Wednesday, December 31, 2008

And Can It Be That I Should Gain?

This is one of my favorite songs. Charles Wesley wrote the words in 1738. Most churches don't sing it any more, so the words might be fresh to you. Reflect and enjoy.

"And Can It Be That I Should Gain?"
by Charles Wesley

And can it be that I should gain
An int'rest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

'Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
'Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
'Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father's throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam's helpless race:
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The New Perspective on Paul--I'm Convinced

2008 shall henceforth be known as the year that I converted to the New Perspective on Paul. I don't know to whom it will be known as that, but it's true nonetheless.

Most of the New Testament theology books that I read in 2007 and 2008 dealt with the issue, including:

  • The New Perspective on Paul by James Dunn
  • The Theology of Paul the Apostle by James Dunn
  • The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon (NIGTC) by James Dunn
  • The Epistle to the Galatians (Black's) by James Dunn
  • The Climax of the Covenant by N.T. Wright
  • Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale) by N.T. Wright
  • Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective by Francis Watson
  • Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul's Gospel by Seyoon Kim
I would like to do a series of posts about the New Perspective--what it is, why I am convinced it is right, and what weaknesses I see in it. It's going to be a lot of work, but I hope to do it nonetheless.

In short, the New Perspective is a reinterpretation of Paul's view of the law, the Gentiles, and the Jewish people. The Lutheran interpretation of Paul and the law dominated theological discussions of Paul for 400 years, until E.P. Sanders challenged it with Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977 and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People in 1983.

Sanders argued that Second Temple Judaism should not be characterized as "legalistic," but by a term he coined, "covenental nomism." According to Sanders, the ancient Jews were not trying to "earn their salvation by good works" in the same way that 16th century Roman Catholics were. Instead, Judaism was a religion of grace. God elected Israel purely by grace, and faithful Jews responded to this election by obeying the Mosaic Law. Obeying the law was a crucial part of the covenant, but obedience in no way "earned" anyone salvation. (This is similar to the Reformed view of the role of the law in Christianity. "Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone.") Perfect obedience was never expected, and the sacrificial system was put in place to atone for sin.

In his letters, Paul strongly condemns the religious system of his Jewish contemporaries in favor of a system he calls "justification by faith." In the Lutheran system, justification by faith has been contrasted with "doing good works to earn your salvation" so that the traditional antithesis in Paul is "believing" versus "doing."

The Lutheran understanding of Paul has problems, though. Paul isn't against good works at all. He encourages them. Further, if the Judaism Paul opposed didn't believe in "salvation by good works," what was Paul's problem with it? What did he mean when he said, "By works of the law no man will be justified"? If the contrast wasn't "believing" versus "doing," what was it? If Judaism was a "religion of grace," how was Christianity different than it? These are the questions that the New Perspective seeks to answer.

Not every New Testament scholar accepts the New Perspective. Many do, the most significant being Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright. There is disagreement even among adherents to the New Perspective about Paul's attitude toward the law and Judaism.

Like I said, I will gather my thoughts about what I think are the most poignant ideas of the New Perspective, and I will post more in the future.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Leaders are Readers

They always told us at Cedarville, "Leaders are readers." Here is what the commander-and-chief of the U.S. has been reading over the last 3 years. You will be surprised. (HT Between Two Worlds.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

John Armstrong on Evangelical Political Bullying (HT Boar's Head Tavern)

John Armstrong has a great article on his blog about the forced resignation of Richard Cizik, former Vice-President of the National Association of Evangelicals. (HT Boar's Head Tavern)

In short, Armstrong suggests that Cizik was removed, not because of what he believed, but because he challenged powerful evangelical leaders. Here's an excerpt from the article, in which Armstrong discusses the need to create Benedict Arnold's in conservative evangelicalism:

A man who is involved in this kind of highly charged political intrigue told me back in the 1990s that if I would take an occasional controversial stand on a political issue, a stand that would appeal specifically to conservative standards of the sort he believed important, I would drive up my donor base dramatically. I was appalled. I remain appalled to this day, more than a decade later. In fact, I am angry when I see this still happening. It is not the sole reason these things happen but everyone on the inside of donor-driven evangelical organizations knows that sooner or later issues do raise money. And the best money is mostly found among those who are over 55 years of age. Appeal to their sense of what is being lost in America through capitulation to “liberalism” and compromise in the evangelical camp and people will write big checks. A good old-fashioned attack on a compromiser in one’s own ranks is needed to sell the mission. It seems that we need our evangelical Benedict Arnold’s to keep the war going much of the time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Jesus Creed on Obama, Catholics, and FOCA

Guest writer Mary Veeneman will be posting a series on Obama and the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) on Jesuscreed. FOCA is huge because many think it will lead to the closing of Catholic hospitals that refuse to perform abortions.

In the first article, Veeneman discusses Fr Jay Scott Newman's decision to deny communion to Obama supporters because of "material cooperation with intrinsic evil." Is Fr Newman right? Are Obama supporters ethically liable for the effects of FOCA?

Spiritual Formation

How do we know that Christianity is true?

The other day I had lunch with a guy who used to be a Mormon. He was a serious Mormon--a high priest or something like that. He knew all of the secret handshakes, had full access to the temple--the whole deal. But then one day he realized that it was all smoke and mirrors. He didn't believe it, and over the next few years he worked up the chutzpa to renounce his faith. A few years after that, he was involved in a Christian community, met Jesus, and became a Christian. Now he is a missionary. Very cool story.

When I was talking to him, the question on my mind that I wanted to ask, but didn't know how (the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss this guy's spiritual journey), was "Does Christianity 'work' better than Mormonism?" What I mean by that is, "Now that you are a Christian, do you have a newfound spiritual power that you did not have when you were a Mormon? Is there a noticable difference?"

I've been reading a lot of Paul lately. He was a pretty intense guy. Didn't pull any punches. He wrote, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation-- but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." (Rom 8:9–14 NIV)

Starting in verse 9, Paul says something to the extent of, "How do you know if you belong to Christ? If the Spirit of God lives in you, you belong to Christ." Notice that the known proposition in this statement is whether or not the Spirit lives in you, and the unknown proposition is whether or not you belong to Christ.

Paul also wrote, "I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing-- if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Gal 3:2–5 NIV)

In this passage, Paul proves that justification is through faith and not works of the law because the Galatian community received the Spirit by believing what they heard. In other words, the known proposition was that the Galatians had received the spirit by faith, and the unknown proposition was whether they would be perfected by faith or by works of the law.

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul used the Christian community's experience of the Spirit as proof that what he was saying was true. In short, the Holy Spirit's work in our lives is "proof" that our faith is true.

So that brings me back to the question for my former-Mormon friend--Does Christianity "work" better than Mormonism? Does it "work" better than Islam? Buddhism? Paganism? Therapy?

In Galatians 5, Paul writes about what the work of the Holy Spirit looks like in your life. He writes, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Gal 5:22–23 NIV)

I hope to teach a class on spiritual formation in the Spring, and I am wrestling with what spiritual formation looks like and how it is fostered. Spiritual formation is easy if you measure it in terms of how often you read the Bible, how often you pray, how often you go to church, etc. But, if spiritual formation is measured in terms of how loving you are, how joyous, how peaceful, patient, and kind you are, then it becomes a lot harder.

What 12 steps do you give someone to make them more loving?

But then again, isn't that the heart of the Gospel? Isn't that what the Holy Spirit is supposed to do in our lives? Shouldn't it be a no-brainer? Paul seems to take it for granted that the Holy Spirit was at work in the Christian communities, making the Christians more loving, joyous, etc.

I have wrestling with my own heart lately. Richard Foster summarizes human vices in three character flaws--lust, greed, and pride. I think that about sums it up. So, as I prepare this spiritual formation class, I am asking myself, "Am I less lustful than I was a year ago? Am I less prideful? Am I less greedy?" If I can't answer those questions, "Yes," then the way I practice my faith is not working, and therefore it is not of the Spirit and it is not true.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Conservative Reformed Mafia Interviews Doug Pagitt

The Conservative Reformed Mafia posted an interview with Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon's Porch and candidate for the MN state legislature in 2010.

