Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What Hath Qumran To Do With Confessionalism?

I'd like to take a moment to respond to a question that Doug Wilson has posed to me on his blog. He writes:

Stellman tags, as he ought to, the importing of worldly techniques of marketing, entertainment, and so forth into the broader contemporary world of evangelicalism. And I am right with him when he does this. But radical two kingdom theology has no problem with bringing worldly standards of science and academic history into the church, for example. Why is that?
The charge, if I'm reading Doug correctly, is that if two-kingdoms theology (or as he calls it, "radical two-kingdoms theology") draws a line in the sand when it comes to the creeping into the church of marketing and consumer trends, then why stop there? If those things are rejected for being secular, then it is arbitrary not to also disallow all secular disciplines, including the findings of historians or other mucky-muck academy types.

Perhaps this is best answered by focusing on his phrase "worldly techniques" or "worldly standards." There is a difference, I would argue, between a historian saying something like, "Jesus of Nazareth wasn't really born in December, nor was he born in the year 0 BC" (claims which are relatively benign), and another historian saying something like, "Jesus of Nazareth may have been crucified under Pontius Pilate, but he wasn't raised from the dead." The latter claim is obviously a direct attack on a central tenet of our faith, while the former merely challenges some of our extra-biblical traditions.

Turning, then, to the issue of "worldly techniques of marketing, entertainment, and so forth," we must ask the question of whether we reject such things because we don't trust secular society and therefore must refuse its advice, or whether we reject such things because, like the second of our two historians, they represent an attack on some aspect of our most holy faith. I think that Doug and I would agree that a Saddleback approach to worship is idolatrous and, from a Reformed perspective at least, sinful. In other words, it is not rejected on the basis that we are pilgrims and there are two kingdoms, but because it is in direct opposition to our tradition's reading of Scripture and its regulative principle of worship.

And finally, Doug asks:

When someone says that we need to take full account of what the old earth scientists say, or that we need to accept what professional historians say about the period of Second Temple Judaism, why does Stellman not reject this out of hand, on the simple ground that we are sojourners and pilgrims? If we don't need no stinkin' church marketers because our congregation is a mere band of wayfaring pilgrims, then does it not follow that we don't need no stinkin' geologists either?
My response is that I do take into account the findings of old-earth scientists because the age of the earth has no bearing upon my faith. If those scientists reject the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, however, I will stop listening to them, but this has nothing to do with their being pagans. Same with the historian's findings with respect to Second Temple Judaism: it's one thing to have my exegesis of certain texts challenged by, say, the claim that the Judaism of Paul's day was more characterized by nationalistic pride in various ethnic boundary markers than by the obsession for individual salvation from the burden of sin, but it's another thing to be expected to reject the doctrine of justification by the imputation of alien righteousness received by the instrument of faith alone. Last I checked, it was specific doctrines, and not the specific exegesis of biblical texts, that I vowed to uphold as a minister in the Reformed tradition. Of course, if the exegesis no longer allows me to hold my doctrinal positions, then the honorable thing to do would be to inform my presbytery and resign my post (but that's a whole 'nother topic).

Lastly, I must say that, after a rocky start, the tone of the discussion at Doug's blog is very charitable and courteous for the most part, and I really appreciate that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Like My Ecclesiology Salty and Subversive

Chapter Two of Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet is titled "The Irrelevance of Relevance: Grits, Salt, and the Assembling of the Saints." I begin the chapter by drawing a contrast between grits, the southern delicacy that has no taste of its own but instead takes on the flavor of what is added to it, and salt, the condiment that Jesus described as "good for nothing" if it loses the distinctness of its flavor. The purpose of this culinary observation is to show that the Christian church should be more like salt than like grits; in other words, instead of chameleonically changing our colors to adapt to the world around us, the church should seek to retain its distinctiveness and peculiarity in the culture.

Our sacred activity, such as hearing God’s Word and receiving the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is about as unique and countercultural as we can get, while our secular activity is just the opposite—it is thoroughly common. It is primarily on Sunday, therefore, rather than on Monday through Saturday, that believers display their peculiarity and distinc­tiveness from the world.

