Sunday, July 30, 2006

Shall the Transformationists Win?

If keeping the Sabbath for the express purpose of maintaining the strength of America's social, political, and spiritual fabric is misdirected, then why bother? Shall the transformationists win?

I don't think Two Kingdoms advocates need to throw in the towel just yet. A semi-realized eschatology and the resulting two kingdoms framework together serve to provide a context for Sabbath observance that makes sense.

Historian John Muether writes, "[As a] dissident band of resident aliens… with the corporate identity of a disenfranchised and counter-cultural character," the new covenant church desperately needs the Sabbath in order to retain her peculiarity and distinctiveness from the world. Being a religious minority, God’s pilgrim people need to somehow maintain their "'fortress' or 'ghetto' mentalities that insulate them from the contamination of competing and more powerful (i.e. more socially plausible) worldviews." He continues:

"This is precisely what the Sabbath does [for God’s covenant people]: it enables them to live out their convictions in the context of fellow believers, providing the social support for their 'otherworldly,' or heavenly, citizenship. Put another way, a counter-cultural identity and the practice of the Sabbath become mutually reinforcing."

The corporate assembling of God’s people for worship on the Lord’s day, together with their refusal on this day to participate in the culture they affirm Monday through Saturday, is their way of testifying to the culture that they do not march to the beat of the world’s drum or organize their lives around the world’s notion of "the weekend." This sort of observance, writes Michael Horton,

"... would be a witness to the world that we are not slaves in Egypt, in bondage to the priorities of a greedy culture of marketing and entertainment…. As we refuse to surrender this day to the tyranny of the clock and the gods who amuse us, we enjoy a foretaste of heaven and also proclaim to the world that God is our refuge."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Sabbatarianism Misdirected?

The religious history of this country is in many ways a history of Sabbath-observance. "If you would destroy the Christian religion," Voltaire is alleged to have said, "you must first destroy the Christian Sabbath." As goes the Sabbath, we have been continually reminded, so goes the Christian Church.

What is interesting to note, however, is that it is almost exclusively from a transformationist perspective that the ongoing validity of the fourth commandment has been insisted upon. In other words, if we desire to (re)claim the nation and her pursuits for Christ and ensure that Yahweh's healing hand will be ever upon these majestic purple mountains and amber waves of grain, we'd better get our butts to church.

"Sabbatarianism," OPC historian John Muether has argued, "was a crucial part of the agenda of nineteenth-century American evangelical social reform." This reason lay behind the institution of "blue laws," the forming of The General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath in 1828, and the 1814 petition from the Presbyterian General Assembly to Congress that urged Sabbath observance based upon the claim that it "contributes to increase the amount of productive labour, to promote science, civilization, peace, social order, and correct morality." The conclusion is inescapable that "Sabbath breaking was punishable by the civil magistrate because it destroyed America’s moral and social fabric."

OK, show of hands: Do Sabbatarianism and transformationism represent a match made in heaven, or are they an unholy alliance of odd bedfellows? Why?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Working for the Weekend

Remember when you were in elementary school and you heard the teacher say something like, "Class, today is the first day of the Chinese New Year"? I remember thinking, "Umm, it's April.... Those Chinese sure are behind!"

The Chinese, I eventually realized, have a different culture than we do, and so their calendar was different.

And so it is with the Christian Church. What the world calls the last day of the weekend we call "the first day of the week" (Matthew 28:1). We structure our lives according to a Sabbatical pattern, as have God's people for thousands of years. The difference between Israel's Sabbath and the Church's, however, is that they worked all week in order to enter God's rest, while we participate in the rest of Jesus Christ before any work has been done by us at all.

Rather than seeing Sunday as "Saturday Part II," shouldn't we take it as an opportunity to protest the consumerism and Market-driven nature of the kingdom of man by refusing to participate in the frantic hustle and bustle that characterizes every other day of the week? After all, faithful attendance upon the means of grace week by week will do more to display to our children, friends, and neighbors the distinctive and countercultural nature of the Christian faith than a T-shirt that says "This Blood's For You" or a bumper sticker that reads "Got Jesus?"

And conversely, bumping into your neighbor at Costco on a Sunday afternoon subtly says to him, "Hey, we're not that different after all."

But then, our zeal to win the lost by "becoming all things to all men" may mean that the message that we're not that different is precisely what we want to communicate to the watching world.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Peculiar Speech

Speaking of speaking, here are a couple exerpts from United Methodist Bishop William Willimon; the first is from his book Resident Aliens (co-authored by Stanley Hauerwas), and the others are from “Peculiar Truth: Postmodern Preaching” in Modern Reformation, Vol. 12 (July/August 2003).

"[We] operate within a domain of distinct discourse. We talk differently here, working within a certain 'language game' to which everyone here subscribes for the duration of the conversation.... There is no way for us preachers to weasel out of the baptismal truth that we preach within a distinct universe of discourse. We talk funny."

