Monday, January 29, 2007

Doubts and Fears--Consumerism Christianity

Sometimes I doubt my faith. Worse yet--sometimes I doubt our faith.

I got a publication today for a huge Christian concert/convention that represented everything trendy in American Evangelicalism. It looked really cool. In fact, it looked like everything I would want to do at church if I had a multi-million dollar budget. The event had everything from creative expression in music and art to conversations on social issues and contemporary theology. The price tag for all of this--a little over $100 for a few days on the camp ground. That's not too expensive, but this is clearly going to be a money-maker for those involved.

At the same time as all of this, I am reading a number of books on the historic roots of our faith (typical for me). Right now I am reading N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, Richard Baukham's Bible and Mission, Mike Erre's The Jesus of Suburbia, and Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus. As I read, it is becoming increasingly clear that America's agenda for global capitalism is not what Jesus intended. Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that socialism or communism would be a better solution. I love the system we have in America. Rather, I am suggesting that the hope economic growth and prosperity colors just about every decision that we make. If something makes money, then it is good. This scares me because I know that I think like that too. I also know that Jesus did not think like that.

On my way to work today, I heard an advertisement for a cell phone company. The guy in the advertisement said, "I am sick of the holiday season and all of this giving. I want to do something for myself for a change. So, I am going to buy this new red shiny cell phone." His friend responded to him, "That's good and all, but you know that buying that cell phone is a form of giving because a portion of it goes to fighting AIDS in Africa." The first guy then responded, "OK, I guess a little more giving will be alright." Now when I heard this commercial, my first thought was, "How much giving do most of us do during the holidays versus receiving?" I spent a lot of money this holiday season, but I got a LOT of stuff from other people. The stuff I received more than compensated for the stuff I gave. For most of us, the holidays are not about giving, but about spending. (On this note, I don't have any kids. I guess when you have kids the dynamic changes because they can't give back to you.) Everyone in America spends a lot of money. Sure, we spend on other people, but these other people spend on us, so in the end we all spend a lot and we all get a lot. The only difference between Christmas and an out of control shopping spree is that on the shopping spree you get to pick what you get. (Again, don't get me wrong, I am not against Christmas.)

So we have this massive month of consumerism in December, then this cell phone company makes it seem like we are all martyrs for "giving so much." So, they say we should reward ourselves for all of our suffering during Christmas by spending more in January. But then here is the kicker, you shouldn't feel bad about yourselves for spending, because a portion of that spending goes to AIDS relief in Africa. Now I'm glad that Africans suffering from AIDS will get some relief from this campaign (how much actually gets into their hands versus the hands of lobbyists and politicians in both America and the African nations is another issue), but who is the ultimate winner in all of this? The consumer gets a nice shiny phone, and the cell phone company rakes in a ton of cash because of all the socially-aware people who want to buy a new cell phone. Believe me, if the amount of revenue generated by this program (and the related tax write-offs) did not off-set the amount donated to AIDS relief, the cell phone companies would not do it. NO WAY would they do it. They are using the AIDS crisis in Africa to make money, and Americans don't ask questions because we get a shiny new cell phone out of it.

As appalling as all of that was to me, I got this brochure about the Christian concert today, and I was wondering if the Emerging Church is doing the same thing. "COME TO THE CHRISTIAN SUPER CONCERT SPEND FEST--A PORTION OF THE PROCEEDS WILL GO TO INTERNET BLOGGERS WHO LIKE TO TALK ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES." That is scary! Consumerism--the drive to have all of the newest computer software, iPods, Blue Tooth technology, Trios, cell phones, etc.--is what we claim to be against. Why do most Emerging Churches spend so much money on technology???

Sometimes I feel like the growing interest in social issues in the Emerging Church is just an attempt to not feel so bad about ourselves for making $100,000 per year and spending $150,000. If you throw a couple of hundred bucks to AIDS relief in Africa and give a sandwich to a homeless guy, you can go ahead and buy that new iPhone.

Now I am not trying to step on anybody's toes. I see this in myself and I am afraid. I am afraid because I consider myself a Christian--as do millions of Americans who act like me. Sometimes I am afraid that I will stand before God some day, and He will shake his head at me and say, "You were way off." THAT is a scary thought.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Christian Celebrity

Right now I am reading Philip Yancey's, Soul Survivor. Unlike most of Yancey's books, this one is about all that is good in the church. I love it! Yet, I am noticing a strange thing in myself as I read this book. The work is a collection of mini-biographies of all of Yancey's spiritual mentors. When I read these biographies, I find myself thinking, "Wow, I want to be like that some day." It is almost as if these accounts awaken in me a sort of spiritual envy--a desire to be great.

I notice the same thing when I read a lot of popular Christian ministry magazines. Most of these are intended to give pastors ideas--"Check out what so-and-so is doing. What a great idea, you might try this too!" However, a side effect of these magazines is that they create Christian celebrities. This month's issue of Relevant magazine has blurbs about 10 articles on the front cover. Of these ten, only three advertize the content of the article ("The Scene Visits Boston," "A New Year's Manifesto," and "Our Guide to 15 Must-Have Books, CD's, and DVD's"). The rest are based on personalities (such as the cover stories, "Ben Folds Defends Jesus, His Lyrics, and a Dog" and "7 Big Questions: Warren, Driscoll, Bell, Winner & Others On the Future of the Church"). The magazine is marketed based on people, not issues.

