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.
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 mostly 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.
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.
I am conscious of the fact that these lectures leave much to be desired form the point of view of the scholar who is aware of the range of contemporary studies – biblica, theological, and missionlogical. I must ask the reader to remember the purpose for which and the context in which they were prepared.
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:
My own experience as a missionary has been that the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources.” This kind of language, appropriate for a military campaign or a commercial enterprise, is not approprate here. The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or woman to the gospel. The messenger (the “angel” of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary “strategy” devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before his church. And, like Peter, the church can usually find good reasons for being unwilling to follow. But follow it must if it is to be faithful. For the mission is not ours but God’s.
I really like how Newbigin uses this paragraph to give a definition for “obedience” and the oft-abused “discerning the signs of the times”.
Since the Christian faith is a faith regarding the meaning and end of the human story as a whole, this faith cannot be confessed except in the context of the actual secular history of the present hour. To be specific, this must mean a provisional interprestation of the meaning of contemporary secular events (discerning the signs of the times) and concrete action in the various sectors of secular life directed toward the true end for which God has created humanity and the world (Christian obedience in the common life). In other words, the question of the relation of the biblical story to the whole story of humankind is a question that has to be answered in action. The Christian confession about the meaning and end of history can make good its claim to truth over against other interpretations of human history only through actions in which this confession is embodied in deed – and suffering. If the Christian confession is true, the Acts of God do not cease with the Acts of Apostles.
An excellent and provocative passage here, sounding a bit like Zizek on a good day.
The collapse of Marxism as a world power at the end of the 1980s has to some extent discredited this [socialist/liberation theology] way of thinking, but it has not solved any problems. Indeed, it has created a situations that is in some ways more intractable. The ideology of the free market now has nothing to limit its claims. There is no visible countervailing power. There seems no sign of a check to its relentless advance. And its destructive potential, both for the coherence of human society and for the safeguarding of the environment, are formidable. The ideology of the free market has proved itself more powerful than Marxism. It is, of course, not just a way of arranging economic affairs. It has deep roots in the human soul. It can be met and mastered only at the level of religious faith, for it is a form of idolatry. The churches have hardly begun to recognize that this is probably their most urgent missionary task during the coming century.
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.
In his account of the beginnings of Christianity in Uganda, John V. Taylor has shown very vividly how the first converts (most of whom were young men at the court of the Kabaka) felt the demand of the gospel upon their consciences in ways that had little connection with the ethical teaching of the missionaries. The later laid great stress on the necessity for an immediate abandonment of polygamy as the condition for baptism. But in the hearts and consciences of the converts other questions were being raised by the gospel and especially by the teaching and example of Jesus himself. They saw in him a new pattern of behavior, calling for humility and for willingness to share the world and the hardship of the poor. They saw that slavery was incompatible with allegiance to Christ, and they found themselves engaged in a deep struggle between the “old man” and the “new man of Christ,” of which the missionary was only dimly aware.
p.137 (from The Growth of the Church in Buganda)
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.
Verbal orthodoxy then becomes the supreme virtue, and syncretism becomes the most feared enemy. When this is the mood, real dialogue becomes impossible. And so does real mission. The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity.
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.
When the “oppressed” acquire power, absolutely no check exists upon their use of that power. There is no righteousness over them that can judge them. The result is the kind of ruthless tyranny that we have seen under Stalin and his lesser imitators. Those who identify themselves as the representatives of the “oppressed” are in a position to combine unlimited self-righteousness in respect to themselves with unlimited moral indignation in respect of their opponents. This is the most characteristic feature of the dedicated Marxist. Since there is no transcendent righteousness that can judge and forgive both the oppressor and the oppressed, the way is open for unlimited self-righteousness.
-Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, p.111
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.
There are some really excellent observations about the nature of history and inquiry (scientific or otherwise) packed into these few paragraphs from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret.
Modern scientific historiography involves asking such questions as the flowing about all the stories that are told: What is the source of the story? Does it come from eyewitnesses or at secondhand? What evidence is there about the credibility of those who saw, reported, or retold the story? What was their purpose in telling the story? To whom were they telling it? What interests and influences would likely to shape their telling? What collateral information do we have from other sources that bears on these events? For the asking of these and similar questions historians are continually sharpening their tools and accumulating and organizing more information bearing on the story.
