I don’t have anything to write at the moment, but your time would probably be better spent listening to this anyway.
Jul 08 2015
This is a bit of follow-up to my earlier post, Is missionary work really harder now than it was in the middle ages? I could use a variety of examples from history, both ancient and even some relatively recent revivals or foreign mission success stories. However, for the sake of convenience, I’ll use the conversion of the fierce Picts in Scotland to Christianity by St. Columcille’s monks in the sixth century versus attempts to plant churches or strengthen Christian cultural institutions in the present-day secular modern United States.
Each of of the questions I’m going to ask can be viewed as having two variables. One could draw a 2×2 grid of four possible logical answers to the question and then evaluate each one. Along the way, I think we’ll find that some options can be eliminated easily, while others are cause for rigorous debate.
1. Were the pagan Picts much more set in their sinful ways or is it our modern culture that is particularly hostile?
It’s a toss up as to rather I hear option B or C articulated by Christian leaders most of the time.
2. The conversion of Ireland and Scotland was dramatically successful. Were the old pagans really receptive to the light of Christ, or were the old saints particularly special and amazing in their holiness and methods?
It’s hip and cynical to vote for option A on this one, but I still hear option B from people that like to hype things up.
3. We seem to be having a lot of trouble spreading the gospel. Is it because we suck, or have we just been given an especially difficult task?
The Reformed typically tell a story that sounds like option B (our preaching kicks ass but they aren’t listening), and the Anabaptists and some left-leaning folks talk like option C is what is going on (we’re asleep at the wheel so we can’t blame them too much). Folks like Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and some Chinese folks talk like option D is what is going on as soon as you step out of USA/Europe. I’d really like to believe them, but I’m still not sure at this point.
4. Are we anything like the old saints?
As a young man, I heard a LOT of option B. I know a lot of my Reformed friends have too. Jim Elliot bios, Charismatic hagiographies of folks like Smith Wigglesworth, “Don’t Waste Your Life”, “Do Hard Things”, etc. I occasionally hear option C suggested, though it’s rarely put front and center.
And one more, getting as close to the bone as possible.
5. How was the Holy Spirit at work in the past and today?
I’ve heard A and B spoken of by quite a variety of figures. It’s really kind of funny how either of these can be worked into widely disparate theological frameworks. Option C is the default for secular nihilists. I’m for option D.
Jul 07 2015
I just finished reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s a popular history book, that is it’s fun and easy to read rather than serious and scholarly. I really enjoyed it, but at the same time, feel that I must be bit skeptical about the optimistic nature of the story it tells. Despite the modern lingo and distance, it still strikes me as a hagiography. Yes, without the miracles found in the Voyage of Brendan the Navigator, and with more grounded references to the rest of Europe during the middle ages, but still a story camping out on all the good and especially cool things about the main characters. St. Patrick and St. Columcille’s faults are mentioned in passing and brushed aside while their accomplishments are amplified and celebrated.
I got the same feeling as I do reading Philip Jenkin’s history books. It’s all Christians doing awesome stuff all over the world that we forgot (or forget) about. The obvious next question is of course, how can WE Christians find such fabulous success in our own ministerial endeavors in the hostile modern West? All we can see are hurdles, road-blocks, and enemies on our way to accomplishing anything that looks even remotely like the spread of Celtic monasticism or the evangelism of the fierce Picts. And yet, fierce they were. Were they a tougher nut to crack than our own mixed neighboring cultures? Those early Scots that the monks at Iona reached out to where men who stripped off all their clothes, painted their bodies and ran screaming into battle, then went home and participated in orgies and human sacrifice. And here we are trying to preach to folks who cover their bodies with tattoos, work in the tech industry and then come home, order food in, and watch pornography. We both speak of Jesus. The former group listened intently, the latter will have none of it. Or so it seems. I ask again, is our missionary task now in the 21st century really harder than theirs was in the 6th century?
This is not a rhetorical question. I’m really asking. When you read traditionalists decry the creep of modernism, it seems like maybe things really are worse off for us – it really does. But I am skeptical of this complaint too. Is the literacy of pagans really so bad? What if the problem is with us. What if we have simply become too worldly and are of little interest to those we are trying to convert? The monks at Iona were not exactly trying to blend in, and people flocked to them in droves. It’s almost like we are hoping for a too-integrated society of – one where new converts drop their twenty-something sins in the trash and transform overnight into denim-skirt wearing homeschoolers with twelve children singing hymns around the dinner table. That stuff takes time – LOTS of time. Why do we get so frustrated when their steps toward Christ are slow or partial? Patrick, in preaching the gospel and establishing many churches, was apparently successful in eliminating human sacrifice and much petty local war, but not sexual promiscuity. Does that mean he was a failure? It would seem so by our current measures.
