Saturday, April 29, 2006

Missional Marxism?

With all the careful attention given to demographics research by cultural critics and missiologists alike, it seems, to me at least, that amid the myriad of categories we stick people into (Boomers, Gen-Xers, D.I.N.K.s, urban hipsters, Bobos, wealthy white suburbanites) we Christians have forgotten the most important demographic cultural label of all: Adamic.

According to the Bible, all people fall into one of two categories: "in Adam" or "in Christ."

This amazing (re)discovery ought to revolutionize our approach to outreach and evangelism. Not only will it save us countless hours that otherwise would have been spent calculating the effects of our PowerPoint presentations on Asian-Americans versus Anglo-Americans, it will help us streamline our approach by giving us an understanding of our target audience that is actually relevant.

You see, focussing on whether someone makes $25,000 a year and drives a Gremlin or $75,000 a year and drives an Audi is a very shallow way to treat people. As if our detailed analyses of the incomes and spending habits of the people we're trying to reach could really capture who they are (what are we, Marxists? Pretty soon we'll be calling the former the proletariat and the latter the bourgeoisie).

But when we move beyond the surfacy and superficial, we discover that all people -- black, white, rich, or poor -- have one common denominator that makes all their apparent differences pretty meaningless at the end of the day: They are in Adam, and their culture is Adamic.

(And if you think I'm painting with too broad a brush, go read Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19.)

Once we recognize this, we can spend less time trying to figure out which TV shows to integrate into our multimedia presentations ("Is The O.C. too white? Is The Shield too edgy?"), and we can spend more time dealing with the tainted presuppositions that our fallen hearers come in with every Sunday (such as: Jesus is supposed to give me a more fulfilling life, or, Church is supposed to meet all my needs). But unfortunately for our hearers, those are often our presuppositions too.

So I'm all for attention to demographics and contextualization, just as long as we focus on what really matters.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Paul the Demographer

When discussions arise about evangelism and, more specifically, "contextualization," usually about 17 seconds elapse before I Corinthians 9:19-22 is brought up.

In this passage Paul claims to become "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."

"Notice Paul's missional sensitivity," we are told. "He was willing to adapt to any culture in order to make the gospel intelligible."

Not to rain on anyone's parade or anything, but I don't see Paul's attention to demographics as being particularly accute or especially sensitive. If you take the time to read the context of the passage, you'll note that the apostle explains exactly what he means by his supposed adaptability:

"To the Jews I became as a Jew... to those outside the law I became as one outside the law."

Far from being the cultural chameleon that many claim him to be, Paul basically lumps all people into one of two broad categories: Jews under the law, and Gentiles without the law (and this is no isolated incident -- he talks like this all the time, cf. Acts 20:21; Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10; 3:9; 10:12; I Cor. 1:22, 24; 10:32).

Now let's be honest: Most missions agencies would fail a person for that sweeping a generalization. What about income level? Age? Musical tastes? Demographic classification (Boomer, Buster, Gen-Xer)?

Though Paul certainly did take advantage of his being a Hebrew of Hebrews raised in Hellenistic Tarsus (Acts 17:28; Tit. 1:12), it is a huge leap to say that, since he desired to be all things to all men, he therefore catered his evangelistic efforts to the supposedly unique situations of each and every village he ministered in.

Which brings us to the real question (which I'll address in my next post): Are the rich, the white, the young, the old, the poor, and the black really that different anyway?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Church Planting and "Incarnational" Ministry

In the church planting world there is no shortage of buzzwords, but among the most commonly-used are the terms "contextual" and "incarnational."

Insofar as I understand these words, their meaning appears to be that, in order to reach our communities with the gospel, we must adapt our message and methods to our target audience so that they actually understand what we're trying to tell them.

So far, so good. I mean, if I were to attempt to speak to the unchurched culture of the Northwest by preaching a 32-week sermon series called "The Filioque Clause and its Ramifications for Eastern and Western Ecumenicity," I hardly think we'd run out of chairs.

(If I preached a series called "Biggie, Tupac, and the East Coast / West Coast Feud" I might have more luck.)

But my hesitance concerning the whole "incarnational" approach stems from the fact that it seems to assign to the unbelieving community the task of setting the rules for the game. Contemporary culture (which is assumed to be both autonomous and neutral) gets to decide what is significant in "the real world"--whatever that means--and the Church, ever perilous of slipping into irrelevance, has to fall in line, hat in hand, like a dutiful servant.

Am I the only one who sees this as problematic?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Kuyperian Sabbatarianism?

There's no question that the Christian history of this country is a history of Sabbatarianism (albeit misdirected).