I don't mention these things to complain--Philip Yancey is my favorite author and Relevant is a great resource. I mention them to ask why these resources have this effect on me (I am also sure that I am not alone on this). I find myself wanting to do something great just so that people might want to write about me. When I catch myself thinking this, I can't help but shake my head in frustration. I went in to ministry to get away from all of that. If I wanted people to know my name, I would have gone into another profession. I don't want to waste my life chasing fame and fortune; I just want to be faithful to serve where I am at and to be a good husband, friend, brother, son, and (someday) father. My prayer for the day:

"Father, I pray that you would frequently remind me of what is important in life, and that my ambition would not get the best of me. I thank you for all of the rude awakenings that you have brought my way in the past to correct my priorities. I pray that I wouldn't sacrifice my marriage, my family, or my life on the alter of celebrity--Christian or otherwise. When I read about the deeds of great men, I pray that I would not be envious. I pray that I would be grateful of what you are doing in the lives of others and that I would be faithful to pray for them. You are a good God. Amen."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Twenty-first Century American Evangelicalism

I have recently started thinking again about what American evangelicalism is going to look like in the near future. Two events have spurred these thoughts, (1) I recently finished reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, and (2) I preached for the second time at my church in Gig Harbor, Washington.

I liked Velvet Elvis, but it raised more questions than it answered for me. (That was probably Rob Bell's intention in writing the book.) That book, Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and A Generous Orthodoxy, Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, Leonard Sweet's Out of the Question . . . Into the Mystery, and The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Perspectives (edited by Leonard Sweet) have given me many thoughts about the future of Christianity in America. I think they effectively challenge the Modernist assumptions of mainstream American evangelicalism. The old style of Christianity will likely die out in the near future, and a newer style will emerge.

In addition to the thoughts of the emerging church, my own preaching and teaching has caused me to think. I like to challenge people in their beliefs. I strongly believe that you should know why you believe what you believe--you shouldn't just accept it because your pastor told you it is true. I frequently tackle issues such as the problem of evil, prosperity passages in the Old Testament, the imprecatory psalms, spiritual gifts, legalism, and gender roles. I find that young people like this. They appreciate the fact that I tackle difficult questions and I don't give easy answers. However, I also find that a lot of older, more conservative people really dislike me. I think it is because they appreciate an air-tight, modernist, we-have-everything-figured-out-and-we're-right, kind of faith.

So here is my dilemma--most people would consider me an "emerging" teacher. I can't help it. I was raised in a postmodern culture. It's who I am. But when I read the writings of most emerging church leaders, I get very uncomfortable. The assumption that a lot of them make (that I disagree with) is that the Gospel is acultural, that is, the Gospel is not bound to culture and can be expressed differently at different times and places. They argue that Christianity looked one way during the time of the Fathers, one way in medeival times, another way in the Rennaisance, another way in the Enlightenment, and still another way in postmodernity. You might also add that Christianity takes on a different flavor globally in the post-colonial world. And while all of this is true, I question whether that is proof that our theology should evolve over time. Isn't it more appropriate to say that it has (for better or for worse) evolved over time.

I do not think that the Gospel is acultural. There are cetain cultural practices that are incompatible with the Gospel. Take human slavery, for example. In the Book of Philemon, Paul implied to Philemon that slavery was incompatible with Christianity. Because he and his slave Onesimus were brothers in Christ, they should be brothers on earth. Granted, the practice of human slavery continued for centuries (and continues today) even in so-called "Christian nations." Granted also, many in the church supported human slavery and justified it with biblical teaching. Today, most Christians do not believe that human slavery is acceptable. But does that mean that our theology evolved in the sense that we changed what was "Christian," or that it evolved in the sense that we discovered what was always "Christian"? I think the latter is the case.

What will the church look like in twenty-first century postmodern America? I think we need to be careful about which tenets of postmodernism that we allow into our theology. Just as the church needed to rise above culture on issues such as human slavery and women's rights, it needs to rise above the culture on issues such as egocentricity and materialism. In fact, I don't think the changing landscape of our culture is due to widespread acceptance of postmodernism. (After all, you still get fired for consistantly showing up to work late, even if you argue that time is relative. You still get a ticket for running a red light, even if you argue that there is no 1-to-1 correspondance between "red" and "stop" and that you interpreted the red light to mean "go.") I think we use postmodernism as an excuse for egocentrism because we have problems with authority. Americans don't want to be told what to do, and postmodern philosophy provides an easy excuse to live the way we want to live.

I think the reason that the emerging church has been so successful is because it is not as authoritarian as modernist evangelical churches. Whereas modernist evangelical preachers say "thus saith the Lord," emerging preachers say "thus saith the Lord, I think." This is music to the ears of egocentric Americans because they can choose whether or not to agree with you. In that sense, emerging churches are successful for the same reason that charismatic churches have been so successful--they elevate the individual to judge their own spiritual reality.

Despite how this all might sound, I think the emerging church is a good thing. I think we need to have humility in our interpretation. But you don't have to be a postmodernist to be humble in your interpretation. Critical realists do the same thing. Absolute truth exists, but absolute knowledge of absolute truth does not exist. However, that does not mean that we cannot have pratical knowledge of absolute truth. We can have practical knowledge of Jesus and His teaching in the same way that we can have practical knowledge of other things in life. After all, I don't have absolute certainty that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge isn't going to collapse the next time I drive over it, but I have reason to believe that it won't. I have enough knowledge to make a reasonable knowledge claim--the Narrows Bridge is safe to drive on. But then again, maybe I'm wrong.