Doug comes under fire in conservative evangelical circles for some of his writings. He is a (founding?) member of Emergent. I have not personally read any of his books, so I don't have anything to add.

CRM asked Pagitt a number of questions about faith and politics. One notable question was about whether he was just a leftist version of James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell. The questions are poignant, and Doug's answers clarify his intents.

It's worth a listen.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Renewal Video

Here is a video of the work we did with YFC Tillicum (described below).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Renewal: A Believers Fellowship Outreach Project

This month my church partnered with the Tacoma Area Youth for Christ in our latest outreach event. YFC is building a youth and family center in Tillicum. Dan Livingston, the director of the project, told me that they have been ministering in the Tillicum schools for some time now, but that it was tough to tell the kids that God loved them when they had no evidence of it at home. Poverty is rampant in the area, and some of the kids had to sleep under trash bags to keep themselves dry from the rain that leaked through their ceilings.

YFC wanted to build a place where kids could stop by after school do their homework, play video games, and hang out with people who would mentor them, teach them life skills, and pray for them. All of this would be done in the context of the Gospel. So, they purchased the Wander Inn Tavern, they gutted it, and they are in the process of renewing it into a safe place for the kids of Tillicum.

On November 8th, our church went out to Tillicum to help them with the project. We built a couple of storage sheds for them, and we helped demolish some windows and bar equipment that had to go before construction can begin on the center. In addition to the construction project, we also helped YFC with their annual fundraising auction. We put together two packages—a “grandparent survival kit” and a gardening kit. Both items were auctioned off and the proceeds went to the Tacoma Area YFC's annual budget.

One of the coolest parts of the project was getting to write on one of the support pillars in the tavern. Dan told us that one of the biggest problems they have with the construction project is that local gang members often tag it, and they are constantly cleaning off graffiti. Gang members tag, he said, because they are staking out territory. So, he wanted us to “tag” the building for the kingdom of God. Each of us got to write our name and a Bible verse or encouraging thought on the pillar, which would be present behind the walls forever.

The YFC Tillicum project is an awesome illustration of renewal to me. They took a building that was probably doing more harm than good to the community, and they are transforming it to be a holy place. That’s just what God does for us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9–11 NIV)

God takes old things and He makes them new.

We love what YFC is doing for the youth and families of Pierce County. I look forward to seeing what the new center will do for Tillicum. I have a feeling that the transformed building will help transform the community, as kids in the area will have other outlets for their free time than gangs and drugs. We had a great time working with YFC and we prize the relationship we have with them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Conservative Evangelicals and Shibboleths

In Judges 12, the Ephraimites are at war with the Gileadites. Because the two tribes were closely related, it was difficult to tell who was a friend and who was an enemy. But because the two groups had different accents, they used code words to distinguish friend from foe. When someone was suspected of being an Ephraimite, the Gileadites would ask him to say the word "shibboleth." If the person had an Ephraimite accent and pronounced it "sibbboleth," the Gileadites would kill him on the spot.

We have our own shibboleths in conservative evangelicalism. We size people up as either "with us" or "against us" based on what they believe about certain issues we deem important. Some of our shibboleths are:

Your view on hell
Your view on homosexuality
Your view on the role of women in the church
Your view on the environment
Your view on postmodernism
Your view on evolution
Your view on inerrancy
Your political affiliation
Your view on the "emerging" or "emergent" church

When we hear someone's views on these issues, we categorize them as either "with" us or "against" us. When we ask the question, "What do you think about hell?" we don't care so much about what influences their theology of the righteousness of God and eschatological justice, we just want to know if they are "with" us or "against" us. Are they a liberal, or are they one of the good guys? (Or, conversely, are they a fundamentalist, or are they one of the good guys?)

I realize that shibboleths are a part of all cultures and sub-groups and evangelicals aren't the only guilty parties, but I think we take it one step further.

If our preachers don't regularly preach on the shibboleths, we start to questions whose side they're on, anyway.

I think that is why evangelical preachers are accused of preaching nothing but hellfire and brimstone and why God hates the gays--if they don't, people question their conservatism.

Now, I am all about preaching the Bible and teaching the truth. But really, how much ink is spilled in the Bible on these topics compared to how much they're brought up in church? How many times did Jesus tell people they were going to hell and that this meant a literal place with literal fire that consciously torments you literally forever? How many people did Paul hand over to Satan because they were postmodernists?

I take the conservative position on most of the above issues. But perhaps what makes me different is that I have friends who don't. Some of these people are a lot smarter than I am. Some of them love God a lot more than I do. Some of them know the Bible a lot better than I do. Not everyone who takes a "liberal" position on these issues is trying to destroy the Gospel. They read the same Bible as me and serve the same God. They just see things a bit differently. I disagree with their ideas, but I am okay with some diversity in the body of Christ.

There is a time and a place to set boundaries. The great church councils decided that there is orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Jesus cared a lot about what people believed about Him. But I think we define orthodoxy a lot narrower than those who have gone before us. Maybe we need to learn to hold fast to what is essential, but to show some humility in other areas.

Jesus was most interested in telling people to follow Him and build for the kingdom of God. Paul was most interested in telling people about the life-changing effects of the cross and the indwelling Holy Spirit. John was most interested in the significance of Jesus--who He was, why He died, and what difference it makes in the way we treat each other. Maybe these are the things we should care about, too.

Over a thousand years after the conflict between the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, shibboleths came up again in the community of faith. This time it happened in the city of Antioch. The Jews of the day went to great lengths to distinguish themselves from the godless Gentiles. They didn't eat meat sacrificed to idols, they didn't work on the Sabbath, and they circumcised their sons. There was never a question of whose side they were on--their lifestyle made it apparent. But Peter, the apostle to the Jews, started eating with the Gentiles in Antioch. But when the kosher good ole boys came up from Jerusalem, he changed his ways. He made sure his eating habits said "shibboleth" and not "sibboleth."

But Paul called him out. Peter wasn't living the Gospel.

In Galatians 3:26–28, Paul writes, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

The Gospel transcends the shibboleths.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Good Life Sermon Number 6

Last Sunday I taught the sixth message in a ten-week series called The Good Life: Redeeming Suburbia through Counter-cultural Living. Every week we contrast a myth of suburbia about living the good life (taken from David Goetz's book, Death by Suburb) with a message of Jesus about living the good life (taken from the Gospel of John).

This past week we looked at the myth, "I Need to Make a Difference with My Life." We talked about how we all have this feeling that God wants us to do something great with our lives. Does He? Maybe He just wants us to be faithful. We looked at Jesus' interaction with Pontius Pilate, the hidden righteousness, and the importance of doing good, even when no one is looking.
You can listen to this, or any of my other sermons here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Awaiting Redemption Redirected

I was very close to shutting this blog down for good, but I'm not going to do that. The past few months have been good for me--much better than the six months previous. I think that my participation in online communities and discussion groups was distracting me from the things I enjoy most in life. When I cut the internet out of my life for a season, I rediscovered who I am.

The internet can be stimulating. I enjoy lively discussion of ideas. I love the reevaluate what I believe, why I believe it, and what difference it makes to the world. My interests are mostly in theology, ethics, and Christian origins, and most people are bored with the things that excite me. Thus, blogs and discussion boards can be a much-needed outlet for my intellectual and spiritual curiosity.

I started this blog as a way of thinking out loud--of putting my thoughts about life, God, and especially "already/not yet" spirituality, on to paper (or rather server space). The key to a good blog, I heard, is to update it every day. So I tried.

Big mistake.