This means that the church’s main task, as simplistic as it may sound, is to be the church, to be, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “a new people, an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure.” They con­tinue: “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it . . . The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor.” This does not mean that the church ceases to be influential, but that the church’s influence is of an altogether different—and often unwanted—variety. “[We] seek to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and never can be.”
It seems to me that the evangelical church gets things precisely backwards at this point. Rather than being distinct from the culture on Sunday and part of the culture the rest of the week, they seek to be as distinct from the world as they can during the week, but as familar and non-threatening to the world as possible on Sunday. Hence the demand for Christian T-shirts and bumper stickers in order to stand out from the culture when they should be participating it it, and hence the market-driven desire to supply tailor-made worship experiences for Christian consumers (be they traditional, contemporary, or emergent) when they should be expressing their otherworldliness. Michael Horton is spot-on when he describes this approach as "ecclesial apartheid."

Darryl Hart has argued that the church's attempt to be relevant inevitably results in our sacralizing the secular and trivializing the sacred. Instead, argues Horton, "genuine relevance is found not when the church tries to be relevant, since repeating what people already think is rather boring. Genuine relevance is found in contradicting the wisdom of the world that we entered the church with on Sunday morning."

When the church fails to embrace this salty and subversive role in the culture, then, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (quoting Barth), "God is reduced to 'MAN!' said in a loud voice."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Something for the Morning Commute

In case you're interested, the radio interview I did on New York's WNYG about Dual Citizens can be downloaded here.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Note to Pastor Wilson and his Peeps

On the off-chance that any of you read both my blog and Doug Wilson's, you know by now that he is reviewing Dual Citizens. While I don't really have the time to interact with all of his commenters (nor the desire, to be honest), I did want to say a couple of things about his first post. The problem is that the blog requires an account in order to comment, and though I have submitted my information and am currently waiting for the pass code to be sent over email, I have yet to receive anything. So I will just say here what I would have said there. Here goes:
Hi all,

While I will not have the time this week to follow this discussion very closely, I would like to thank you, Doug, for taking the time to read and review my book.

A couple quick remarks: First, your readers may not realize that your quotations thus far are from the preface where I sum up the content of each chapter with literally a sentence or two. The reason I bring this up is simply because it would be more fair to judge, say, my thoughts on the Sabbath by my actual chapter on the Sabbath rather than a single sentence in the preface. This perhaps would have spared one of the commenters from having to “stare in disbelief at my cluelessness.”

One more thing: There seems to be some misunderstanding of one of the two-kingdoms position’s most basic points, namely, that we draw a distinction between the individual believer on the one hand and the Christian Church on the other. This means that I as a Christian person may fight against any number of political or social injustices, all the while insisting that the Church not adopt this or that social policy as “the Christian option.” Failing to appreciate this foundational principle of the two-kingdoms model will result in the implications stated already that, for example, we 2K’ers can’t condemn the Holocaust (!).

I realize that my view is not exactly the mainstream one, and I would hope that my FV-leaning brothers would empathize with the plight of an oft-misrepresented minority. Although you all are not always treated with the dignity you deserve, it is my sincere hope that you take the high road and demonstrate the charity that you are (unfortunately) sometimes denied and make every effort to understand the 2K position and read it in the best and most charitable light. Sure, you still may disagree, which is fine with me. I just hope the discussion is a profitable one for everyone involved.


Jason J. Stellman

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Are There Somber Calvinists in Springfield?

Last week I mentioned that I am reading David Dark's book Everyday Apocalypse, which surveys popular culture from Flannery O'Connor and the Coen brothers to Radiohead and The Matrix, seeking to recognize the ways in which the apocalyptic truths of the coming age creep into this one, even in ways unbeknownst to the artists themselves.

While Dark, so far anyway, refrains from calling all of life sacramental, he has no love for the sacred/secular distinction that two-kingdoms proponents insist upon. To be fair, though, he doesn't seem like he is all that aware of the doctrine of the two kingdoms, so who's to say he wouldn't appreciate it for its love of earth and it hatred of all things Gnostic?