I think it’s possible that all of this puzzlement with history can be chalked up to the compression of time in our observation. We look at our own life in chunks of just a few years, but when studying the past, we will frequently make a strong narrative connection between people and events that are suddenly a century apart but on neighboring sentences on the printed page. How are things in our age? Someone studying us centuries from now will be able to write a saner story than we can. We are too excited about our brief triumphs and far to disillusioned and depressed about our setbacks. The government tightens the screw on us in some oppressive way and we are downtrodden and about ready to throw in the towel. But viewed from afar, that event may not even be worth mentioning in an account. Whole chapters would instead be devoted to the heroes in our midst, whom we likely don’t even recognize.
The above is largely speculation. I’m just trying to process it all. “Yes what happened back then was maybe cool, but now everything sucks and the Devil is #winning!!!” is not a convincing summary of our age (or any age) to me. I seek a better explanation – one that shows throughout how Jesus is King.
Jun 29 2015
Bill Cosby (decades before he became anathema this past year), in one of his most excellent reflections on childhood, described how he and his friends used to play in a vacant lot filled with rocks and broken glass. Nobody ever got hurt until the adults turned it into a playground and in the first week three kids had broken their arms on the monkey bars and several others had delayed their entrance into puberty by being crunched on the seesaw. Before, imagination reigned with unpredictable danger. After, prescribed exercise and predictable injury.
The new play structure in the park across the street from my house takes this ethos one step further. Instead of dirt or bark, it’s on a deep cement slab, which was then covered by recycled rubber padding so children would presumably not be able to hurt themselves. Consistency is king. I feel blessed to have a 100-year-old willow tree in my back yard that is ripe for climbing and falling out of.
The world is becoming disenchanted around me. Down in the local coffee shop there used to be a pipe-smoking room where one could go and pretend to be a young C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Sometimes (whether you smoked or not) it made doing homework just romantic enough to be tolerable. It’s no longer there – shut down a few years ago by the government’s right hand while it’s left hand simultaneously legalized the sale of weed. The spicy old wood and tobacco of our forebears? Out. “Premium bud” in blisterpacks? In.
Gone is the dicey used book store down the street that used to house the local Wiccan coven. It’s a geological survey office now. They’re still tramping through the forest, but far fewer are pretending to be druids. The Turkish hookah lounge is now home to a real estate agent. The infamous “Rat Haus” bar is an antique shop where even things that were brand new for my grandparents are fair game. All three fountains on the college campus have been replaced with flower beds to reduce cleaning costs and the century old carillon bells in the clock tower are now handled by a loudspeaker hooked up to an MP3 player on a timer.
Because we’re evangelical protestants, worship was and still is held in in a gymnasium or a warehouse with carpet. Stained glass? A baptismal font that doesn’t double as a cattle watering trough? Even a steeple? All apparently extravagant non-essentials from a per-industrial dark age. Who needs cathedrals when you have a reverb stomp box for your guitar?
Even as recently as 20 years back, I remember reading Michael Crichton’s novel Congo (itself a homage to King Solomon’s Mines) and being enchanted by its unmapped reaches of central Africa. Now it’s all on Google Earth – in 3D. I’m not the first or likely even the hundredth person to lament this loss, or rather the side-effect of this gain. In most accounts, satellite imagery features prominently as the bitterest pill. Is there anything mysterious left in the world?
Yes. TONS. And it’s because man and science doesn’t have everything so tidy as we presume. Talk is cheap, but being there on the ground is something else entirely. A brutal storm on the ocean is only barely less scary today than it was for Magellan. We think we’ve got the world all figured out now. Buzzzzz. Wrong. We don’t have a clue. The unknown abounds behind every bush, in every bush, munching on the berries. Kids keep asking these questions. So should we, even if it seems like all the answers are at our fingertips on Wikipedia. They’re not. Not even close. Wake up this morning. Expect to have your mind blown.
Jun 07 2015
I just finished reading another biography of C.S. Lewis. (The Narnian by Alan Jacobs. Definitely recommended.)
It again strikes me how, despite being a huge hero to American Evangelicals (myself included), “Jack” would be severely unwelcome in most of our churches – at least in any formal capacity. He’s not nearly Reformed enough for the capital ‘R’ Reformed. It would probably be more accurate to say he’s not nearly Puritan enough for the American Reformed. He was married to a divorcee and spent many of his years living with his chronically drunk brother, all while putting away quite a bit of beer and tobacco himself. These are all highly suspicious circumstances that would have immediately gotten him disqualified from even leading a casual bible study in any of the Pentecostal or Baptist church’s I’ve been a part of. Despite his mastery of Latin and Greek and his encyclopedic, nay, LIBRAIC knowledge of Western literature, he often seems to have not read (or cared) about the “right” books to have any street cred with proper theologians either. Where are the records of his long grapplings with Calvin, Anselm, or even Augustine? Apparently he was too busy writing science fiction for that.