I wasted so much time in stupid discussions about things like the Emergent church, the New Perspective on Paul, and how we know what we know, that I neglected the things that really matter. I have since made it a priority to take care of myself. I need to get exercise. I need to watch what I eat. I want to spend time with the people who matter most to me. I need to pursue God. I need to figure out once and for all how Christianity "works." I need to be more aware of the needs of the people around me. I need to become the person that I want to become. Or, as Elvis Presley once put it so profoundly, "I need a little less conversation and a little more action."

I am going to keep the blog going. I do find it to be helpful in some ways, and I think I will probably start another blog some time in the future if I put this one to rest. I figure I can just save myself a step by leaving this one active. I am not going to update it every day--only when I have something to say.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blog on Hiatus


Every now and then I take inventory of my life and ask myself tough questions. I examine what I do, why I do it, and what effect it has on my life. Recently, I have been in kind of a funk, so I am making some changes. One notable change that I am making is a fast from unnecessary online activity.

I have journaled off and on as a spiritual discipline. When I finished my last journal I thought I might join the 21st century and blog instead of journaling. Awaiting Redemption kind of started as a way of "journaling out loud" the things I was thinking about. The problem with blogging is that it is public and it never goes away. So, I have had to be careful about what I say and how I say it (of course, this hasn't kept me from saying things I regret). While I can scribble a thought in a journal, I have to proofread and rewrite a blog. While blogging about the books I have been reading is extremely helpful in retaining what I read, the time commitment involved in maintaining this blog and conversations elsewhere is too overwhelming. I want to do something different.

The fast will last for 3 months. I will reexamine my life on November 11. If all is well, Awaiting Redemption will probably be shut down. If things are not well, then I may conclude that the problem lies elsewhere. I may consider firing up the blog-o-matic once again.

Thanks for reading! Take care.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 5)

In chapter 5 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs wrestles with the role that supernatural forces (read "Satan") play in our every day decision making. When we commit evil deeds, is it because "we simply chose," "we have a sinful nature," or because "the Devil made us do it"?

Jacobs meanders through Milton's Paradise Lost, J.R.R. Tokien's The Lord of the Rings, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and and the Chamber of Secrets and the 2004 movie Hellboy (yes, that Hellboy) for various approaches to the question.

Jacobs shows the similarities between these works in showing that our own desires and the promptings of the Devil are often impossible to differentiate. Does Frodo grasp the ring because he wants it or because the ring has power over him? Tolkien is deliberately vague. Is Faustus corrupted because he chooses to listen to the "bad angel," or does he listen to the bad angel because he is corrupted? Marlowe is vague. In both cases, internal desires and external pressures are difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish.

Jacobs concludes:

"Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we are torn from the inside out or the outside in." (Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 95.)

Is Jacobs right? Can we discern between "devilish promptings" and our own desires? Does it matter?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 4)

In chapter 4 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs looks at The Feast of All Souls and it's significance to belief in original sin.

All Souls Day is on November 2, the day after All Saints Day. While All Saints Day celebrates the saints' intercession on behalf of the church militant, All Souls Day celebrates the church's intercession for the souls in Purgatory.

Jacobs notes how these two holidays are two sides of the same coin. On the first day, the church recognizes it's weakness and its need for intercession. On the second day, it recognizes its power and responsibility to pray for those who have gone before. Both days point to the same truth--we are all in this together, and judgment awaits both the high and the low.

Jacobs then goes to show how original sin is the great equalizer. It is usually the aristocracy that is appalled at the doctrine--they don't want to see themselves as just as deprived as the masses. Jacobs illustrates this point with a quote from the Duchess of Buckingham, commenting on the preaching of George Whitefield:

"I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist [sic] preachers . . . [but] the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with the impertinence and disrespect towards their Superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder if your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding."

Is original sin the great equalizer?

Why are the powerful powerful? Why are the "wretches" wretched? What would Pelagius say? Augustine?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Worst Preacher Ever Contest

So, this is hilarious. Scotteriology has a tournament bracket of the worst preachers ever. (HT to The Boar's Head Tavern)

The first days of voting are for John Crowder (#1 seed) vs. Pat Robertson (#16) and Joel Osteen (#8) vs. Kenneth Copeland (#9).

I don't want to influence your voting, but I chose Robertson and Copeland. John Crowder is new on the scene--he's your typical kooky ultra-charismatic. He compares the work of the Holy Spirit to drugs and alcohol and is famous for preaching while "drunk in the Spirit." He coined the term "jehovajauna." On the other hand, Pat Robertson has said more offensive things in the name of Christ than anyone else in history (there is a link on the bracket to the top 10). I vote for the upset!

Joel Osteen is super famous and he preaches a prosperity gospel. But, I read his book, and it's not that bad. I wouldn't recommend it, but I didn't burn it either. IMO, he is a moderate prosperity preacher, or "prosperity lite," as some like to call him. Copeland, on the other hand, preaches nothing that resembles the Gospel. He is the archetypal prosperity preacher, complete with the $20 million jet.

Visit Scotteriology and vote!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 3)

In chapter 3 of Original Sin: A Cultural History, Alan Jacobs investigates the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, and then describes how the events were interpreted by Pelagius, Augustine, Julian, and (briefly) the Eastern church.

Jacobs notes that the Adam and Eve narrative is remarkably simple. Adam is told not to eat the fruit. Eve eats. Adam eats. Both are expelled from the garden and cursed (as is the serpent). That’s all there is—there is not theological explanation for the significance of the story.

In fact, the story raises more questions than it answers. How did Adam and Eve know what death was if they had never seen it? How did Adam and Eve contemplate rebellion if they had no sin nature? What does it mean that the fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye”? Does this imply that they were envious of forbidden fruit before the fall? Isn’t envy evidence of sin?

Jacobs’ point in illuminating the problems in the Eden narrative is to point out that most of the ink spilt on this issue relates more to Paul’s interpretation of the story (specifically Romans 5) than it does to comment on the actual story.

The most famous debate over the interpretation of Romans 5 was between Augustine and Pelagius. Pelagius was a monk and an extremely pious man. He felt that too many people blamed a “sin nature” for decisions that they willed. He felt that the will was free from the influence of any kind of sin nature so that people were free to choose what they wanted. Thus his critique of his fellow Christians was that they just needed to will to be better.

Much good could be said about Pelagius. He was a pious man. He did a lot of good, and he valued the life lived for God. However, because he denied any external influences on the will, Pelagius offered no hope for growth. At all points of a person’s life, he has the capacity to walk away. There is no such thing as “discipline,” “transformation,” or “character.” Thus, Pelagians live in constant fear of Hell. They may have lived a good life up to the present, but the next 10 minutes could be different.

Augustine spent much of his life refuting the widely popular Pelagius, arguing that people inherited a sin nature from their father, Adam. He successfully had Pelagianism condemned as a heresy at the Council of Carthage.

Augustine’s more successful nemesis, however, was Julian—a family friend born around the time of Augustine’s conversion. Julian was a brilliant young man and a supporter of Pelagius who was exiled after the Council of Carthage. Unlike Pelagius, Julian was not a monk. He was more like a spoiled brat—an aristocrat and landowner who spent all of his time writing scathing books against Augustine.

Julian’s main criticism of Augustine was the way in which his theology of original sin portrayed God. Because the church adopted Augustine’s view of original sin, they believed that all un-baptized infants who died went immediately to Hell. Further, Augustine had some strange views on sexual ethics, which Julian exploited.

Augustine believed that part of the curse on man was that his sexual organs rebelled against him much in the way he had rebelled against God. Thus, involuntary erections are symptoms of the fall. Further, Augustine identified the root of sin in man as concupiscence, which often exerted itself in lust. Since lust is sin, sex between married couples necessarily involved an element of sin.

Augustine wrote On Marriage and Concupiscence to defend the institution of marriage, and he reformed his views on the destination of un-baptized babies, but the damage was done. To this day, Augustine’s notion of original sin is often compared to his strange views on sex and un-baptized babies. Augustine died before they could settle the argument. Found on his desk after his death was an unfinished work called Contra Julianum

In my opinion, Pelagius’ interpretation of the nature of people runs contrary to the biblical notion. This doesn’t mean that Augustine is right, but I think that there is evidence that sin is more than just a behavior—it is a force that influences the decisions we make. The fact that Pelagianism was condemned as a heresy doesn’t help his case, either.