But here's my question for Reformed followers of the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (read: the majority of Reformed people): If culture is in need of redemption and transformation, it would follow that culture, as such, is bad (why else would they want to change it?). And since culture is bad, there can be no legitimate cultural participation beyond the redemptive efforts of those Kuyperians who are trying to transform it. Following me so far? Christians aren't supposed to go to bad places for fun.

But if the aim of the Kuyperian Calvinist is to redeem the culture, then what good is the Sabbath for this goal? All it does is annually waste 52 otherwise perfectly acceptable days which could have been spent on cultural renewal.

For a two-kingdoms advocate, on the other hand, culture is neither demonic nor divine, but is simply the common grace arena in which the divine drama of redemption is played out. Culture is to be enjoyed because it is legitimate for its own sake, not for its redemptive potential.

So when the believer with a two-kingdoms paradigm for understanding cult and culture decides to withdraw from cultural activity on the Lord's Day, she is actually making a sacrifice.

But the Kuyperian can make no such boast, for her cult/culture paradigm demands cultural withdrawal not only on Sunday, but on Monday through Saturday too. If culture is so flawed that we Christians must transform it, then withdrawal from it on Sunday should either be assumed (since the call to shun evil is valid seven days a week), or it is an incredibly poor use of the transformationist's time.

In order for the refusal of cultural engagement one full day every week to actually be a sacrifice for the believer, therefore, that cultural engagement must be considered legitimate -- and even good -- the other six days of the week.

And it's the two-kingdoms model that allows us to make that sacrifice.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Post Script

In the same way that it is inconsistent for Baptists to teach their children to sing "Jesus Loves Me," it is also inconsistent for pre-trib Dispensationalists to allow their kids to sing "Father Abraham."

After all, the crucial issue for correctly interpreting biblical prophecy is the Abrahamic Covenant. If you want to know to whom the land promise belongs, for example, you must determine who Abraham's true seed and heirs are.

So it should be a real source of consternation for Gentile children of Dispensational parents to boldly claim:

Father Abraham had many sons;
Many sons had Father Abraham;
I am one of them,
And so are you;
So let's just praise the Lord!

But just as Baptists express their covenantal instincts when they "dedicate" their babies, so Dispensationalists betray their preference of grace over race when they teach their little ones this song.

"Out of the mouths of children you have prepared praise" (Matt. 21:16).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Amillennialism, Fifth and Final Post

OK, so what do we do with the first six verses of Revelation 20?

The biggest clue, to me at least, is the binding of Satan. The usual method of understanding this verse unfolds as follows: "Hmmm... what would the world be like if Satan were bound? [Insert utopian fantasy here]. But the world doesn't look like that, so I guess the binding of Satan must happen during the millennium."

Side note: In Dispensational hermeneutics, the "millennium" is the catch-all category into which we stick all prophecies that are not fulfilled to one's liking.

But if we compare Scripture with Scripture -- more specifically, Revelation 20:2 with Matthew 12:29 -- we will see that the binding of Satan occurs as the result of Christ's inauguration of the kingdom at his first coming. Then when you factor in Paul's statements about Satan being "disarmed" (Col. 2:15), and John's claim that Christ has "destroyed the works of the devil" (I John 3:8), it becomes clear that, by his death and resurrection, the Seed of the woman dealt the coup de grĂ¢ce to "that old serpent, who is the devil and Satan." The "thousand years," therefore, are concurrent with the devil's binding.

"But it has been almost two thousand years! Why does John say 'a thousand'?"

Because Revelation is an apocalyptic book, and that's how apocalyptic books say things. In fact, a careful reader of this prophecy would be hard pressed to find even one number that is used in a non-symbolical way.

Does God have seven Spirits? Did the church of Philadelphia experience a trial that lasted sixty minutes? Does Jesus have seven eyes?

The sooner we begin reading Revelation according to its genre rather than trying to force it into a straitjacket more suited to a book like Romans, the sooner we'll be able to get past all the cloak-and-dagger, Missleresque, woodenly literal weirdness and actually get the book's point:

"And the God of peace shall crush Satan under your feet shortly."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Amillennialism, Part Four

All of the OT promises made to Abraham are, thousands of years later, still the topic of debate. What did God promise to the patriarch? And who can lay claim to those promises today?

God promised to Abraham a seed, and a land for them to dwell in (Gen. 12:7). It is absolutely crucial to understand that, with all of the Abrahamic promises, there is a two-stage fulfillment that unfolds throughout redemptive history.

At the first stage, the seed promise was fulfilled in the raising up of the nation of Israel from the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Likewise, the first-stage fulfillment of the land promise was the gift of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey.