In his chapter on The Simpsons he writes:

Unfortunately, the humility that is marked by a genuine readiness to know and acknowledge our own weaknesses and fears comes no more naturally to us than it does to the characters on The Simpsons. Yet without this humility of mind, no story, no art, and no apocalyptic can do its work on us. We walk through life unaffected, unmoved, and forever consigned to an invincible ignorance.

When viewed attentively, comedy like The Simpsons can awaken us to our disordered desires and motivations, breaking down our illusions of order, while holding back (temporarily) whatever false gods deceive us into regarding one another unkindly.
He then quotes Jean Bethke Elshtain: "We are not perched on top of the earth as sovereigns; rather, we are invited into companionship with the earth as the torn and paradoxical creatures that we are."

To put this all more simply, we shouldn't take ourselves so seriously. As long as we are expending all our energy seeking to maintain the facade we have created for ourselves to hide behind, we will be incapable of being made fun of. And once we reach the point of resentment when the mask is pulled back, we have become immune to all things apocalyptic.

I'm reminded of what the late Rich Mullins said about how he would rather live on the verge of radical sin than to maintain some Pharisaical fortress mentality that cannot admit weakness for fear of the bubble being burst.

Like it or not, this is the reputation we Calvinists have. Is it fairly attributed to us? And if not, is there anything we can do to dispel the myth?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

It's a Small World After All

Call me sappy and sentimental, but I have watched this about twenty times and can't get enough of it.

Enjoy (and be sure to view it from start to finish).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who Was More Popular, "The Good Shepherd" or "The Walrus"?

The first section of Dual Citizens focuses on the corporate nature of the believer's life as a pilgrim caught in the overlap of the ages, with my attention being given primarily to the issue of the church's worship. Chapter 1 is called "Corporate Worship: Covenantal Assembly of a Peculiar People," and in it I state the chapter's aim thusly:

My aim in this chapter... is to call into question the American church’s desire to avoid the obscurity and lack of popular appeal with which Jesus Himself was seemingly plagued. In place of the flashy, high-octane wor­ship experience, I will commend faithful attendance on the simple means of grace that Christ has instituted for His people’s growth, unremarkable though they may be.
There's an interesting contrast (at least it's interesting to me) between John Lennon and Jesus that I draw the reader's attention to here. When Lennon made his famous proclamation in the mid-1960s that "The Beatles are more popular than Jesus," the American public went absolutely ballistic, with our displays of disapproval including public burnings of Beatles albums as well as crushing them with streamrollers. Freedom of religion was one thing, but questioning Jesus' popularity? That was a no-no.

But when you think about it, Lennon was kind of right, on one level anyway. The mourners who gathered at the vigil after his shooting far outnumbered the measly 120 that Jesus managed to attract (Acts 1:15).

The question I pose in this chapter concerns whether we as Christians are OK with following an unpopular Savior whose church is characterized by rather unremarkable means for growth and the edification of her members, means as mundane as the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. We Americans, driven as we are by a theology of glory, are so consumed with success (as defined by the culture) that we don't really know what to do with the fact that Jesus spent a good deal of his time asking his friends not to be embarrassed by him (Matt. 10:32-33; 26:34; Mark 8:38). Paul followed suit, pleading with his young protege not to be "ashamed of the testimony of Jesus, or of me, his prosoner" (II Tim. 1:8).

Hardly the kind of rousing rhetoric that rallies the rabble for revolution....

Our Lord made it clear that the servant is not greater than his master. If we want to follow Jesus (the real one, I mean), we simply have no other choice than to identify ourselves with his own unpopularity, together with what the world sees as the weak and beggarly elements of the church that he founded. Balking at such divine foolishness is noting short of shirking the cross, as if it was fine for Jesus to die on, but not us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Last Post on (shhh!!)... ¢@thol!¢!$m

A quick point I'd like to bring to your attention:

I will no longer post anything having to do with Catholicism. The reason for this is that, though the claims of Rome are obviously great fodder for discussion and debate (281 comments in the latest thread), I am personally unable to faithfully monitor all that is said in the comments. Aside from my young family and weekly preparation of two sermons, I have meetings with hurting families, with newcomers to Exile Presbyterian Church, and with others that keep me pretty busy. Oh, and as John Bugay has recently reminded me, I have tons of "book signings and cocktail parties" to attend which regrettably keep me from sitting at my computer blogging all day.