On the other hand, Augustine’s views raise some serious questions. If people are conceived sinners, what do we do with the death of the unborn or the death of babies? We often punt to “age of accountability” answers, but is there biblical support for this?

Further, the “age of accountability” leads to some troubling conclusions. One of the reasons that Andrea Yates gave for drowning her five kids in the bathtub was that she was a bad mom and that her kids were going to turn out bad. She wanted to kill them so that they would go to heaven before they reached the age of accountability.

Augustine’s answer to the problem was that perhaps God had something else in mind for babies. He believed that God’s justice demanded such a case. I don’t know what biblical support he had for this, but you could make a case for it based on reason and Isa 55:8, which is spoken in the context of God forgiving people whom we might not expect to receive forgiveness.

I find the case for original sin compelling. I find the objections raised by Julian disturbing. I find the solutions to the problem confusing. I think I have to punt on this one and say, “God is too good to be unkind and too wise to make mistakes.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Psalm 21

Psalm 21 (NET) reads:

For the music director; a psalm of David.

O LORD, the king rejoices in the strength you give;
he takes great delight in the deliverance you provide.

2 You grant him his heart's desire;
you do not refuse his request. (Selah)

3 For you bring him rich blessings;
you place a golden crown on his head.

4 He asked you to sustain his life,
and you have granted him long life and an enduring dynasty.

5 Your deliverance brings him great honor;
you give him majestic splendor.

6 For you grant him lasting blessings;
you give him great joy by allowing him into your presence.

7 For the king trusts in the LORD,
and because of the Sovereign LORD's faithfulness he is not upended.

8 You prevail over all your enemies;
your power is too great for those who hate you.

9 You burn them up like a fiery furnace when you appear;
the LORD angrily devours them;
the fire consumes them.

10 You destroy their offspring from the earth,
their descendants from among the human race.

11 Yes, they intend to do you harm;
they dream up a scheme, but they do not succeed.

12 For you make them retreat
when you shoot your arrows at them.

13 Rise up, O LORD, in strength!
We will sing and praise your power!

This psalm praises the Lord for his preservation of the Israelite king. The first six verses describe what the Lord has done for the king, and the basis for this blessing is in verse 7—“For the king trusts in the LORD, and because of the Sovereign LORD's faithfulness he is not upended.”

The psalm presents the king and the Lord in a covenant relationship. The king upholds his end by “trusting” in the Lord, i.e. following the law and not worshipping other gods, and the Lord stays faithful to the covenant by defeating the king’s enemies.

To me, this is a reminder of the faithfulness and power of God to complete the work He has begun in the church. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that this thing called Christianity is a meaningless dead-end, but psalms like this remind us that God is in control and that nothing is going to thwart His plans. We may not always understand His plans, but we can trust that He knows what is going on.

“Father, I confess my lack of faith in many situations. I am too easily discouraged; too simply disheartened. I thank you for the words of this psalm and I pray for the confidence of its writer. I confess that You are in control of history; that You have a plan; and that everything is happening according to that plan. We look forward to the day when you bring history to its consummation and put sin and death into submission to Christ. You are good. Amen.”

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Psalm 20

Psalm 20 (NET) reads:

For the music director; a psalm of David.

May the LORD answer you when you are in trouble;
may the God of Jacob make you secure!

2 May he send you help from his temple;
from Zion may he give you support!

3 May he take notice of your offerings;
may he accept your burnt sacrifice! (Selah)

4 May he grant your heart's desire;
may he bring all your plans to pass!

5 Then we will shout for joy over your victory;
we will rejoice in the name of our God!
May the LORD grant all your requests!

6 Now I am sure that the LORD will deliver his chosen king;
he will intervene for him from his holy heavenly temple,
and display his mighty ability to deliver.

7 Some trust in chariots and others in horses,
but we depend on the LORD our God.

8 They will fall down,
but we will stand firm.

9 The LORD will deliver the king;
he will answer us when we call to him for help!

The key verse to this psalm is verse 7, “Some trust in chariots and others in horses, but we depend on the LORD our God.” What a tough way to live. I feel that phrases like this are kind of thrown around flippantly in Christian circles, but how many of us would have been willing to go into battle without horses or chariots, depending on the Lord for victory? I think that is what the psalmist is getting at. Time after time in the Old Testament the Lord helped Israel defeat armies that on paper were more powerful than them. This led them to say, “The horses? The chariots? They don’t matter. The Lord gives the victory.”

Today, we are scared to death to rely on God for “victory.” It is far easier to show up with our horses and chariots. After all, we can control the horses and chariots. We know what they can do. We can bridle the horses. We can steer the chariots. But God? He’s different. He doesn’t tell us what He’s going to do. He doesn’t tell us how our life is going to end up. He doesn’t tell us how we’re going to make it with no horses and no chariots.

That’s scary.

That’s faith.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 2)

In chapter 2 of Original Sin, Alan Jacobs discusses the life and thought of Aurelius Augustinus--St. Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine is widely considered one of the most brilliant minds in western history--certainly the most brilliant of his day. Although his mother was a Christian, Augustine thought little of Christianity and left home to study the philosophies of his day. He was drawn to Manichaeism, a dualistic faith that saw life as an endless tension between the powers of good and evil. When the top Manichaean minds were unable to answer his remaining objections to their faith, he left, discouraged.

Plagued by the question, “What is wrong with us?”, Augustine eventually turned to the faith of his mother. While wrestling with his thoughts one day, he heard a child singing “Tolle, lege,” “Take it and read.” He opened the Scriptures to Romans 13 in which Paul wrote, “Let us live decently as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in discord and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires.” In Christianity he found the answer to his questions.

Jacobs writes that Augustine has been inaccurately portrayed as sexually promiscuous in his youth. Augustine says that he struggled with “lusts of the flesh” and “carnal” desires, but Augustine uses these terms in a general sense of “desires that make us do what we don’t want to.” Augustine may have been frustrated with his sexual indiscretions, but a straightforward reading of his works doesn’t demand that. (Augustine says that he lived with a concubine for twelve years before his engagement, at which time he dismissed his mistress according to the customs of his day. Unable to live chastely, he took another mistress in the time between his engagement and marriage. One of the reasons why Augustine was unable to completely cut off ties with his mistress was that he loved her and only sent her away to honor the marriage that his parents had arranged for him. Although Augustine was frustrated with his lack of self-control, he doesn’t say that he lived an unbridled sexual life.)

Jacobs argues that Augustine’s question was not, “Why was I so bad as a youth?” but “Why am I unable to live the way I want to live?” He saw the answer to this question in Romans 5, according to the interpretation now called “the Augustinian view” (as described here).

Jacobs’ discussion of Augustine reminds me of an online conversation I had with some folks on I think the discussion started with Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God and whether our sense of justice was evidence for the existence of God. Some commenters argued that it was not, saying that altruism could be the result of evolution (i.e. it is beneficial to the group that we treat each other justly, so those with a sense of justice survive natural selection). Others argued, like Kant, that justice was “reasonable,” so that someone with an evolved sense of reason would naturally be just.

I offered a response to these ideas that, while nobody seemed to find it convincing, was not refuted. Until someone shows me where I am wrong, I am sticking to this as a modified version of the argument for God from justice.

It is not so much our belief in justice that “proves” God, but the combination of our belief in justice and our inability to carry it out. Why is it that everybody believes that things should be just and fair, and yet nobody is just or fair? Evolution cannot answer this question. It is not the gazelles that think they should be faster than the lions who survive, it’s the ones who actually are faster than the lions. In the same way, belief that things should be just doesn’t help a group unless people actually are just.

In the same way, justice may be reasonable, but why are so many reasonable people unjust? Is it just because they can’t make the logical connection between their actions, or is there something else at play?

