The failure of eschatology

Here in Moscow, we live in a hotbed of postmillenialist Christians. The reformed congregations here (Christ Church and Trinity Presbyterian) both have prolific author/pastors who promote this particular flavour of future thinking. (That would be Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart).

Having grown up Baptist, I was spoon fed the exact opposite (premillenial dispensationalism) for many years. This included things like “The Late Great Planet Earth“, Left Behind, and the ilk.

It turns out there are lots of positions in the middle between these two as well. The primary ones being historic premillenialism (like pre-mil but without all the complicated prophecy charts and theories), and amillenialism (like post-mil but more vague).

Anyway, Josh S (a Lutheran) at the Boar’s Head Tavern had a spot on comment the other day about all this:

I wonder if any differences between dispensationalists and postmillennialists is more cultural than specifically theological.  The latter tend to be more educated, more historically aware, and more interested in premodern art and literature, and thus have more positive attitudes toward top-down political structures and the syntheses of church and state we find in the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, which tend then to be a subtext under the “kingdom” speak.  Dispensationalists tend to be right-leaning Americans with the attendant strong suspicion of exaggerated political power, especially the state imposing its will on religion, and a tendency to speak of the Bill of Rights in the same way that they speak of Scripture.

IMO, they’re both a little loony.  On one hand, you have the people who want to create the imperishable and ideal Christian society where Jesus reigns supreme.  On the other, you have the people who are predicting Jesus will come back some time in the next two weeks based on some sign or another.  Both projects have parallel, uninterrupted, 2000-year old histories of failure.

This observation reinforces my theory that the theology of a particular group of Christians is more determined by their own subculture than it is actual systematic arguments. So along these lines you have Leithart writing an essay titled For Constantine (which is still quite brilliant in many ways) and on the other hand back-woods preachers shunning all forms of environmental conservation and foreign-conflict resolution because “it’s all going to hell any day now” when Jesus comes back. Fascinating.

Calvinists and Emergents fighting over the same group of us guys

I find myself right in between two movements in Christianity right now: The so-called “emerging church” and the new resurgent Calvinists. They overlap in so many areas, it’s rather fascinating how they can be so opposed to each other at times. They both are moving AWAY from the deadness of “classical” American evangelicism, disillusioned with it’s mega-churches, worn-out revivalism, cheesy Left Behind eschatology, political culture war, CCM, and shallowness. They travel THROUGH largely opposing philosophies, but then surprisingly, arrive BACK at many of the same conclusions.

Both are often intellectual, focus on church planting, desire to return to older liturgies in worship, and spend much more time and money on charity and humanitarian aid then our parents and grandparents ever did. It’s just that the reasoning behind these conclusions come from very different corners. The “Emergents” travel through a mix of postmodern philosophy, the experience of hands-on philanthropy, liberalism, mysticism, and rediscovery of the ancient church. The “Resurgents” get there through renewed academic fervor, systematic theology (and the desire to really apply it), appreciation of the arts (acknowledging the beauty of creation), and more theology. Of course, I’m painting with broad strokes here, but I think these are useful descriptions nonetheless.

Unfortunately, because of their differences, these folks do end up fighting a lot. I don’t think the actual people on the ground fight much, but they certainly do so on the internet and in their rhetoric. A few days ago, Michael Spencer posed a question at the Boar’s Head Tavern about why the new Calvinists spend so much energy trying to squash the emergents. What follows I think offers some brilliant insight into the situation. I just had to repost (edited) snippits of the conversation:

Michael Spencer: Why are the Together for the Gospel Calvinists obsessed with the emerging church? I mean, it’s a never-ending obsession. Why? What’s the connection? Why isn’t it progressives? Lutherans? Atheists? Liberals? Not Really Reformed Calvinists? Baptist Fundamentalists? Why the angst over the EC and especially McLaren?

To which one of the Lutherans quips:

John Halton: I for one am deeply disappointed that Calvinists spend so little time these days attacking Lutherans. C’mon, guys! We believe the most ghastly stuff! Unbelievers get to eat Jesus, babies spring out of the font fully regenerated, Christ paid for all sins of all people… Good grief, all the emergents have done is grow goatees, wear heavy-rimmed glasses and use lower-case for the names of their churches!

Hmm, maybe I could meet in the middle and have a reformed gathering called something like “infusion” or “the storeHaus”.

And then, the nail is hit on the head:

Richard: Because they are both keenly interested in “reaching” the same demographic, viz. white, 20-30 years old, educated, culture-shaper types. That’s why we have a Calvinist book by two guys who“should be emergent but aren’t”. The crowds at Together for the Gospel and a typical Brian McLaren meeting don’t look very different, do they? Lots of young, white faces. The people at the Reformed meeting are a bit better dressed and groomed but they all grew up in the same suburbs, went to the same schools and graduated in the same classes.