Lewis was in a unique position to be an especially ecumenical Christian. As an essentially secular scholar, and never a priest, or pastor, (or “worship leader/church planter” for that matter), he didn’t have a dog in the fight when it came to denominational distinctives. Though he had his reasons (discouraging to Tolkien) for not joining Rome, the idea that Catholicism was not a legitimate form of Christianity would have been utterly ridiculous to him. From this position, he could think and write for a wide audience without fear of being defrocked like George MacDonald, one of his favorite authors of the past. Any one in this position today (e.g. pastor-turned-conference-speaker Rob Bell or soon Mark Driscoll, or author-blogger-wut? Donald Miller or Rachel Held Evans), are denounced from many corners as being illegitimate due to their lack of oversight, flock, or formal ecclesiastically-vested authority. But Lewis is really in exactly the same boat as them. Perhaps he did get flack like this during his lifetime, but it seems all water under the bridge now.
My respect for Lewis has really only ever grown with everything I’ve ever read of his or read about him. Still, I do suspect that had he not kicked the bucket a 64 and lived until 84, he most certainly would have “gone off the deep end” on some key theological topic. Maybe he would have veered toward universalism like Madeline L’Engle. Who knows, but I’m sure he would have said or written something embarrassing to all of us fanboys (and girls) a half-century later. As it is, he quit while he was still at the top of his game, which probably serves to sweeten our memories.
Nothing can quite prepare one for the “staring into the void” experience that one has upon first meeting a person in the business world that has walked into reality straight off of the Dilbert comic strip. There are the buzzwords delivered with a straight faced, the honest, even vulnerable or boyish enthusiasm for fleeting mumbo jumbo marketing and management ideas, and the proliferation of gadgets. Wasn’t Michael Scott just a silly character on The Office? No. Something very much akin to him is terribly alive and real and sitting across the table from you. Day after day you wait for the facade to crack and a relatable, self-aware, and slightly cynical person to emerge, but it never happens. It’s day 400 since their arrival to the office and they want to have a “stand-up” meeting to talk about “core values” and show off a Gantt chart made for planning the company BBQ – all without any trace of irony.
It’s difficult to accept the existence of this man or woman. It’s easier to acknowledge someone of a very different religion living in say, Yemen who wants to kill you. They are on the other side of the world and grew up under very different circumstances. They are ethnically, linguistically, culturally, economically, socially, and historically utterly different from you in the West. You may utterly disagree with their philosophy and conclusions, but it’s not hard to at least accept they arrived at them via a very different path. But the live-action Dilbert co-worker – how did he come about? He grew up in the same region, in a family just like yours, and even watched Duck Tales every afternoon after school, yet behold, here he is, stone-cold serious about “generating synergy” amongst departments via the new “content management system”. Thirty seconds later, he sounds like anyone else, side-tracked by a discussion about the latest episode of Breaking Bad, or where the best place to go fishing is this weekend. What sci-fi-esque rip in the space-time continuum allows such a being to exist?
That’s not a rhetorical question actually. I don’t have a workable theory yet. For years when I was younger, I figured these characters were only mythical archetypes or hypothetical comedic foils. But no dear friend, they actually exist and though not terribly common, are numerous enough that sooner or later you will indeed encounter them. One may even end up being your boss, or your neighbor, or even going to your church, and YOU will be called to treat them with kindness. Know now that they exist. It may help your mind not to explode when the time comes that you must listen and empathize with them. It may also help you forgive yourself should you discover you are one.
May 05 2015
I probably won’t have the time to develop these into any longer posts, so I’ll just stick them here with a few comments. Overall, I thought The Open Secret was a much more thoughtful and theological book that K.P. Yohannan’s Revolution in World Missions. At least, I was pleased to find a much more nuanced discussion about whether schools and hospitals can/should coincide with proper evangelism and church planting.
As usual, I am always interested in how introductions are handled – favoring humility in disclaimers. This one draws attention to the original context, which is always a good move and one that is not done nearly enough with works of theology.
On the unplannability of successful missions and and how we should allow room for the Holy Spirit to lead someone in a direction that may not seem to make sense or hold up to analysis:
I really like how Newbigin uses this paragraph to give a definition for “obedience” and the oft-abused “discerning the signs of the times”.
An excellent and provocative passage here, sounding a bit like Zizek on a good day.
I mentioned this passage in an earlier post and sermon about how the Holy Spirit may be, at times, leading people toward repentance of different things than the sins that may bother YOU the most.
One of these days, I’m going to write a much large piece titled “Whose Afraid of Syncretism?” or something like that. I’ve already hit on the topic in several previous posts. This passage will definitely be quoted.
May 02 2015
I’m certain someone has thought of this before, but I don’t recall having heard it put exactly this way before, so I’ll give it a shot.