In my opinion, it is tough to explain our desire for justice and our inability to carry it out from evolution or from reason. It is better explained with theism. Augustine asked the right question: “What is wrong with us?” Like Augustine, I think that Christianity provides the most satisfactory answer to this question—sin.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good Life Myth #3: I Want My Neighbor's Life

The latest message in my sermon series called The Good Life: Redeeming Suburbia through Counter-cultural Living is up on Believers Fellowship's sermon audio page.

In the series, I have been comparing the myths of suburbia about living the good life with the message of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of John. This week's suburban myth was "I want my neighbor's life." Suburbia tells us that the secret to happiness is owning the things that our neighbors own. This leads us to a life of rampant consumerism. In contrast, John the Baptist lived by the mottos, "A man can only receive what is given to him from heaven" and "He must become greater, I must become less." We looked at how these mottos challenged the suburban lifestyle of consumerism.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Original Sin:A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs (Chapter 1)

In his book, Original Sin: A Cultural History, Alan Jacobs seeks to give a cultural defense of the Christian doctrine of original sin. See here for a brief explanation of the doctrine.

In chapter 1, Jacobs summarizes stories from 6 different cultures that echo the Christian notion of original sin.

First, there is the ancient Greek story of Cassandra—pulled from the alter of Athena by the Locrian prince Ajax, then later raped and murdered, bringing a curse upon the Locrians. For 1000 years after the crime, the Locrians had to send two virgins to Troy to serve in the Temple of Athena to appease for the crime of their ancient ruler.

Then, there is Plato’s Laws in which the philosopher investigates the evil nature of man and concludes that he must inherit “an infatuate obsession” from a crime committed long ago.

Third, there is the Hebrew story of David and Bathsheba. King David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then conspires to kill her husband when she finds out she is pregnant. When the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin, he prays “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Fourth there is the Chinese sage Xun Zi who said that man was inherently evil, but that he could be managed by the sages.

Fifth there is the Nigerian lore that the creator god Olodumare has left the world because he was annoyed at the women smashing yams on the earth below.

Finally, there is the Papua New Guinean tribe, the Urapmin, who, when converting to Christianity, found it impossible to live the way they wanted.

I love Jacobs’ approach to the doctrine of original sin. In seminary, I wrote a lengthy paper on the prepositional phrase eph hoi in Romans 5:12, literally translated “upon whom,” but rendered “because” by most translations. (Rom 5:12 says that death spread to all men eph hoi all sinned. My paper concluded that the grammar and argument of the passage suggested that death spread to all men “because” all sinned in Adam. This is the traditional Reformed position.) As fascinating as my study of obscure Koine Greek grammar rules was, Jacobs approach is a far more intriguing “proof” of original sin—especially to those outside of the evangelical camp.

Perhaps Chesterton was right—original sin is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically validated. It has been my experience that most people are inherently selfish. I especially liked Jacobs’ description of Xun Zi’s disagreement with fellow sage Mencius. Mencius “proved” that people are essentially good because all people will rush to save a child who is about to fall into a well. Xun Zi retorted that this was because we have nothing to gain from a child falling into a well. If we did, not only would we not save the child, we might give him a push. True!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gerard Baker and the Cult of Obama

This is hilarious. Hat Tip to The Conservative Reformed Mafia. Read the article here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tremendous Upside

My new fantasy football team name is Tremendous Upside. This is the image I want to use for my logo, but ESPN won't let me upload anything. It will let me link to an image that has been uploaded elsewhere, so I am putting it here for the link. I hope the experiment works.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs

Now that I have finished discussing D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, I am moving on to Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History. Jacobs is an English professor at Wheaton, and the purpose of his book is not to present an exegetical defense of original sin, but a cultural one. He is going to look at ways original sin has been portrayed by various writers, poets, and playwrights through history to give a “cultural defense” of the doctrine. He agrees with G.K. Chesterton that original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically validated.

In the introduction to his book, Jacobs clears up a common misunderstanding of original sin. When most people hear the phrase “original sin,” they think of Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. That, to them, was “the original sin.” While original sin does relate to Adam and Eve, that is not what theologians mean when they refer to original sin.

Original sin is the doctrine that all people are born sinners—that they inherit guilt from the womb before they ever do anything good or evil. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. The primary defense of original sin as a doctrine comes from Romans 5:12–21:

So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned-- for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed. But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!

Consequently, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression, so too through the one righteous act came righteousness leading to life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of one man many will be made righteous. Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (NET)

The key verse is verse 12, “So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned.” When Adam sinned, death spread to all people because all people sinned (in Adam). Original sin is the sin we are born with that we have inherited from Adam.

Jacobs notes that original sin is a very unpopular idea today. The notion that we are born guilty for something we did not personally do rubs us the wrong way. Through his book, Jacobs hopes to renew appreciation for the doctrine as the best way to explain why people do what they do, and why they feel the way they feel about the things that they do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty by Albert Hsu

In The Suburban Christian, Albert Hsu has written a great little book on the dynamics of living in suburbia and how the church should respond. The book is insightful, easy to understand, and practical, while avoiding finger wagging and soapboxing.

After briefly explaining the origins of suburbia, Hsu describes some of the major sociological forces of living in a suburb. To Hsu, these forces are commuting, consumerism, branding, and isolation. These chapters were extremely helpful.

About commuting, Hsu writes:

"Think of what happens to us when we live, work, and worship in different communities. If we live in suburb A but work half an hour away in suburb B and commute twenty minutes in the opposite direction to a church in suburb C, we find our sense of identity fragmented. We are dis-integrated, and our loyalties and connections are diffused into three different geographical areas. We especially feel tension and dissonance when driving from one area to another, say from a church function in one community to a school event in another. There is little overlap between our disparate worlds." (Albert Hsu, The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty [Downers Grove: IVP, 2006], 67.)

Because of the loss of community due to commuter culture, Hsu argues that suburbanites find their community through consumerism and branding. He writes:

"Branding is about status and identity. It signals something to the outside world if the logo on your car is a Mercedes-Benz or a Lexus instead of a Chevrolet or a Kia. Or if you wear clothes from Ann Taylor rather than Kmart, drink Starbucks coffee rather than Folgers, or buy groceries at Whole Foods Market rather than Safeway." (102)

According to Hsu, the suburban church should both cater to and challenge suburbanites. On the one hand, the church needs to be "missional" in the sense that it needs to recognize the particular needs, wants, and values of suburbia and proclaim its message in that context. For instance, suburbanites long for a "third place" (a place to socialize outside of home and work). Churches can easily function as a third place, as congregations such as Willow Creek in Chicago have proven. On the other hand, the suburban church needs to be careful not to encourage consumerism and isolationism through its ministry methods. The suburban church needs to encourage its members to think beyond themselves and beyond their immediate surroundings.

Hsu's book is informative and at times profound. He offers practical advice without being too preachy. And yet, one gets the feeling that perhaps suburbanites need someone preachy--a modern-day John the Baptist who will cry out "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" Then again, prophets like that have a tendency to get beheaded.

It seems like there is a growing consensus among American Christians that something is wrong with suburban middle-class Christianity. I guess the remaining question is, "How wrong is it?" Do we need a gentle nudge like the ones offered by David Goetz in Death by Suburb and Albert Hsu in The Suburban Christian or a kick in the rear like Brian McLaren in Everything Must Change or Tony Compalo in everything he has written? I don't know, but my suspicion is the latter.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Scary Maze Game (Hat Tip to The Boar's Head Tavern)

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Kainos--Owning the Faith Part 3

Kainos is a group for young adults at Believers Fellowship.

We have been going through a study called “Owning the Faith” based on the Book of Galatians. Some studies suggest that 80% of kids raised in the church will leave the church when they hit 18. Why is that? One reason is because many of them don’t “own their faith”—their faith is something that they inherited from their parents, not something they embrace for themselves. In our series called Owning the Faith we have been talking about we can make our faith our own.