Spike: I’m with Richard. As the new reformies see it, they and the emergents are the only two groups in the church that really count because they’re competing over the young male intellectuals. It’s a zero-sum game; any young male intellectual who starts quoting Doug Pagitt could have, should have been quoting John Piper. There aren’t enough resources in the denominational ecology for both of them to thrive.

That’s it. Demographics. I’ve said this before, though I have yet to develop the idea fully. Arguing about theology is often just a front for something else, even if the people talking theology don’t realize it.

Jason Blair: That’s an interesting observation, Spike. But if true, it would expose a flaw in their thinking. All they have to do to win the numbers game is encourage their team to have more babies than the other team. (kidding – kind of).

Kidding, kind of. Actually, I think this is true, though just one of many factors. On this front, the Calvinists probably have an upper hand since they are generally friendly to large families and the liberal-leaning emergents will have fewer goombas.

And on a different note…

Adam Omelianchuk: I’ve thought a lot about the ongoing debate between Emergents and Resurgents (my terminology) and have come to see it as a competition between two paradigms that are battling for the hearts and minds of the younger generation of evangelicals. In the wake of the soft and highly replaceable seeker-sensitive evangelism of the Willow Creek/Rick Warren era, the receding unifying figurehead of Billy Graham, and the disillusion caused by the Religious Right, a void has emerged that cries out for radical change in ministerial innovations, doctrinal education, and cultural engagement.

The Emergents seek to meet these problems with a wholesale rejection of whatever it deems “modern” (read: conservative, rationalistic, propositional, or whatever) and turns towards an Ancient/Future dichotomy that seeks the understanding of a Christian experience that ministers to the challenges presented by the postmodern ethos. The figureheads of the movement, such as Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell, seek a convention that buys into the idea that culture in an inescapable ingredient in theological formation and therefore should be embraced, albeit critically to varying degrees.

The Resurgents see this as nothing short of heresy and believe it is simply the repetition of the previous errors of Protestant Liberals who accommodated the faith to the tenets of modernity. They too see the unsatisfactory conditions left by the previous generation of evangelicals but stand in disbelief at the proposed solutions of the Emergents largely because they believe they are simply propounding the same philosophies that got the previous generation into trouble in the first place (starting with people’s “felt needs”) and extending them to approaches that can only lead to heresy (as observed historically with the liberals). Thus the need for something fixed, transcendent, confessional, and historically rooted, i.e. Calvinism.

Both groups flourish by way of the same means: conferences, websites, blogs, podcasts, and published books from a “cult of personality” leadership structure. Therefore, when they inevitably intersect we get lots of book reviews, conferences with speakers addressing one or the other, discussions over politics and theology and various answers to the question “What is the gospel?” that are utterly divergent.

In short, what we see today between the Emergents and Resurgents is an echo of an earlier era when Fundamentalism and Modernism clashed.

This is lamentable for several reasons, most of which are related to a false choice between extremes being presented to many young people. Any moderate voice coming from classical Arminians, Postconservatives, young Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Anabaptists, or those that authored the Evangelical Manifesto are met with an alien and confused look on the face.

The final comment by Adam is good. The refusal of people in both movements to hear the words of wise people still attached to the old institutions is a weakness of both movements. Christians of all flavours still have much to offer.

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Ambition and Church Leadership

I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat perplexed about church leadership. That is, there are lots of different kinds of pastors. Some stand out as the “cool” people in the community. They were the visible movers and shakers ever since junior high. At other times, the pastor can seem like the dorkiest person in the room, and I’m not just talking about generational differences. Others are scholarly and couple (or overshadow) their pastoral ministry with brilliant teaching or writing careers. I’ve seen some very incompetent people suddenly feel “called” to jet off to seminary. Everyone around them shakes their heads.

Being a pastor in America (I don’t know about the rest of the world) seems like this odd paradox of being in an important position of influence and also making next to nothing in terms of wealth. I’ve known many pastors that have honesty worked very hard for their flock but also had to work side jobs (driving school bus, cleaning offices, keeping rentals, etc.) just to keep their family afloat. What is up with all of this? Is being a pastor something do be desired, or does it largely suck? What actually motivates people? I’m confused.

A recent post by CPA offers (I think) some really keen insight into all of this. (emphasis is mine):

So what accounts for the similarity between the “alpha male” ethos of a conference of Southern Baptist pastors and that of a high-powered law firm?

