Friday, March 31, 2006

Modern Gnosticism

In response to my last post some have asked that I flesh out the differences between Reformed and evangelical spirituality.

As I mentioned, since its inception (which occurred, I would argue, as a result of the Great Awakening in the eighteenth-century) modern evangelicalism has been suspicious of tradition, authority, and institutional religion. More preferable, it is argued, is a Christianity that is simple and above all, spiritual.

This dualism that many posit between institutional and spiritual Christianity is a perfect example both of evangelical piety and modern-day Gnosticism.

(Gnosticism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the view that the material and physical are inherently inferior to that which is immaterial and spiritual.)

The problems with this ever-present position are legion (and it may take a handful of posts to address them all), but suffice it to say for now that there is one crucial and decisive death-blow that can be dealt to modern evangelical Gnosticism, one that should settle the matter once and for all:

The resurrection of Christ.

Since Jesus rose again bodily, and since his resurrection is the dawn of a new day in God's economy, it follows that the age to come will not be a "realm of pure spirit" in which the soul will be freed from the "prison house" of the body. God's original, material creation was "good," and his re-creation is better (Gen. 1:31; I Cor. 15:40-45).

So if it's an escape from the body that you desire, the new heaven and new earth is not the place to look for it.

What does all this have to do with Christian living? Everything. Stick around, you'll see....

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Reformed Spirituality

No, this is not an oxymoron....

The more I read (and contribute to) the Phoenix Preacher blog, the more I realize how distinct Reformed piety is from evangelical spirituality.

And when you think about it, why shouldn't it be? If our practice results, in some measure, from our theology, then it would stand to reason that if Reformed and evangelical beliefs are different, their respective practices would differ to the same extent.

Evangelical spirituality is largely detached from the ministry of the local church, and in some cases these are understood to be in direct conflict. Evangelicals love Christ the Head, but they're ambivalent about his Body, the Church (except when seen as a place where individuals can gather to encounter God in the same room).

Reformed spirituality, on the other hand, cannot abide such decapitation. It is in the Church's ministry of Word and Sacrament that the believer finds the grace that he needs to continue trudging through this wilderness on his way to glory.

For my own part, all the quiet time in the world cannot replace the faithfully preached Gospel, the bread and the cup, and the communion of saints each Lord's Day.

Or as the Puritans put it, echoing David: "The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob!"

Sunday, March 26, 2006

An Oasis in the Desert

In order to thoroughly depress myself, I've been reading a lot of social critics lately (everything from the more humorous stuff by David Brooks to the more serious Juliet Schor and Paul Stiles).

In one such book I ran across the movement started by the good people over at Ad Busters called Buy Nothing Day. The goal is to convince people to set aside their materialism for one full day (the most popular shopping day of the year, incidently: the day after Thanksgiving). An intriguing proposition indeed....

But then it dawned on me that, as a Presbyterian, I don't just have one day a year to make such a statement to this consumer-driven culture, but I can do it every week.

The Lord's Day has been described as a chance for believers -- who are unashamed citizens of the kingdom of culture six days a week -- to plant a flag in Times Square each Sunday in order to protest the rank consumerism of this age by simply saying "No! Not today...."

After all, it's hard enough as it is for Christians to stand out and be different from the culture around them. But once we surrender the Lord's Day to "the tyranny of the clock and the gods who amuse us," it's almost impossible.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Christian Folklore

I've been thinking about the term "folklore" recently. Etymologically, it comes from the word folk, meaning "people," and lore, meaning "story."

Folklore, therefore, means "the people's story."

Add to this the fact that postmodernity appreciates narrative discourse more than its modern parents did (they liked science), and the concept becomes rather interesting.

I think postmodernism is on to something, at least on this point.

After all, isn't the Christian faith a story, a saga, a dramatic epic about a tree in Paradise from which a wayward people were banished, only to be restored again by their dying and rising God?

Isn't the majority of God's discourse throughout Scripture -- both directly and through his messengers -- simply a re-telling of this tale?

Isn't our job as believers to be constantly recounting our folklore, especially as we re-enact and renew God's gracious covenant each Lord's Day?

I propose, therefore, that we reclaim this word from the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy buffs and give it its proper place in our theology.

Who's with me?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Heart of a Martyr

I'm preaching from Paul's farewell address to the Ephesian bishops this Sunday, and at the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, I'll make a few comments on it.

I've been following with great interest -- and sadness -- the sheer mess that is Calvary Albuquerque, and I can't help but note the stark contrast between the leadership there, and that of Paul in Acts 20:17ff.

Paul claimed that "from the first day he set foot in Asia" everyone knew (emphatic in Greek) that his conduct had been characterized by "humility, tears, and trials." His life had been an open book, for he "had not shrunk back from teaching publicly and from house to house."