Last time, Johnny shared about the power of our faith story. This week, we looked at Paul’s journey of “owning the faith.” We were in Galatians 2:1–10.

After a review of where we were to this point, I asked three questions of the group based on Galatians 2:1–10:

How did the other apostles know that Paul’s faith was legitimate?
Verse 9 says that the apostles “perceived the grace that had been given to him.” Peter, James and John couldn’t deny the work that God was doing in and through Paul. He was a radically different man, and people were coming to faith because of it.

So, we said that one key to owning your faith is that your faith has to “work” for you. There are some things that you believe because people have told you that they are true. There are other things that you believe because you’ve tested them and they “work.” The things that work for you are the things you own. So, we have to be willing to take risks with our faith—to test out the things that we believe so that we walk away with greater confidence in them.

What significant event happened in Jerusalem that put Paul’s faith to the test?
Verses 1–3 talk about the attempt to get Titus circumcised. Paul says in verse 2 that he was afraid that he had run in vain. Why would he be afraid of that? He didn’t know how James, John, and Peter were going to respond to his ministry. If they came down hard against him and compelled Titus to be circumcised, it would nullify all of the work that he had been doing to that time. Nevertheless, Paul was not afraid to risk testing his faith.

So, we said that another key to “owning the faith” is asking hard questions. We’ve created a subculture where there are a lot of questions that are “out of bounds”—Is the Bible really true? Is Jesus really the only way? What’s the deal with Hell? We can’t be afraid to ask hard questions. If we ignore the problems, they aren’t going away. If we ask the tough ones, we’ll walk away with more confidence in what we truly believe. Whatever doesn’t kill our faith will only make it stronger.

What happened between Paul’s conversion and his trip to Jerusalem?
In short, time. Verse one starts, “Then after fourteen years . . .” A significant part of owning the faith is giving yourself enough time to digest what troubles you.
So, that being said, any comments about owning the faith? What are some hard questions that are often out of bounds? Any stories of putting your faith to the test?

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 6)

In the final chapter of Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson investigates "Disputed Agendas, Frustrated Utopias, and Ongoing Tensions." Essentially, he summarizes various traditions' approaches to Christ and culture and critiques each one. (Think of it as a mini version of Niebuhr's book.)

First, he addresses the fundamentalists (Christ against culture?). While Carson appreciates the passion with which they do what they do, he thinks that they are better at combating what they don't like than they are at promoting what they do like. Further, they tend to be selective about the evils they oppose.

Second, he addresses Luther (Christ and culture in paradox?). While Carson appreciates Luther's wisdom in recognizing that it is no use forcing Christian ideals on non-Christians, he says that this model inevitably marginalizes Christians from the public sphere.

Third, he addresses Abraham Kuyper (Christ above culture?). Similar to Aquinas, Kuyper sought to identify what was good and true in culture, and was remarkably successful in making political progress where Christianity and culture overlapped. However, Carson points out that as time when on, the difference between "creation" and "redemption" waned, and his system decayed into something comparable to the "Christ of culture" model. (This is the same critique Niebuhr made of Aquinas and the Christ above culture model. Though the model has some strengths, practically it usually sees the distinction between Christ and culture fall apart.)

Fourth, Carson addresses "Minimalist Expectations," those like Frederica Matthewes-Green who argue that culture is a shifting sand and that it is pointless to try to impact it. (Matthewes-Green is Eastern Orthodox and places a high value on tradition over trend. "There is nothing new under the sun" seems to be her mantra.) Carson points out that Matthewes-Green ignores the significant advances that Christianity has made on the structure of our society (i.e. Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery).

Fifth, Carson looks at "Post-Christendom Perspectives," interacting with Yoder, Hauerwas, and Craig Carter. Carter points out that all of Niebuhr's categories assume a Constantinian view of Christ and culture--that Christians should try to influence culture by "force." Carter instead is a pacifist, arguing that we best influence culture through non-violent modeling. Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, and William Penn did more to influence culture than the Crusades did. However, Carson points out that Carter's view is reductionistic, boiling the whole Christ and culture question down to pacifism.

Finally, Carson looks at persecution, pointing out that Niebuhr's categories are silly to those who live in a culture that persecutes people for their faith.

D.A. Carson's main accomplishment in Christ and Culture Revisited is to destroy the validity of Niebuhr's categories. (Perhaps this was done before Carson, but this is my first exposure to it.) Carson rightly argues that a biblical theology should determine our view of Christ and culture--especially a biblical theology that takes appropriate consideration for the major "turning points" of creation, fall, and redemption. Further, Carson points out that there is no "one size fits all" response to culture. At times, the church is called to be against culture. At times, the church is called to redeem culture. Different situations call for different responses.

As I've stated all along, my only beef with Carson is how narrow he has defined orthodox Christianity. Not that I disagree with his views on creation, fall, or redemption--I just question whether these are fundamentals or merely Shibboleths. So, while Carson's book is an excellent response to Niebuhr for those who fall in Carson's camp, it be a mere frustration to those who disagree with him.

Interesting Article on Campaign Finance

I usually don't post about politics, but I thought that this article was interesting. Doesn't something seem wrong with this scene?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Psalm 19

Psalm 19 (NET):

For the music director; a psalm of David.

The heavens declare God's glory;
the sky displays his handiwork.

2 Day after day it speaks out;
night after night it reveals his greatness.

3 There is no actual speech or word,
nor is its voice literally heard.

4 Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth;
its words carry to the distant horizon.
In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber;
like a strong man it enjoys running its course.

6 It emerges from the distant horizon,
and goes from one end of the sky to the other;
nothing can escape its heat.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect
and preserves one's life.
The rules set down by the LORD are reliable
and impart wisdom to the untrained.

8 The LORD's precepts are fair
and make one happy.
The LORD's commands are pure
and give moral insight.

9 The commands to fear the LORD are right
and permanent.
The regulations given by the LORD are trustworthy
and completely just.

10 They are of greater value than gold,
than even a great amount of pure gold;
they bring greater delight than honey,
than even the sweetest honey from honeycomb.

11 Yes, your servant finds moral guidance there;
those who obey them receive a rich reward.

12 Who can avoid sinning?
Please do not punish my unintentional sins.

13 Moreover, keep me from committing flagrant sins;
do not allow such sins to control me.
Then I will be blameless,
and innocent of blatant rebellion.

14 May my words and my thoughts
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my protector and my defender.

This psalm almost seems like two psalms. First, there is praise of God as He is revealed in nature. Then, there is praise of God's word. Is this a praise psalm or a wisdom psalm? Is it both?

I think it is a praise psalm. First, the psalmist praises God for His wonders in nature. Then, he praises Him for the wisdom in His word. (Perhaps, then, this is a lesson that praise and wisdom are not mutually exclusive.)

First, the psalmist praises God as revealed in nature. He portrays the sun as a bridegroom or a strong man, who struts across the sky and warms everything he pleases. Nothing can stop him. Nothing can get in his way. And yet, in verse 4, God has pitched his tent.

I think there is something truly revelatory about nature. I learned this when I was in Dallas. I loved living there, but the city is a lesson in the bases of modern urban success. I have heard that in the 1960s, Dallas was a small cow town. SMU, located in what most would call the heart of the city, was on the outskirts. Now, I hear there are 4 million people in the DFW area. It used to be that major urban areas grew up around natural resources like a good harbor or the convergence of rivers and lakes. Now, with air travel and a developed highways system, none of that matters as much. There is nothing in Dallas but the convergence of I-35 and I-30.

Like I said, that's not to knock Dallas--it's a great city. But everything that is there was put there by a person. The best views are of the buildings. The trees were all planted. Even the lakes are all man-made. It really is a testament to what people can do. But that isn't always a good thing. Cities can be the glory of man as opposed to God. Like modern Babels, they can be the symbol of our autonomy from or maker.

On the other hand, there is something about being in nature that reminds you of your relative insignificance. Something about seeing God's creation speaks of His glory. It that sense, there is something spiritual about getting away from urban life. The heaven's still declare God's glory. If you doubt this, check out John's blog.