But the first-stage fulfillments were provisional, temporary, and most importantly, typological. And what's more, when you get to the New Testament, the land of Canaan and the physical nation of Israel fade into the background and are eclipsed by something far greater.

You see, it is the second stage of fulfillment that Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament writers were concerned with.

According to them, the true fulfillment of the land promise is realized in the new heavens and new earth (Rom. 4:13; II Pet. 3:13; Heb. 11:10; 12:22). And even more significant is the fact that the "seed of Abraham," to whom all of the covenant promises apply, is Jesus Christ and those united to him by faith... just like Abraham was (Gal. 3:7-16; Rom. 9:6-8).

So how does this all relate to amillennialism?

Well, from these considerations it is clear that the notion that God still has promises to fulfill for a physical, geo-political nation, and further, that he must fulfill these promises by means of earthly sacrifices offered in a literal temple within the bounds of a piece of real estate in Palestine, is nothing more than a retreat back into the types and shadows of a now-obsolete covenant (Heb. 8:13).

To adopt the Dispensational (read: pre-trib) hermeneutic, therefore, is to adopt the hermeneutic of the scribes and Pharisees. To them, ethnic status and national privileges really were sufficient to secure God's blessings.

Which, of course, means that Christ died for nothing (Gal. 2:21).

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Amillennialism, Part Three

Alas! It appears my faithful readers are either now-convinced amillennialists or they're too scared to allow their premill position to stand up to Paul's argument in I Corinthians 15.

Well if you won't answer Paul, then I doubt you'll answer Jesus, but I'll give you a chance anyway.

In the famous "sheep and goats judgment" passage in Matthew 25, our Lord's outline of end-times events sounds suspiciously simple and, dare I say, amillennial.

We have Christ returning in v. 31, at which point he sits on his judgment throne. He then gathers all people before him, separating the faithful from the wicked, and judges each group according to the fruit their lives produced (vv. 32-45).

What's interesting for our discussion is the fact that the wicked are sent into "eternal fire" while the righteous are rewarded with "eternal life." Let me repeat that just so we're clear on what, according to Jesus at least, will transpire at the end: Christ returns in glory, judges all men, and sends them to their respective eternal destinations.

Where's the millennium in all this?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Amillennialism, Part Two

There's an ancient and very helpful hermeneutical principle that must come into play at this point: Unclear passages must be understood in the light of the clearer ones.

This means that Revelation 20:1ff will have to wait, at least for now. As any non-biased observer can surely admit, verses about angels with keys to bottomless pits binding dragons with great chains are pretty complicated and, dare I say, less-than-clear. So let's begin elsewhere and make our way to the apocalyptic stuff.

How about, say, I Corinthians 15:21-25? This is as good a starting pont as any: it's clear, didactic, and unadorned with apocalyptic idiom. We read in this text that there will be an order in which the resurrection of the body takes place: "Christ the firstfruits, then those who are Christ's at his coming" (v. 23). So Jesus was raised on the third day a couple thousand years ago, and then we will be raised when he returns.

Then what? The millennium? Nope. The thousand-year reign on the earth? Uh-uh.

"Then comes the end, when [Jesus] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (vv. 24-26).

Hmmm.... So Jesus reigns until the last enemy is destroyed, which according to v. 26 is death. But according to vv. 54-55, death will be finally defeated at Christ's second coming -- then shall it be said, "Death is swallowed up in victory." This means that Jesus' return doesn't inaugurate his earthly kingdom, it consummates it! Which is precisely what Paul says in v. 23-24.

If there ever were a time to at least mention the millennium, this would have been the place to do it. But not only does Paul say nothing about it, his description of the end makes it impossible.

Unless, of course, millions of people can somehow die after Christ defeats death....

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Amillennialism, Part One

I have mentioned serveral times in the past that a two kingdoms paradigm for understanding the relationship of cult and culture is the result of amillennial eschatology, while "transformationism" is de facto postmillennial. Time to flesh this out....

I'll start by defining the amillennial viewpoint. In a nutshell, amillennialism teaches that redemptive history can be broken down into two ages: "this present age," which is temporal (Gal. 1:4; I Tim. 6:17; Tit. 2:12), and "the age to come," which is eternal (Matt. 12:32; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5). The event that will bring about the transition from this age to the next is the return of Jesus Christ, which could happen at any moment.

Conspicuous by its absense is -- you guessed it -- the "millennium," or "thousand-year reign of Christ."

The reason the millennium is absent from this schema is simple: The Bible doesn't teach it.

Go ahead, prove me wrong....

Monday, April 10, 2006

Last Word About Slogans

OK, last one, I promise:

"Necessity is the Mother of Invention."

This once was the case back in the day, before the technological boom ("Man, it's cold! We should, like, invent fire or something.").