What results from my having a day job is that "comment wars" often break out between Catholics and Protestants that I simply cannot referee. The fact that I don't have time to wage the Protestant Reformation on the Internet has made some people feel as if I am (what was it?) "dragging Jesus through the mud." While I obviously do not share this assessment, for the sake of peace I'd rather just put a halt to all Catholic-Protestant dialogue rather than letting it continue with whatever limited participation I can offer. If any of you have been scandalized or hurt by my laissez faire approach to these debates, I hope you will forgive me.
And lastly, if any of you are disheartened that, due to this development, there will no longer be any online forum to talk about Protestant-Catholic issues, be of good cheer, there's always this option.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Worship and Life": Tearing Asunder What God Hath Joined?

It occurred to me recently that as someone who has recently had a new book published, I'm not doing very much by way of promoting it (unless you count blogging about Dark's sacramental worldview and Newman's theory of doctrinal development, which I'm guessing you don't). So in the interest of reaching those of you who have yet to purchase Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet, I will begin a brief walk-through of the book in the hopes that your interest will be piqued.

In what was originally Chapter 1 but is now the Introduction, I offer a lengthy defense of the book's subtitle. The reason for this is because distinguishing between "worship" and "life" has fallen way out of vogue these days, with it becoming more and more fashionable for pastors, authors, and theologians to insist that "all of life is worship." But as I seek to demonstrate, if there is no distinction made between worship and life, between cult and culture, between the sacred and the secular, then what inevitably ends up happening is not that the mundane gets elevated, but that the holy gets trivialized.
What follows is a biblical defense of the doctrine of the two kingdoms, much of which was taken from here, here, here, and here.

The reason I belabor this point about the distinction between the earthly and heavenly kingdoms is not, as is so often assumed by transformationist types, because we two-kingdoms folk are Gnostics who are all about world flight. Quite the contrary, it is the two-kingdoms advocate who is in a position to affirm even more loudly than the transformationist the goodness and legitimacy of creation (as I argue in this piece I recently wrote for the White Horse Inn blog). You see, if we look at culture and think, "So much untransformed creation, so little time," we are not really appreciating art or music for what it is, only for what it can become. And once we apply this standard more broadly to, say, jobs and the people who hold them, we run the risk of dehumanizing people simply because they don't love Jesus like we do.

But when we learn to appreciate earth for its own sake while still refusing to confuse it with heaven, we then can give true expression to our dual citizenship, engaging in secular pursuits without shamefacedness provided our love for this world is not greater than our longing for the next one. As Rich Mullins sang, "Nobody tells you when you get born here how much you'll come to love it, and how you'll never belong here."

I end the Introduction thusly:

Let the reader always remember, however, that being a pilgrim means more than just being homeless. There is a final destination, an eternal city, a true the­ocracy that awaits all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. In this heavenly abode, there will be no serpents to distrust or Canaanites to dispel, for "No lon­ger will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever" (Rev. 22:3–5).

Do you long for this "building of God, a house not made with hands" (2 Cor. 5:1), compared to which the sufferings of this present time appear as mere trifles unworthy of mention? I hope that you do, for this is what it means to be a pilgrim.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Apocalypse Now?

I just started reading David Dark’s book Everyday Apocalypse which, as far as I can tell, focuses on the various ways in which the dynamics of the future intrude into this present age. I say various ways because Dark has a much more sacramental view of the world than does your garden variety confessionalist (like me). For Dark, we experience spiritual realities not merely through the means of grace given to the visible church, but through the expressions of pop culture such as the music of Radiohead, TV shows like The Simpsons, and the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

A two-kingdoms guy he certainly is not, but still, he does seem to scratch where I itch.

Some excerpts on the nature of truly apocalyptic art:

The pictures and sounds and stories of apocalyptic expression are deliberately paradoxical in such a way that they tease the mind out of whatever old, self-justifying forms it has settled for.... Apocalyptic won’t flatter or privilege the powerful or congratulate us for our sincere intentions, but it will illuminate what is dark. It will passionately expose. It will make us see.
On the subversiveness of the apocalyptic:

Apocalyptic was and is the only language adequate to describe this new beginning while maintaining its practice as one of constant exodus. It keeps religion strange and ready to question the given "reality" of the day. Without apocalyptic, no questioning occurs and the biblical voice is easily edited (or censored) to the point that it appears to support whatever sentimental sap or suburban self-improvement program it’s pasted upon.