The second part of the psalm deals with the greatness of God's law. It seems like the psalmist thought that the law was actually the best way to live. He calls it "fair," "pure," and "right," and he says that it "gives you moral insight" and "makes you happy." Most of the time we (by "we" I mean "me") see God's ways as an inconvenience. They're something we do because of tradition or because we want to fit in, not because we think they're the best way to live.

Growing up I always saw Christian living as kind of fulfilling an obligation. (In some ways, it is.) God and I were in a relationship--He saved me and so I pay Him back with Christian living. While I still think the idea of "righteousness" relates to fulfilling what is properly expected of you in a relationship, the psalmist here says that it is more than that. God isn't a sadist, demanding us to do things that are harmful or otherwise foolish, He asks us to do things that are ultimately in our best interest.

Now if I can just figure out how loving those who hate me is in my best interest.

"Father, I confess that You are good and that You desire the good of Your children. I also confess that we don't always know what is good for us. So much of Jesus' teaching is hard, not because it isn't clear, but because it goes against everything we think is good for us. Perhaps that's where the Holy Spirit comes in. He convinces us to want to follow Christ. Father, I read the psalmist's words, 'Who can avoid sinning?' and 'keep me from flagrant sins,' and I can't help but think how often the right thing is clear to me, I just choose to do something different. That vexes me. I guess I would echo the psalmist's prayers. I thank you for the cross and for the righteousness that is ours through faith in Jesus. I pray that through Your Spirit that we might better live like Him. Amen."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Wittenburg Door on Mark Driscoll

The Wittenburg Door (a site that lampoons all things Christian) has a funny post on a recent conference featuring Mark Driscoll.

The video below might give some context to what the article is about.

Also, check out a similar article they did about Rob Bell.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 5)

If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in some time, it’s because I have been camping with my family. Good times.

I finished chapter 5 of D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited today—it’s called “Church and State.” In this section Carson seeks to describe the church’s proper relationship to the state and concludes that the relationship will look different in different contexts.

True to his method of integrating biblical theology to the question of Christ’s relationship to culture, Carson begins by asking what the Scriptures teach us about the relationship between church and state. Carson notes that we need to be careful to distinguish between church as an institution and church as a collection of individual Christians. Even though the institutional church may not have a role in influencing the state, individual Christians certainly will. Further, we can’t discount the differences between current notions of “the state” with what existed during Paul’s day. The Roman Empire was hostile to Christianity, while many states today are sympathetic to it. Carson says that in democratic societies individual Christians have a responsibility to participate in the government according to their beliefs, even if the institutional church remains on the sidelines.

Having discussed the biblical notions of “church” and “state,” Carson explains how individual Christians might respond to modern states. He argues that different states require different responses. First, Carson says that Christians should generally be loyal to the state, based on Jesus’ teaching to “render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar” and Paul’s teaching on the state in Romans 13. However, the early Christian message was also “Jesus is Lord” in the sense that “Caesar is not.” Caesar’s power was always seen as relegated power, so civil disobedience was called for when Caesar’s decrees went against God. Carson notes that a Christian’s response to a Muslim state hostile to the Gospel might look different than his or her response to a state that is sympathetic to it. In the first context, the Christian says “Jesus is Lord” and continues to live out the faith amidst persecution. In the other, he or she might say “render unto Caesar” as he or she submits to the state.

Finally, Carson argues that “Separation of Church and State” in America was never meant to keep Christians from forming public policy, but to keep the state from establishing a church. Carson says that the church’s involvement as an institution in politics might violate the spirit of the First Amendment, but that Christians voting their faith is the same as anyone else voting their beliefs. Democracy by definition means people pushing their agendas—whether they be secular, Muslim, or Christian.

Carson summarizes that while Christians wait for God to establish His rule on earth, “we engage in the proclamation of the good news about Jesus in word and deed and remember that he himself taught us that Caesar has a sphere, under God, that is to be respected, an authority that is to be obeyed.” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2008].)

Carson’s views on church and state are pretty straightforward and non-controversial. He rightly notes some inconsistencies in Niebuhr’s paradigm and shows that there is no “one solution.” However, he merely touched on some issues that run deeper than he cared to elaborate (this is not to say he hasn’t thought about these issues, just that he didn’t explore them in this work).

First, he mentions the state’s willingness to sponsor faith-based humanitarian work when their goals align with those of the state and where “the message” is not proclaimed. I am always on the lookout for opportunities for our church to get involved in the community, and I am especially interested in those programs that are not religions. But non-religious humanitarian organizations are hard to find. It seems that most of the work being done in the Pacific Northwest is being done by faith-based organizations—many of which receive state money. However, these organizations are prohibited from preaching a message. So, if someone wants to start a homeless shelter or food bank, they can get some government help, but if they require people to sit through a sermon to get food, they lose their funding.

This makes me wonder about how our culture naively separates beliefs from actions. If I am out volunteering at a food bank, I am doing so solely because of my beliefs. In fact, I would argue that my actions communicate my beliefs more than my words do. So, even if I am not “preaching a message,” I am still preaching a message. If the state is so concerned about taking care of the poor, why would they be against the preaching of a message that says, “Go and do likewise”? If I went to a food bank, I would want to know what it was that drove the volunteers at that food bank to do what they do. Why is the state afraid of the message?

The other question that Carson’s book raised to me was the early church’s attitude toward the state. Sure, Jesus and Paul taught that we should be submissive, but was this just a practical concession? N.T. Wright and others seem to think that the message of the church was “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.” Perhaps the command to “submit” to the government was more about the means of building the kingdom—i.e. don’t be like the zealots who use violence. I want to study this more—what was Jesus’ attitude toward the state?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Kainos--Owning the Faith Part 2

We have been going through the Book of Galatians in Kainos in a series called Owning the Faith. (Kainos is a young adults ministry at Believers Fellowship.) Some people suggest that 80% of kids raised in church will walk away from the faith when they get out of high school. Why is this? I think part of it is because they are never urged to "own their faith"--to make their faith their own, apart from their parents.

In Owning the Faith, we have been looking at Paul's faith journey from Pharisee to missionary to the Gentiles and then asking ourselves, what does our faith journey look like, apart from the one we inherited from our folks?

This week Johnny introduced Paul's awesome transformation from Galatians 1:11–24. Paul was a persecutor of the church. As a Pharisee, he was obsessed with the ethnic identity markers that distinguished the Jews from the "Gentile sinners" around him. Paul feared that the young Christian movement compromised the purity of the Jewish nation and he sought to eradicate it. On one trip to Damascus, however, he was confronted by the risen Jesus and he did an about-face. The guy who once persecuted Jesus became his biggest advocate, and his transformation had power.

Johnny followed Paul's story of transformation with his own. Several others shared as well. The stories of how God has transformed us can be powerful influences on those around us. Feel free to share.

The Good Life 3

I gave my third lesson in the series called The Good Life: Redeeming Suburbia through Counter-cultural Living last Sunday. The sermon audio is here. This week's myth of suburbia was "I am what I do and what I own." We looked at Jesus' interaction with the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and we talked about our identity in Christ.

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church by Alan Hirsch

In The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch lays out a paradigm for church leaders in the West to return to the missional strategy of the early church. Hirsch combines data from the Book of Acts with that from the house church movement in China to recover the “Apostolic genius” that drives successful missionary endeavors. He then describes how the Apostolic genius might apply to churches in the West.

Hirsch calls Part 1 of The Forgotten Ways “The Making of a Missionary.” In these early chapters, he recounts his experience as a missionary in Australia and outlines what he thinks is wrong with the dominant paradigm of “doing church” in America. In short, the Western obsession with the “seeker sensitive” movement has created a dichotomy between the professional Christians who do ministry (10% of the body) and the others who sit and watch (90% of the body). Emergent conversation-based models might increase the ratio to 20/80, but they still leave the majority of church members uninvolved. The medium, he argues, is the message—Christianity is about sitting and watching while the professionals do the work.