But once our tool-centered culture gave way to Technocracy, which then produced our current Technopoly, this all changed. Inventions became so easy; the real problem became creating supposed necessities in order to justify them.

For example, I have had the following conversation approximately 274 times:

Person: "What's you cell number?"
Me: "I don't have one."
Person: "WHAT?! You don't have a cell phone?"
Me: "No."
Person: "Why not?"
Me: "Because I don't need one."
Person: "Sure you do! What if you were driving through the dessert in the middle of the night and you got a flat tire? What would you do then?"
Me: "Has anything like that ever happened to you?"
Person: "No."
Me: (Insert smug look here).

It is the nature of our Market-driven culture to invent stuff, and then figure out what we should use it for. The slogan, therefore, ought to be:

"Invention is the Mother of Necessity."

My goal, of course, is not to force my hopelessly antiquated (read: late 90's) ways upon any of you. All I'm saying is that the last thing I need in my life is one more thing I can't live without.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

More Bad Slogans

I'll exercise some self-control and skip over "God Is My Co-Pilot"; it's just so laughable that it hardly deserves comment....

But one cliche that is particularly bad -- though rarely recognized as such -- recently came to my mind when I was preparing to teach on the seventh chapter of Hebrews:

"Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven."

Now try to stick with me here, as this argument is rather eschatological in nature. The whole problem with the Levitical priesthood, according to this chapter, is that it could not bring about perfection in its worshipers. In other words, Old Covenant saints gained a measure of forgiveness by means of the Levitical law, but that law was "useless" in bestowing the perfection that its subjects needed. This is why another priest was needed who would minister according to another order than that of Aaron.

By contrast, the Melchizedekian priesthood of our great high priest, Jesus Christ, not only offers us forgiveness, but more importantly, perfection. Sure, we haven't actually received this perfection in full measure yet, but regardless, we are completely qualified to enter the Holiest by the blood of the Perfect One, Jesus Christ, who is both priest and sacrifice.

So the bumper sticker should read thus:

"Old Testament Saints Weren't Perfect, Just Forgiven."

But in its current form, this popular slogan betrays a drastically under-realized eschatology.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Bad Slogans

The thing about slogans is that they're a dime-a-dozen, which is why I avoid 'em like the plague....

While there are plenty of Christian cliches I disagree with (which I may comment on later), there are a couple secular ones that rub me the wrong way.

For starters, how about this one: "Time is Money."

What's the message behind this statement? It obviously seems to be saying that, since the most important thing in life is earning money, and since every tick of the clock that I spend doing anything that is not financially rewarding represents a loss of potential earnings, I really need to limit the time I waste on things that don't put more dollars into my bank account.

But do Americans really think this way? Statistics show that most people, if they had the option, would opt for fewer work hours in return for less pay but more time to spend with their families, or to pursue other interests and hobbies.

Time, therefore, is more valuable than money (at least it ought to be).

So here's my proposal: Let's start a new slogan -- "Money is Time." It would work itself out practically by the attitude that, since earning that six-figure income entails wasting too much time working, and since time is more valuable than money anyway, it's just not worth the trade-off.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

"Hoc Est Corpus Meum": Modern Gnosticism Part 2

"This is my body," Jesus told his disciples, "which is broken for you."

What did he mean by that? The various interpretations of our Lord's words in the upper room account, to a large degree, for the existence of Baptists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians as separate denominations in the Protestant world today.

While the average layperson has little familiarity with the arcane debates over the communicatio idiomatum, Eutychian Christology, and the extra Calvinisticum, she has nonetheless breathed enough Gnostic air to at least know this much: Whatever Jesus meant, it certainly didn't include actually receiving grace from the Lord's Supper.

After all, how could so "spiritual" a thing like grace be communicated by means of so "physical" a thing like a piece of bread or a cup of wine (er... excuse me: grape juice)?

And here we are again, right back to the ol' spirit/matter dualism (who says the Gnostics died out way back in the day?). There's no way around it: the coupling together of physical elements and spiritual benefits offends our evangelical, American sensibilities. Especially if we remember the 1960s' (which, I'm told, is impossible if you were really there). The cultural revolution of that era taught us in no uncertain terms that "all you need is love," and that things like wedding vows and institutional religion were for squares. I am the eggman. I am the walrus (coo-coo-ka-choo).

Although we may never "solve" the mystery of Jesus' words in this life (though my own bias should be obvious), we must at the very least admit that participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper does something to us and in us (Rom. 6:3-4; I Cor. 10:16; 11:17-32).

And if, after reading that passage in Romans, you object that Paul is talking about baptism with the Spirit, not baptism with water, you've made my point for me.