Science is held in extremely high regard in the modern world. It would be more accurate to say that the “idea” of science is held in high regard. Proper science of the strict and ruthlessly inquisitive sort is on the wane in the academy and can rarely be assumed to be behind many claims and ideas that smell science-y today. Regardless, science is respectable in the extreme in public.
All people have problems in their day-to-day lives – in their jobs or in their relationships – problems they try to solve and situations they try to understand. When trying to understand a problem, what tools do you reach for? You might reach for empathy, an extremely useful psychological tool. You might reach for patience or trust, something that we might put under the category of “spiritual discipline”. You might reach for your own physical strength and constitution to push through the situation. But one thing that often comes to mind in our present age, an age where science is king, is to leverage science to help solve our problems. And what is the easiest way to seemingly understand something in a science-y way? With statistics and probability.
Instead of asking, “What does this person care about?” We ask questions like, “What is the likelihood this person will get angry at me if I do such and such?” 40%? 70%? In a sample of the couples at this party, 3 out of 18 of them have prettier girlfriends than I do, so I guess I should feel pretty good about my situation – it’s well above average. For my presentation, it’s critical that I tell a joke before the 2.5 minute mark to keep people engaged. According to my food journal, I sleep better on the Tuesdays when I don’t eat gluten.
These are all just observations about the world of the sort that we all make all the time. The difference is that we now tend to express them in scientific jargon to enhance their power. If we can borrow some of the aura that put a man on the moon or that makes the 128 gigabytes of memory in our iPhone work, maybe it will help us be a better parent too or enable us to make wiser life decisions.
Earlier in history, these lines of thinking or intuitions were more likely to be described with qualitative words. Now we are more apt to use numbers. The way we describe the world and even think about the world has appropriated this new vocabulary. The problem is, that vocabulary was meant to stay in a roped-off arena and not brought into the mushy and bewildering land of human beings and ad hoc impressions. As we’ve now done this for several generations, some of the mushiness has oozed BACK the other direction. We think we are science-y about everything, but in fact we are often less so than ever before.
It dawned on me recently why the veneration of Mary is so persistently attractive. Lay aside all the later Marian dogmas about her being the queen of heaven or the mediatrix or whatever over-the-top ideas people have come up with over the centuries. Just forget those for a moment. The simple fact is that it’s easier for a great many people to imagine Mary as loving them. God the Father is too distant and abstract. Jesus is the incarnation who died for us and loves us and all that, but he is, unfortunately also kind of distant and abstract. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and his voice can sound suspiciously like that of our conscience. It can be difficult to discern between the two. When the devil whispers despair in our ears it can also sound a bit like our conscience as well. We are confused and downtrodden.
But it’s difficult to imagine Mary being angry at us. She puts a “face” on Jesus that is gentler and kinder and not at all stern. Now I know that if Jesus himself were here, he would be all those things perfectly and infinitely and that Mary, for all her virtues, was just another limited person like the rest of us. But the idea – the idea of a calm mother figure – THAT is something that can be more viscerally comforting than all of the things we’ve been taught are wrapped up in Christ.
I was feeling very discouraged one night a couple weeks ago and took a walk where I found myself talking/praying/ranting to God. I passed the statue of Mary by the nearby Roman Catholic church and it popped into my head that here was someone, seemingly the only someone on earth, who WASN’T disappointed with me. I’m incredibly disappointed with myself. I imagine God to be, even though I know that technically that is not true. But I don’t think she is. Now she’s dead of course, but I wish I could more easily see Christ as having those same qualities and same care and emotion toward me. I don’t know if it’s too much abstract theology or tainted earthly father figures or what, but the difficulty is nevertheless very real to me. It’s not accurate, and it’s probably not healthy, but sometimes, when you feel like crap, Mary seems like maybe she could be a little bit nicer than God. At least, I’m not aghast that more than a few people have thought that over the ages and to this day. The idea will likely persist to fill in the gaps of our imagination as long as our image of Christ is imperfect.
Recall this passage whenever you see someone publicly shamed or called out on Twitter or Facebook for some politically incorrect statement. The ones doing the shaming typically purport to speak on behalf of the oppressed.
Notice what will NOT fix anything here for either side: argumentation (well-executed or otherwise), sound reasoning, sufficient dog-piling to drown out, or even an extracted apology. What is needed is forgiveness, of both the oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressor needs to repent and turn from his sin of dehumanizing his brothers and sisters. The oppressed (and their proxy defenders) needs to turn and forgive the one who hurt them, even when the perpetrator is incapable of repenting adequately or making sufficient restitution. The death and resurrection of Christ gives us a space where this kind of seemingly impossible forgiveness CAN be imagined and realized because He is outside of us and does the judging and forgiving FOR us, though in such a way that we can also follow suit. Without his judgement and love, we remain locked in a power play – each clawing for the moral high ground.