Compare this with the secretive meetings and back-room deals that are going on in Albuquerque and the contrast couldn't be more evident. I mean, how many CABQ folks have ever spoken with Skip Heitzig, let alone been allowed under his roof?

So to those of you who are members of -- err, excuse me, attend -- megachurches with charismatic, rockstar pastors, may I ask, "Have you ever seen the financial statements of your church? And if not, then can you honestly say that your pastor 'has coveted no man's silver or gold'?" (v. 33).

What the church in America needs, it seems, is a little good ol' fashioned persecution. If the pastorate weren't so lucrative, we would be rid of those who see godliness as a means of gain.

(But then, would I be able to endure it?)

'Nuff said....

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ti Magyaroknak….

Észrevettem, hogy mostanában nehány Magyar látogató van ebben a blog-on.

Kik vagytok? Ismerjük egymást?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Myth of Relevance

In a previous post I mentioned the paradoxical fact that many sincere believers desire to stand out from the unbelieving crowd while engaged in common-grace cultural activities like work, school, or art, but then, when engaged in sacred activity like worship, they try to blend in with the world in an attempt to be "culturally relevant."

Hence we hear descriptions of evangelical worship services that sound something like this: "At our church, you'll hear practical teaching that is actually relevant and helpful in the real world."

Here's my question:

Doesn't this way of thinking assume that, when the world of the Bible and the world of contemporary culture are out of sync, it is the former that must be adapted to fit the norms of the latter?

It seems that in our desperate effort to make the Gospel "relevant" to people with cell phones we have emptied Christianity of its Christian-ness and, thereby, sold our priceless birthright for a bowl of beans.

When it comes to being "profane," Esau had nothing on us (Heb. 12:16) ....

Friday, March 17, 2006

Worship Wars, Culture Wars

Have you ever noticed that the conservatives in the culture wars are the liberals in the worship wars, and vice versa?

Your average Red State dwelling, right wing, conservative-family-values-espousing, abstinence only, American flag waving pro-life creationist is, more often than not, a doxological liberal in favor of freeing herself from the stifling shackles of "traditional Christian worship."

Further, your average Blue State dwelling, left wing, socially progressive, tolerant, rainbow flag waving pro-choice pluralist is (if she attends church) a doxological conservative whose minister pronounces absolution and wears a robe (even if she's a lesbian).

The former says things like, "Come on, it's 2006! Haven't we moved beyond kneeling on the ground and confessing our sin corporately?" And then she proceeds to watch the O'Reilly Factor episode she Tivo'd.

The latter says things like, "Come on, it's 2006! Haven't we moved beyond 'man and wife, 'till death do us part'?" And then she sits down with her copy of The Book of Common Prayer.

Why is that, I wonder?

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

When to be Countercultural

I find it curious that as evangelicals we get so confused about when to be cultural, and when to be countercultural. Let me explain....

As citizens of both the cultic and cultural kingdoms, it would seem obvious that our behavior should be (to some extent) consistent with whatever kingdom we happen to be operating in at the moment.

So when I'm engaging in cultural activity Monday through Saturday -- like working or playing baseball -- I am doing so alongside believers and nonbelievers alike. There's nothing odd or unique about it. But when I am participating in cultic activity on the Lord's Day -- such as hearing the Word preached or eating the Supper -- what I am doing is completely distinct, strange, and countercultural.

Here's the interesting part, though: Evangelicalism teaches us to try as hard as we can to stand out from the crowd while at work, at school, or at play. In other words, in the cultural kingdom, be countercultural.

But then on Sunday we experience a change of heart, and pull out all stops in order to make divine worship as comfortable and non-threatening as we can for unbelievers. Or, in the countercultural kingdom, be cultural.

So we buy Christian T-shirts ("This Blood's For You!") and put IXOYE fishes on our cars, but when we go to church on Sunday we're embarassed if we bring our unbelieving neighbor on a week where we sing "Be Thou My Vision" and to top it all off, celebrate Communion.

I'm all for being weird, as long as we do it at the right time, and in the right kingdom.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Cross, Glory, and 80's "Christian" Rock

If you had the privilege of being a Christian in the 1980's, and if you found most of that era's Christian rock deplorable (with the possible exception of the Altar Boys), then my guess is that there were two "secular" bands that you desperately tried to convince yourself were actually Christian in order to appease your conscience.

Those bands were U2 and The Alarm.

As an avid fan of both, I remember it being easier to make the case for The Alarm's Christianity than for U2's. After all, they were so blatant, confident, and outspoken about their faith. They sang things like, "When the nails are biting into your hands, and the cross is heavy on your heart, now's the time to really make a stand," or in their ode to the devil they sang, "You are the Deceiver, you are not welcome in my life, and I will break your hold."

