy he was con-stantly told that there were two kinds of men in the world, the optimist and the pessimist. "The optimist," he writes, "thought everything good except the pessimist, and the pessimist thought everything bad, except himself."
Chesterton came to conclude that there is a "deep mistake" in categorizing people in this way, for before one can criticize or accept some aspect of the culture he must come to terms with his "primary loyalty" to the world as a whole. "My acceptance of the universe," he says, "is not optimism, it is more like patriotism." Thus the problem with the pessimist is not that he is overly-critical, but that he does not love what he criticizes. And likewise, the problem with the optimist is that he will defend the indefensible with the jingoistic battly cry of "My cosmos, right or wrong."

The way of escape from these two options is in what Chesterton describes as an irrational loyalty to the world, not because is great or even good, but because it is ours.

We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly content-ment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.... Can [the ordinary man] hate the world enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? ... Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?
It is only the "irrational optimist" who can successfully smash the whole universe for the sake of itself, and love the city enough to set it on fire.

Again, Chesterton displays a unique and provocative ability to bring together seemingly disparate ideas (which is what the core doctrine of the Christian faith is all about, when you think about it). I have to think that the late Rich Mullins had been reading Gilbert's work when he penned the line, "Nobody tells you when you get born here how much you'll come to love it, and how you'll never belong here."

While evangelicalism does a pretty good job of making sure we don't love the world too much, Chesterton challenges us to beware of what happens when we love it too little.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Think More, and Harder

There is a distinction that needs to be made when discussing the relationship of religion and politics, but for some reason, very few people seem to recognize it. So here goes (and please pay attention):

There is a difference between a moral principle and the implementation of a moral principle.

In other words, just because a handful of people agree on some point of ethics, that is not to say that they will all agree on what to do next. For example, two people may agree that abortion is wrong (a sentiment I share), but that part's easy. The hard part comes when we get to the "therefore...." Should it be made illegal? If so, by whom, the federal government or the states? What about the economic factors that often contribute to abortion, should we address them, too? What happens when a person thinks that one presidential candidate is against abortion but favors an economic policy that could actually further it, while another candidate is in favor of abortion remaining legal, but promises to address and help eliminate the factors that may lead to abortions?

My point? Simply that it's one thing to have a moral opinion, but the real thinking hasn't started yet.

Take the death penalty. Plenty of Christians believe that capital punishment is biblical, but also feel that it is unjustly administered in the United States. What then? Or what about gay marriage? Is there a legitimate distinction between saying that homosexuality is immoral and saying that the government should enact laws that keep gays from getting married? If not, then are we saying that every immoral practice should be criminalized by the state?

Or what happens when one's pro-life principles force him to choose between voting to outlaw murder in one arena but condone it in another? And even if the murder that happens in one arena (say, abortion) is far more widespread than that which takes place in another (like war), is there still room to weigh the practical chances of eliminating the greater versus eliminating the former, and actually play the odds and vote contrarily to one's preferences?

I don't think there are any easy answers to these questions, and therefore I will not pretend to provide them. All I'm asking for is that, amid our pulpit-pounding and rally cries to one cause or another, we take the time to think a little harder than we are accustomed to doing.

Especially before calling our opponent's faith or character into question.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Americans Choose Life?

I just came across an interesting article, here's a snippet:

NEW YORK - The Gallup Poll reported Friday that 51 percent of Americans now call themselves "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice" on the issue of abortion, the first time a majority gave that answer in the 15 years that Gallup has asked the question.

The findings, obtained in an annual survey on values and beliefs conducted May 7-10, marked a significant shift from a year ago. A year ago, 50 percent said they were pro-choice and 44 percent pro-life — in the new poll, 42 percent said they were pro-choice.
I must admit, this really surprises me. I wonder what accounts for the shift?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tyrants in the Pulpit, Victims in the Pew

There is a pastoral element to the two-kingdoms model that many people fail to appreciate. One of the main functions of this way of thinking is to protect the congregation from ecclesiastical tyranny, and more specifically, from being subjected to a constant onslought of extra-biblical opinions being forced upon them by their ministers.

The reason for the failure to appreciate this, I think, is that when a theory is being implemented properly, you just don't really notice when it avoids potential problems. I mean, if I had cancer or leprosy or some other such malady, I'd probably notice that I suffer from them. But how often do I notice my not-having-cancer-or-leprosy condition? Pretty much never.

Now a pastor could never actually pull this little stunt off, but I think it would be a fun experiment for a minister who holds to the two-kingdoms model to subtly depart from it for a few months without telling anyone. Preach the cross and empty tomb a little less, and preach about social issues a little more. This would work especially well if said pastor's views on cultural matters were not exactly the "correct" ones that the congregation would agree with.

Can you imagine it?

"OK, this Sunday at Random Presbyterian we're beginning a new 16-week series of sermons entitled 'The Christian Worldview.' In the weeks to come we'll be considering from Scripture such exciting topics as 'War ON Terror or War OF Terror?', 'Love Thy Neighbor: A Defense of Universal Healthcare,' and my favorite, 'Nike: Shoe Company or Babylon Mother of Harlots?'"

As silly as this sounds, it demonstrates precisely what the doctrine of the two kingdoms protects the church-goer from. In other words, it's all fine and dandy to beg your minister to speak out against cultural evils, but what happens when he takes your advice and rails against issues you support and defends the ones you decry?