Ironically enough, with all the focus on church growth, most seeker sensitive churches fail to produce any real growth. (The few notable megachurch exceptions make it seem like the method works.) Further, most of the growth from seeker sensitive churches is from transfers from other churches. The problem, according to Hirsch, is the method itself. The whole notion of a seeker sensitive church is to cater the style of a church to target a specific demographic. Hirsch says that this does nothing but encourage consumerism—you can have church the way you want it. Again, the medium is the message. (He also cautions that Emergent-style churches can do the same thing for a different demographic. “Come to our church. We’re hip, trendy, artistic, and relevant.”) Further, all of the seeker sensitive churches compete over the same suburban middle class demographic so that only the fittest will survive. And, while the seeker sensitive churches compete over the suburban middle class, the majority of the population is ignored. Thus is any area you will have one or two “successful” churches (the ones with the best music and preaching) that draw the entire target demographic, and a large population of unchurched people.

In contrast to the Western seeker-sensitive model is that model espoused by the early church and by the persecuted church in China. These churches have been forced into limiting congregations to 15 people and they have been prohibited from having “professional” ministers. As a result, the church in China, like the early church, is flourishing. Hirsch asks, “What are they doing that we are not?” and concludes that the Chinese have recaptured the “Apostolic genius,” the church planting model of the Apostles that led to success in ministry. Hirsch pushes for a return to these forgotten ways.

In Part 2 of The Forgotten Ways, “A Journey to the Heart of the Apostolic Genius,” Hirsch describes how churches in the West can apply a successful missionary paradigm to their own ministries. The main tenets of the Apostolic genius are:

  • The Lordship of Christ. This means that the message of the church is that Jesus is Lord. Christianity is not about praying a prayer, walking an aisle and joining the church, it’s about making Jesus Lord.

  • Disciple-making. This refers to reproducing followers of Jesus within a church. The focus shouldn’t be on better music and more relevant preaching, but on making disciples of Jesus.
  • Missional-Incarnational ImpulseThe church needs to get outside of the walls of its building and into the community. In institutional churches, the focus is on the church and preserving the institution. With a missional-incarnational impulse, the church is focused on the community.

  • Apostolic Environment. This refers to leadership. Every church should have an Apostolic figure who focuses on starting new things—getting the ball rolling and bringing the focus back on mission. Underneath this Apostle are various teachers, pastors, evangelists and prophets who do the work of the ministry.

  • Organic Systems. This approach is about abandoning the institutional framework and instead viewing the church as a growing organism.

  • Communitas. This is community based on mission and liminal activities, not on getting together for coffee and Bible studies.
The Forgotten Ways has a lot to commend. Like Michael Frost in Exiles, Hirsch emphasizes the need for communitas, not community. This was the best part for me. There is something about sharing in a liminal experience (a dangerous experience comparable to a rite of passage) that produces community like nothing else can. As long as we play it safe, our relationships are only going to be surface. Further, I appreciate Hirsch’s emphasis on mission. Too many churches focus on the institution. This is very unattractive. Nobody wants to be a part of an institution. People want to be a part of a movement. Finally, I appreciate Hirsch’s emphasis on dynamic leadership and disciple-making. A movement is going to catch the vision of a leader. If that movement is focused on that leader’s charisma and abilities, then the movement is only going to be as big as the leader. However, if the movement is based on the vision of the leader and on that leader’s development of disciples, it can do much more. These ideas truly are “forgotten ways,” and I appreciate Hirsch reminding us of them.

Despite the wealth of good information in The Forgotten Ways, there are some historical and methodological issues that diminish the value of Hirsch’s Apostolic genius. Hirsch makes the same error that a lot of missions-minded folks make—he glorifies the Book of Acts and the 20th century missionary movement to the detriment of the rest of the New Testament and church history. Hirsch is anti-institutional. This is the thesis of his book. However, the early church was not free from institutions. Most of the New Testament is letters from Paul to the churches that he founded, in which he is exercising a kind of authority over them. There were structures. There were leaders. I would even say there were institutions. Further, Acts could be called a work of propaganda, glorifying the early church to the Roman Empire. The rest of the New Testament isn’t so generous. Do we want a church like the ones in Galatia? What about Corinth? There were problems even in the romanticized early church. Further, the “institutionalized” church made a lot of progress for the kingdom of God in history. It had/has problems, but it also did some good.

The Forgotten Ways is a welcome reminder of the Apostolic genius. Even if we don’t adapt everything that Hirsch suggests, we need to acknowledge that something isn’t working. A return to mission and communitas seems like the proper prescription for the Western church. However, abandoning all of the institutions seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 4)

In chapter 4 of Christ and Culture Revisited, D.A. Carson investigates four dominant forces in Western culture—secularism, democracy, freedom, and power.

The first force that dominates Western culture is secularism. The term “secular” is not bad in and of itself—it simply refers to that which is not explicitly religious or superstitious. Secularism as a philosophy, on the other hand, is the desire to squeeze all things religious out of the public sphere. Thus when we speak of “Christ and culture,” Christ will necessarily be against a “secularist” culture because his claims are both religious and public.

Another force that dominates Western culture is democracy. While Carson argues that democracy is a good thing, it is not necessarily a “Christian” thing. Democracy can lead to all sorts of evil if the people choose to take it in that direction. For instance, he relates a story from a Slovakian pastor who noted that he had never seen pornography sold on the streets of his country until it became a democracy. Therefore, Carson notes that democracy is good in that it prevents tyranny, but it by no means goes hand-in-hand with Christ.

In addition to secularism and democracy, the desire for freedom is also a driving force in Western culture. But there is a difference between being free “from” something and being free “toward” something. Which of these do we mean when we talk about our desire to be free? For instance, a government ban on firearms might at the same time infringe upon someone’s freedom toward owning a gun and preserve someone else’s freedom toward safety. What do we mean when we say we value freedom? As it relates to Western culture, Carson writes:

“The democratic tradition in the West has fostered a great deal of freedom from Scripture, God, tradition, and assorted moral constraints; it encourages freedom toward doing your own thing, hedonism, self-centeredness, and consumerism. By contrast, the Bible encourages freedom from self-centeredness, idolatry, greed, and all sin and freedom toward living our lives as those who bear God’s image and who have been transformed by his grace, such that our greatest joy becomes doing his will.” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 138.)

Finally, Carson tackles the driving force of power. While power is not a bad thing (Carson notes that we like it when the police show some power when rescuing us from a mugging or a rape), it can be abused (much like the police sometimes abuse their power). The biblical view of power is that all power is God’s power, and all earthly power, therefore, is derived power.

I am struck by how different Carson’s book is than Niebuhr’s. From the title of the book, I expected it to be an updated version of it or at least a reaction to it. While Carson does interact with Niebuhr in the early chapters, the book seems to be headed in a direction in which Carson is going to explain how his theology should be worked out in his culture. It’s almost should have been titled Carson’s Plan for America. While Niebuhr’s book introduced a paradigm for making deducing the relationship between Christ and culture, Carson’s book just gives you the answer from his perspective (or at least that is where I anticipate he is going).

That being said, Carson has a gift for pointing out what is wrong with the world. Americans idolize secularization, democracy, freedom, and power, and Carson’s rebuke is well-placed. If Christ were to comment on our culture, I think He would agree with Carson.

I’m afraid that Carson isn’t going to answer the question that is on everyone’s mind when we talk about “Christ and culture.” My faith looks very different than that of the early church. Much of that difference is because they were first-century Roman citizens and I am a twenty-first century American. Part of the Gospel is that there is “no longer Jew nor Greek,” and so inherent to it is the question of where you draw the line between Christ and culture. I’m afraid Carson isn’t going to offer anything helpful to those who don’t live in a culture exactly like his and don’t hold to a theology exactly like his.

Hopefully he’ll prove me wrong. He’s got two chapters.