U2 on the other hand? Well, they were somewhat less convincing: "You broke the bonds and You loosed the chains, carried the cross and all my shame... but yes, I'm still running. For I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Not exactly the confidence I was hoping for. Or consider this line: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow, yet I will fear no evil. I have cursed Thy rod and staff, they no longer comfort me. Love, rescue me."

And remember, this was before the 90's when Bono left his Father's kingdom "by the back door, and threw away the key."

But looking back now from a more mature and educated perspective, my diagnosis has flip-flopped. Having come to understand Luther's distinction between the "theology of glory" and the "theology of the cross," it would appear that the spiritual doubts expressed by Bono were never doubts about God's existence or his ability to save, but doubts about his own ability to hang on to God's hand: "I try to stand up, but I can't find my feet. I try to speak up, but only in You I'm complete." Bono has never thought very highly of his own Christianity, but he certainly thinks highly of the Christ in whom he has professed faith for the last 25 years.

In short, I think the music of The Alarm and U2 furnish us with a perfect illustration of the difference between the theologies of glory and the cross, respectively.

And what's more, since the theology of glory is more consistent with postmillennial eschatology while the theology of the cross is more consistent with amillennialism, it is only fitting that a Two Kingdoms advocate such as I would still be a die-hard U2 fan after all these years.

The Alarm's still great, but my own sinfulness requires that I be reminded every few days that "Grace... travels outside of Karma."

And thank God....

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Plight of the Christian Artist

I have a good friend who is a strong believer and an award-winning artist. We recently had an interesting conversation which I'd like to recount to you:

Me: "How's life in the art world?"
Him: "Man, it is so hard to be a Christian in the art world!"
Me: "Why, what's hard about it?"
Him: "Well for one thing, these people's politics are very left wing, almost socialist."
Me: "What does that have to do with being a Christian in the art world?"
Him: "Well, my views are at the other end of the political spectrum from theirs, which makes life difficult."
Me: "What if you were a European Christian artist, and your politics were more in line with your colleagues', would it still be as difficult?"
Him: "No, that would make things much easier!"
Me: "OK, then are you sure your point is that it's difficult to be a Christian in the art world, or that it's difficult to be a Republican in the art world?"

As the conversation continued, we both came to the conclusion that Christianity and conservative politics are often (wittingly or unwittingly) equated, with the Church being portayed -- by us and by the media -- as the GOP on its knees.

I ask, then: Is it a good thing that we convey this image? Why or why not?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"... A Dark, Godless, Liberal Place...."

Thus the Northwest is described by many people who hail from other parts of these United States.

What I find curious, however, is the (seemingly-related) string of adjectives in this common description:

1. Dark: True, it's pretty gloomy here, both spiritually and meteorologically.

2. Godless: Well, if you take into account the fact that church attendance here is the lowest in the nation, with 25% of people claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever, I can see the merit in this description.

3. Liberal: No doubt about it; Washington, along with most coastal States, is blue and left-of-center.

But it's interesting to note that, in the thinking of those who describe the Evergreen State in this way, these three characteristics naturally go together. In other words, to be "liberal" is to be "Godless," and to be "Godless" is to be "liberal."

Doesn't this line of reasoning beg the question by presupposing, first, that there is a distinctively Christian political theory, and secondly, that this political theory is suspicious of government aid to the poor and disenfranchised, gun control, and strong concern for the environment?

Hmmm... and I thought the Bible was supposed to be a chronicle of the fall, redemption, and consummation of the cosmos, not a political science textbook.

But then, I could be wrong....

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Grammar Lesson

During a discussion about the two kingdoms and the nature of the believer's role in culture, one of my former seminary profs once said, "There's a difference between an adjective and an adverb."

After nodding my head knowlingly (as if I actually understood what he was talking about), I walked out of his office somewhat bewildered. But then it clicked....

There is a difference between doing something that is holy (adjective), and doing something holily (adverb). For example, when I eat bread and drink wine at Jesus' table every Lord's Day, I am doing something that is holy -- the activity itself is sacred. But when I mow my lawn for the glory of God, the fact that I am doing it in a holy manner does not transform the activity from being common to being redemptive.

As Christian citizens of both the civil and spiritual kingdoms, we are called to engage in cultural and cultic activity, and moreover, the cultural activity we participate in should be done in a holy manner (i.e. out of gratitude to God, and to his glory). But this doesn't change the nature of this activity.

In other words, humming "A Mighty Fortress" while mowing my lawn doesn't mean I'm reclaiming yardwork for Christ.