We indulge a historical deafness when we think of the Jewish and Christian movements as the uncritical endorsers of whatever societal structures currently hold the population captive. It was Augustine, after all, who described earthly kingdoms as large-scale criminal syndicates.
And on the farce of values-based entertainment:

Purposed domination [referring to Tolkien’s negative assessment of allegorical storytelling], we might say, is the method of propaganda. It leaves the audience with no room for "applicability," and the propagandist wouldn’t have it any other way. The tightly controlled "message," after all, was the point in the first place, not the dignity of the reader or the story (if we can even call it a story).... Given our current cultural climate, the media consumer does well to be wary of any product that has featured, foremost among its selling points, its so-called Christianness.... I’m personally convinced that such market-driven theology will be viewed, historically, with at least as much embarrassment as, say, the medieval sale of indulgences.
Provocative stuff indeed—but is Dark right?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Newman on the Development of the Papacy

In chapter 4 of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Cardinal Newman takes up the issue of papal supremacy. Surprisingly, Newman argues that the papal office of Peter "would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiatical matters became the cause of ascertaining it." The universal jurisdiction of the first pope, in Newman's words, "slept." It was a "mysterious privilege, which was not understood, as an unfulfilled prophecy."

When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.

Far from being a universal body characterized by communion with the bishop of Rome, the early church was more decentralized, as Newman's citation of Barrow shows:

The state of the most primitive Church did not well admit such an universal sovereignty. For that did consist of small bodies incoherently situated, and scattered about in very distant places, and consequently unfit to be modelled into one political society, or to be governed by one head....

In fact, it was the exaltation of the church from the status of an illicit and persecuted religion to one of prominence and favor that precipitated the rise of the papacy:

If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined. The Creed, the Canon, the Papacy, Ecumenical Councils, all began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. And as it was natural that her monarchical power should display itself when the Empire became Christian, so was it natural also that further developments of that power should take place when that Empire fell.

This seems to coincide with Lampe's thesis in From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries that

The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterial system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city.... Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship.

Some important questions arise (but are not begged) from Newman's position on the development of the papacy, not the least of which is: Is the view that the papacy developed consistent with Vatican I's statement that "We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord" (a dogma that is called "a clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church")?


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Random Thoughts

Just a few random things I'd like to bring to your attention....

First, be sure to tune in to Westminster Seminary California's new program Office Hours. It features interviews with various faculty members like W. Robert Godfrey and Julius Kim.

Thanks to all of you who have purchased by book, Dual Citizens. Next task is to read it, then talk and blog about it, and then tell others to buy it, too. Or just buy it for them.

Chesterton makes a great point in Orthodoxy about how we ought to see Nature not as our Mother, but as our Sister, since we both have the same Father. Mothers have authority, but not sisters. Sisters you admire but don't need to imitate. "Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi.... To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved." If this is true, and given evangelicalism's unease with earth, it appears that there's a bit of sibling rivalry going on.

Lastly, although Scripture tells us that the church speaks in Christ's name, it appears that Metro South Church in the Detroit area is now also speaking in Satan's. As a ploy to attract newcomers, they have rented billboards and printed tracts that say things like, "Metro South Church Sucks." Signed, Satan. I hate to say it, but I think this time Satan may be on to something.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Breaking Up With Jesus

A member of my church just shared with me this story. It's about the journey of David Bazan, former Pedro the Lion frontman, from evangelical singer (with great crossover success among secular music fans) to agnostic. What struck me about this article was (1) the reactions of fans who recently saw him play the Crossroads Christian music festival after a five-year absence, and (2) Bazan's bitterness toward the evangelicalism of his youth and early adulthood.

I can't help but wonder if a healthy theology of the cross, chased with a couple shots of amillennialism, could have helped mitigate the tragedy? Or was there nothing any of us could have done?