"All faithful preaching begins as an act of a determinately self-revealing God, Yahweh, who loves to talk, who delights in argument, declaration, epistemological conflict, assertion, and promise, who loves to create something out of nothing through nothing more powerful than words....

"[Postmodern preaching] will be speaking that worries more about obedience to the text than about the allegedly contemporary context of our speaking. It will trouble itself more over proclaiming the Word than over any lack of contemporary response. Realizing modernity’s grave limits, it will be preaching that is willing not to be heard, understood, or grasped by affluent, early twenty-first century people. It will be preaching that delights in the convoluted thickness of the biblical text.

"We preachers ought never to forget that what Acts 2 wants us to call the gift of the Holy Spirit, is what the world attributed to too much booze too early in the day."

This is what we need to be hearing at church planting seminars and church growth conferences today! Rather than sacrificing the "Christianness" of Christianity on the altar of the Market, we should be delighting ourselves in the countercultural and foreign nature of our religion (yes, it's a religion), all the while seeking to enfold as many unbelievers into this story as we can.

And please note the irony: It's a Bishop in a mainline liberal denomination who needs to explain this stuff to us....

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pinch-Hitters, Pocket Rockets, Pitching Lips, and Perichoresis

"Bottom of the ninth, full count, runners at the corners."

"On the button, Texas Dolly flops the nut flush draw."

"Lowers was nice and hollow during the evening glass-off."

Not many people would be able to decipher even two of these phrases, let alone all three. Sure, we understand the words contained in them, but what their meaning is remains somewhat opaque. This is because the cultures represented by these sentences employ their own particular brand of slang which, to outsiders, sounds utterly foreign.

Moreover, when a channel-surfer comes across a TV program displaying one of the cultures represented by these sentences, he doesn't get angry with the commentator for using such obscure language. And conversely, if a long-time baseball fan were to turn on the game and hear the announcer say, "Runners at the corners, for all you first time viewers, means a runner on first base and another on third," he would probably be annoyed, and rightly so.

You see, every culture has its own unique way of speaking (which, if you think about it, is part of what makes a particular culture "particular" in the first place).

But for some reason, Christians are warned to avoid "Christianese," especially in church services. After all, what if a nonbeliever is there? What will she think if she hears the word propitiation?

Is it me, or is asking Christians to jettison Christianese about as silly as asking someone from Japan to quit speaking Japanese?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Early Christian Exiles

The second-century Epistle to Diognetus furnishes us with one of the earliest examples of how the early Christians thought of themselves and their relationship to the pagan culture around them. In chapter five we read:

"For the Christians dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

"They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreign-ers, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred."

This glimpse into the pre-Constantinian church is a challenge to the triumphalistic attitudes of many today who are fond of (mis)quoting II Chronicles 7:14 to remind God of his "covenant promises" to prosper America.

If the Church were to slip even more deeply into cultural obscurity, if the people of God were made to pay a price for our faith, if believers were forced to relinquish our utopian visions of a this-worldly country "reclaimed for Christ" -- in a word, if we set our eyes upon the eternal City whose Builder and Maker is God, only then will we begin to understand the pilgrim existence that our brothers and sisters of old endured.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Incest and Atheism, Cannibalism and Christianity

"Incestuous." "Atheists." "Cannibals."

Such were the common descriptions of the early Christians by their nonbelieving contemporaries. Apparently their insistence upon marrying only brothers and sisters in the faith, their rejection of the Caesar cult of Rome, and their practice of eating the body and drinking the blood of their Leader effectively squelched whatever attempts the primitive church made to appear "relevant" to the world around them.

Add to this the fact that most of the early Christians were martyred, and any present-day delusions of ecclesiastical grandeur and cultural conquest quickly appear to smack more of good ol' American self-confidence than of realistic, vintage Christianity.

From our language to our calendars, from our past history to our future hope, there's just no way around it: Christians are weird.

How should we feel about this? Should we be ashamed, or should we embrace our weirdness?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sola Scriptura?

This is something of a post script to my last installment on "application" in preaching, but I beg your indulgence nonetheless....

I have been wondering lately whether or not the faithful exposition of a passage of Scripture is sufficient in and of itself, or does the exposition's legitimacy only appear when its relevance to my life is demonstrated?

For example, I will be preaching soon on Ephesians 1:3, which says that "all spiritual blessings in heavenly places" are to be found "in Christ." Now, if I show from this verse (and others like it) the folly of seeking any blessing from God apart from the Person and work of Jesus, and conversely, that Christ is the fountain of all of heaven's treasure, is that enough? Does the ordinary church-goer see that point as being particularly relevant, or do I need to add something like, "Now for you stay-at-home moms out there..."?

My hope for the evangelical church today is that a faithfully-preached gospel would provide sufficient manna to satisfy God's pilgrim people, but my fear is that, like the wilderness wanderers of old, the delicacies of Egypt seem far more appealing.