I would say, both are outlets for the ambitious of their community. This is, frankly, the weirdest part of being an adult convert to the evangelical community: realizing that all over the land, many driven, competitive, ambitious kids grow thinking the way to respect and power is to become . . . . a Baptist (or other evangelical) pastor. (But understanding this is useful for understanding, for example, the position of lamas in traditional Tibet, or mullas in the Islamic world.)

For those in the [mostly liberal] mainline world, the idea that religion would be an outlet for ambition, competition, and drive is just bizarre. In the mainline world, those who are driven, ambitious, and competitive go into law, business, or politics. In that world, religion as a career is, almost by definition, the province of the shy, the self-doubters, the bookish, and nerdy. And that is true whether the career cleric is male or female.

In the evangelical church, the pastor is preaching down at his sheep, for whom he is the leader of their social universe. The pastor’s role is as a leader, a commander. And the ambitious boys in that world want to be the pastor, because that is leadership.

In the mainline church, the minister is preaching across, or even up, at parishioners for whom he or she is at best only one voice among many. The minister is an adviser, or a therapist, or counselor, offering words of counsel to the leaders and led of society. And the office attracts those who don’t want to be leaders, but instead stand apart from leadership. The jocks go on to earn big money and make big decisions; the shy and bookish go into the ministry to warn them every Sunday of the dangers of ambition.

Church Relevance

A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America-about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.

– Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, P. 111

The resurrection power of Christ healing the brokenness in people’s lives will always be relevant to all descendants of Adam on this earth. Cool web pages and trendy music are a medium of communication, just like books or a street sign.

Have you seen people passionate about their street sign? Probably not. That would be silly right? Books. Yes. Music, definitely. Be passionate about the gospel.

Light those candles when you pray

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what? there’s nothing wrong with that.)

-Seth Godin (brilliant marketing author)

Godin is a smart guy and I really enjoy his writing. He is no theologian though so he may not be keen as to what other motivations there could be for this kind of behavior. Obviously there is more to it than what he is describing, but it’s certainly a legitimate side-effect!

Classical Music (or lack of) in Church Culture

I just finished reading Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. Cron is an Episcopal pastor with a interesting postmodern/emergent/liturgical slant. In this pseudo-novel, the main character is a successful American mega-church pastor who goes through a crisis of faith. He spends much of the book trekking across Italy tracing the life and thoughts of St. Francis. I appreciate that he admits up front that the book isn’t much of a novel or much of a thought-out piece on ecclesiolgy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book even if a lot of it was pretty contrived.

One fakey part I have to point out though. During one chapter our evangelical mega-church pastor has a conversation with a young woman who happens to be a professional cello player. This is the vehicle the book uses to discuss aesthetics. Anyway, during the conversation, our hero mentions that he enjoys the music of Arvo Pärt. Wait a minute! Stop the tape! I’ve known a lot of American evangelical pastors. And with almost no exceptions, not a single one of these guys could tell you the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, let alone claim to be a fan of the minimalist Estonian composer. I remember writing a paper on Arvo in university. He’s written some fascinating music, making extensive use of harmonics in his orchestration. I couldn’t find a real nice example to post here. Sadly, I don’t own any recordings of his works. Here is a something though from YouTube. Pardon the cheesy photo montage.

Anyway, I’ve spent the last two years being drawn toward our local reformed congregation. They have a thriving church here. Some of the following I can only see in hindsight now. Anyway, I’m not directly involved with them now. The thing is, it wasn’t that I was enamored with Calvinism, it was simply the higher culture of many of the people in the congregation, especially some of the leadership. I was so sick of hearing every January sermon laced with Super-Bowl references. I was tired of loving classical music and having the only thing on my pastor’s musical radar be the latest Casting Crowns album. Now I know Christ is neither high-brow nor low-brow. He is neither Vouvray nor Bud Light (nor Pepsi for that matter). The pastor who knows Bach inside out is not higher spiritually than the one who loves NASCAR. Frankly though, I don’t really want to hang out with the racing fan all day. I think he feels the same way about me.

I believe groups of people form communities most of the time based upon their interests, things held in common, and how well they get along with various individuals. Doctrinal distinctives just aren’t often as driving of a force as we make them out to be. I am willing to bet that most churches are divided along lines of culture and demographics, not doctrine. Just some of the leaders think it is doctrine and the people follow, as is appropriate. Anyway, I’m still looking for someone that digs the same music I do. But the Lord will build me into his church based on a lot more than that I think!