We have six days out of every seven to "do earth," so on Sunday you'll just have to pardon my heavenly-mindedness and forgive me if I want to focus on things like Word, water, and wine. If this is "irrelevance," sue me, because the day I become "relevant" as defined by this age is the day I quit pastoring and take up professional punditry.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Two-Kingdoms Doctrine is Expanding!

Geneva, Switzerland – According to recent reports, the World Council of Churches is set to expand the two kingdoms doctrine in order to include The Magic Kingdom. Speaking on behalf of the Faith and Order Commission, Prof. Constantine Scouteris noted, "Boniface and Luther had no idea of the immense power and glory of The Magic Kingdom, and our recent decision to include the sword in the stone alongside the temporal and spiritual swords reflects present realities."

Responsibilities allocated to the new kingdom include hilarity, exorbitant taxation, and the moral formation of millions upon millions of children. In return The Magic Kingdom was also ordered immediately to stop all further sequels to the Aladdin series and to produce DVDs and videos that self-destruct after three viewings, thus sparing family and friends infinite viewings of Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Space Buddies.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pope Versus Hope

I have one of those MSNBC news-ticker things on my PC gadget bar (a sentence, by the way, that none of us would have been able to decipher a decade ago), and this headline caught my eye: Archbishop: Obama Advances Anti-Life Agenda. The story continues:

WASHINGTON - A powerful Catholic leader on Friday accused President Barack Obama of pushing an anti-life, anti-family agenda and called Notre Dame's invitation for him to speak scandalous.

Archbishop Raymond Burke, the first American to lead the Vatican supreme court, said Catholic universities should not give a platform, let alone honor, "those who teach and act publicly against the moral law."
Now, under a one-kingdom framework I can totally see how hopelessly at-a-loss the American Christian must be when it comes to navigating these this-worldly waters. After all, there’s no question that Archbishop Burke’s charge is correct—President Obama is unapologetically pro-choice, espousing a position on the abortion issue that is inescapably at odds with the Christian religion. What’s a believing American to do?

Well, distinguishing heaven from earth is a good place to start.

You see, there’s nothing particularly new about this dilemma we find ourselves in. Paul urged the Romans to submit to the civil magistrate, even calling the secular rulers of his own day “servants of God” ordained to bear the sword (13:1ff, and that was when Nero was in power, someone who makes Obama look like Tinkerbell). Moreover, Peter instructs his readers to “submit yourselves to every human institution,” even mentioning the “emperor as supreme” (I Pet. 2:13). Like it or not, Barack Obama is the leader that God has chosen to govern the United States, for he exalts and demotes whomever he sees fit, and none of us are allowed to question his wisdom on such matters (Dan. 4:35).

Given what is said above, we must be willing to differentiate between the civil and spiritual kingdoms if we ever hope to live as God’s faithful servants in this present age. President Obama’s job is not to inaugurate Christ’s kingdom or further its interests, that job falls to the ministers of Jesus’ Church. And likewise, it is not my job as a minister of the Word and Sacraments to meddle in civil affairs.

Of course, the abortion issue is not merely a political matter, but a moral one, too, and there is certainly no rule that prohibits concerned citizens (even believing ones) from making sure their voice is heard. In fact, I would argue that engaging in civil and secular matters is a logical outcome of a strong two-kingdoms theology (if, of course, one is prone to such things, but I also wouldn’t want to begrudge anyone his political cynicism and resultant sloth, either).

But saying that we oughtn’t even honor our president because he is anti-life on the abortion question? That seems to be taking matters too far, especially for a Reformation Christian.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Linguistic or Liturgical Intelligibility?

In his book The Lord’s Service, Jeff Meyers makes a great point about the difference between intelligibility and familiarity, and how that often a lack of the latter is confused with a lack of the former.

Why does this matter?

Well, in discussions about the need for contextualization in worship, the claim is often made that all that’s being argued for is that pastors be intelligible in their presentation of the gospel. "Just speak in a language that people can understand," we often hear. If we reply, "Oh, you mean English and not Farsi?", we begin to see by the answer given that intelligibility involves a lot more than it seems at first glance.

On top of linguistic intelligibility, there also seems to be the need for liturgical intelligibility, which is far more controversial an issue.

But here’s where Meyers’s distinction between intelligibility and familiarity becomes very helpful. If we’re honest we will admit that a visitor at our church, whether a believer or not, will be able to understand lots of practices and concepts with which he still may be unfamiliar. For example, there’s nothing inherent in the practice of kneeling during a confession of sin or raising hands during the singing of the Doxology that is unintelligible to everyday Americans. Assuming a normal level of intelligence, anyone can look at a group of people bowing and asking God for forgiveness and conclude, "Hmm, it seems that these people think they’ve done something wrong, and they want the God whom they think they’ve offended to pardon them." The same goes for the lifting of hands during the Doxology: sure, the words and melody may be new, but the posture and practice themselves are perfectly understandable, albeit unfamiliar.

So the question that arises (but is not "begged") is, Is it legitimate to alter the church’s forms of, or practices in, worship for the sake of those for whom they may seem odd, foreign, or irrelevant?

Friday, May 01, 2009

With Friends Like This....

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that I am now the object of the imprecatory curses of Federal Visionist Mark Horne (I have felt his wrath before), but this little gem did cause me to do a double-take:

My wife and my children know the weight of the demands of that [ordination] vow (at least relative to what can happen in a North American micro-denomination) while you will always be a stranger to it, Jason, because you are on the other side of the assault. I wouldn't compare what I am going through to Burke Shade or Norman Shepherd, but may God remember your false posturing and the tears of my loved ones.
(Taken from the comments of this thread.)