[BUT!] all these tools are handled and this information is arranged by human beings, whose work is also shaped by the interests and influences of their time and place and culture. The directions in which they decide to probe, the questions they ask, the weight they give to different witnesses and different types of evidence, the analogies by means of which they try to understand the events and characters reported, the models by means of which they organize their material – all are shaped by the culture of which they are part, by the experiences, hopes, and fears of that part of the whole fabric of human society in which they have their place.
It is obviously as true of the world of the historian as it is of every kind of study that we can only understand anything by relating it to the experience we already have. The language we use, the models and analogies without which we cannot make sense of a mass of information, are all furnished by the experiences of our time and place. History has to be continually rewritten because, in the worlds of E.H. Carr, history is a continuing conversation between the present and the past. (p.84)
It seems to me that religious communities will typically embrace a theology that make the most sense in their given social and economical context. If they are wise, they acknowledge that they are doing this while they are doing it and admit that the theology might take a significantly different shape, given another context. The next generation though is often taught that the shape their community has taken is sourced directly from scripture and validated by old (Reformation era) or very old (early church fathers) authoritative commentary. The next generation is of course, in theory, aware that their social/economic/cultural setting has ordered some of their beliefs, but they do not realize to what extent. Seemingly finding their grounding in scripture, they believe themselves to be primarily shapers rather than the shaped.
This weekend, I visited a friend and his large family who had moved away about a year ago to take a job in a city 2 hours away. Though he was very active in the same denomination, he commented how different the character was, it no longer being centered in a college town. When the congregation is comprised of hundreds of students, from green 18-year-olds to newly married graduate students, and the elder board comprised largely of professors or higher-ed administrators, the life of the congregation takes a rather peculiar form. It affects everything – the sermons, the rhetoric, what ministries are emphasized and most funded. All of this comes back around to shape biblical interpretation too. It happens within the bounds of the denominations beliefs, true, but it can skew heavily in particular directions.
The place my friend lives now is much more blue collar and the city less walkable. There is a lot less socializing – everybody is busy with their jobs and lives too far a drive away to visit casually. The local university is not there to provide a unified workplace (and source of salary) and close living quarters. Conversations rarely tread into graduate level higher criticism or that thesis you are working on about Augustine’s City of God. Instead, they stay centered around who is in the hospital, when the troublesome freeway detour is going to be completed, and where the best place to take the kids fishing is this year. Hundreds of topics that previously seemed to be of world-shaking importance are now completely off the radar.
All these different things swirling around you change what you think about when you go to pray or read scripture. The Holy Spirit also knows what you need and will speak to you about what is present in your life at the moment (unless of course he is calling you elsewhere or waking you up to a new possibility). The end result? Your theology changes and as your memory fades, you may forget how very different life can FEEL in other times and places, even ones not terribly far away.
Skeptics and secularists will point to this phenomenon as simply evidence that religion is nothing more than a social construct – entirely subjective and imaginary, though of course “deeply meaningful”. Recent fad theologians will observe this and call in “incarnational”. Woopie. I think I’ll just call it “natural”. It’s geography taking it’s toll, no matter how fast our internet flies. It’s how people work to get their food making a big difference in their day to day lives, just like it always has everywhere, despite state’s efforts to diversify, subsidize, relieve, or incentivize
I think the right response for us to have mercy and grace on our fellow Christian. Their life is different from yours – probably more than your realize and there is probably less they can do to change it than you think. Throw them a bone and start by giving them the benefit of the doubt before you dismiss their theology as having missed the boat compared to yours. Yes, it’s entirely possible that it’s full of holes or that they’ve run off the rails in some way, but give empathy a shot.
God’s direction interaction with man follows a compression -> expansion pattern, just like a nuclear bomb.
Judah Especially (David, Solomon)
Samaritans (Heterodox Ethnic Jews)
Jewish Proselytes turned Christian
Local Gentiles (God-fearing Non-Jews)
Greeks, Romans, Egyptians Libyans, Assyrians, Ethiopians
Gauls, Germans, Africans, Celts, Chinese
Jesus Chris is the inflection point. The compression happens over about 2000 years – the bulk of the expansion in only 100. Our current age is one where the last little tiny gaps are being filled in by the fallout.