History Repeats Itself

In describing current events in the church as global politics, the main character in Ian Morgan Cron’s book Chasing Francis makes a pretty convincing case that things now aren’t so different from the way they used to be:

Another similarity between the Middle Ages and today has to do with the state of Christendom. In Francis’s day, the church was hemorrhaging credibility; it was seen as hypocritical, untrustworthy, and irrelevant. Some people even wondered if it would survive. Clergy were at the center of all kinds of sexual scandals. It had commercialized Jesus, selling pardons, ecclesiastical offices, and relics. Sermons were either so academic that people couldn’t understand them or they were canned. Popular songs ridiculing the church and clergy could be heard all over Europe. The laity felt used by the professional clergy, as if they were there to serve the institution, not the other way around. The church had also become dangerously entangled in the world of power politics and war…The demise of feudalism and the return of a money economy brought the rise of the merchant class and a ferocious spirit of aggressive capitalism. Greed ran riot in the culture. To top it all off, Christians were at war with the Muslims.

Sound at all familiar?

In defense of cathedrals

Growing up, Cathedrals were always presented to me as being a huge wastes of money and energy. Nothing but monuments too Roman Catholic excess. Much better were our utilitarian Baptist house of worship (which apparently strived to be the most boring structure in town.) I remember being filled with awe when I first visited the National Cathederal in D.C. I remember clearly the beautiful moon window. The first thought that came to my mind was how amazing God was, not how amazing man was for building the thing. N.T. Wright, who served as the Anglican Bishop at Lichfield Cathedral in England for a time, argues for their existence in his book on worship:

From For All God’s Worth
(p. 14)

The true God is the one who became human and died and rose again in order to offer a new way of being human, a way of worship and love. Christ died, says Paul, so that we might embody the saving faithfulness of God: “It is all God’s work.”Now if that isn’t true, a building like a cathedral is simply an expensive monument to an impossible dream; and all we do in it is simply an elaborate way of turning over in bed, the better to continue the dream rather than wake up and face reality. But if it is true-if it really is the case that the true God is the one whose love overwhelms us in Jesus Christ-then the appropriate response is celebration, because this God is the reconciler, the healer. Celebration and healing: that is what a cathedral is all about.

…So it isn’t surprising that those who are grasped by this gospel have built cathedrals. People who have forgotten who God is produce concrete jungles and cardboard cities. People who remember or rediscover who God is build cathedrals to his glory, and homes where the poor are cared for.

Liturgy and class

In the last couple years, I’ve been leaning toward, being attracted to, a higher church liturgy. Oh, it would be nice to say, “The spirit is leading me in this direction”, which is something I CAN say about some things in my life. However, in this area I must say it’s probably just a matter of personal taste. Without a doubt it’s partially a backlash against church services centered around personalities and rock band worship. Now, I don’t have any problem with rock bands, or even rock band worship per se, I think I’m just grown tired of hearing them.

My wife has also felt the pull of higher church liturgy. However, she’s very wary of “stuffed shirt” religious types, and not without good reason. We’re both small-town country folk. Now we have university degrees with honors, but that doesn’t make us high society. Not even close in fact. The social ladder is unavoidable in and out of church. I would prefer that it would pollute worship as little as possible.

A comment today from Doug Wilson sheds some light on the subject I think:

Over the course of our nation’s history, what denominations have attracted the doctors, lawyers, bankers, and so on? Right — the more liturgical, staid, and formal churches. What churches have attracted the loggers, cops, and contractors? Right — the more informal, lively, and anti-liturgical. We are currently living through a period of cultural churn, where no one exactly knows what is up. Megachurches have breezy, multi-media worship, and they have plenty of doctors and lawyers trying to clap along with the songs. My argument is that this kind of thing is an anomaly. Over time, it will have to go one way or the other.A couple of possible objections, and I am done. Someone might point out that the Roman Catholic church has plenty of “blue collar” parishioners, which is quite true. But they do this by reproducing the entire range of socio-economic strata within the church. In other words, they have plenty of such worshippers, but they do not constitute the leadership of the church. If you were to find a church with blue collar leadership, and they had that leadership over the course of a generation or more, I would be willing to bet good money that the liturgy would be quite low.

Another objection is that this analysis seems to give “doctors and lawyers” too much credit in authenticating what the Church is supposed to be doing. Yes, this is quite a danger, one that James pointed out in his epistle. When the rich guys start showing up for church, it is time to guard your hearts against evil motives. This problem has happened plenty in the history of the Church. But remember, I am not applauding anything here. I am just watching. I am not arguing for high liturgy at all; I am simply pointing out that in history high liturgy has tended toward a particular effect. Having a high view of liturgy (which I do have) is not the same thing as having a high view of high liturgy (which I don’t have). But for those brethren who do have a high view of high liturgy, this is an observation or caution that can be used in either direction. “If we crank the liturgy up another notch, we might get some more big tithers from the medical field!” Or . . . “We need to watch our step here. This stuff is banker bait.”