Monday, March 31, 2008

Random Musing on Evangelical Culture and the Future

Sometimes I wonder if I am a non-conformist to a fault.

I read a lot of "liberal" stuff, subscribe to a kind of postmodern epistemology/hermeneutic, subscribe to Sojourners, and sympathize with a lot of Roman Catholic and liberal protestant ideas. Sometimes I get the feeling that there are some at my church who wonder if I am a liberal or, worse yet, emergent. At the same time, I went to Cedarvile University and Dallas Seminary, I believe in "inerrancy," and generally take a conservative position on almost every theological issue. Most people on the emerging church blogs would probably call me a fundamentalist.

Can't we all just get along?

I read a lot of the emerging church literature and I agree with most of it, but I still find myself an outsider. I think that the evangelical church in America has some serious problems and is in need of a major overhaul. I am a child of the late seventies/early eighties, raised in public school, and cannot help but think like a postmodernist. It's who I am. (Interestingly enough, I did not approach the postmodernism issue as a modernist evangelical trying to speak the language of the culture, but as a postmodernist realizing that I did not have to conform to the dominant worldview of my evangelical tribe.) However, while postmodernism has led a lot of evangelicals toward the left, it has solidified my position on the right. I no longer feel the need to have to justify my crazy beliefs--they work for me, which is all anyone can say about their beliefs.

I get upset sometimes when I read the emerging blogs because they portray the people who mentored me as ungodly dinosaurs who are only interested in head knowledge to the detriment of following Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know these guys; and I know they love God. At the same time, one of the reasons I did not persue a PhD is because I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to get a job at a conservative seminary. I know my eschatological beliefs proclude me from teaching at either school from which I graduated. That hurts, too. It's kind of like there is a line in the sand. You have to be either a left wing fruit nut with no systematic theology and an axe to grind about American consumerism, or a right wing stiff decrying the evils of narrative theology or the New Perspective on Paul. What about the people who believe that there are right and wrong answers, but who are open to the idea that some of their own answers might be the wrong ones, and who, at the same time, want to see us getting out into the world to transform it?

Here is my question. Is there room in the future of evangelicalism for the postmodern fundamentalist? By this, I mean the person who rejects anyone's claim of absolute certainty regarding any metanarrative, and recognizes such assertions as little more than power plays, but whose own views are really conservative. I hope so, because that is what I am starting to feel that I am.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"The Kreutzer Sonata" by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished the third short story in The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Short Stories, "The Kreutzer Sonata." Again, I am thoroughly impressed with Tolstoy's insights into why people do what they do.

The plot of "The Kreutzer Sonata" circles around a discussion between strangers sitting near each other on a train. When the discussion turns to the education of women, Pozdnyshev (one of the passengers) argues that current "developments" in Russian culture have been meaningless and that women were not better off with education. Pozdnyshev says that educated or not, men still treat women merely as sex objects. Therefore, he argues, the educated women of Russian society are simply more educated, more valuable sex objects. Until men and women learn to control their sexual passions, it doesn't matter if women are educated because they will be treated the same. He then recounts how and why he killed his wife--he married her for her looks and then was overcome by jealousy when another man caught her interest.

One thing to keep in mind in this story is that Pozdnyshev is a scoundrel and that his views aren't necessarily Tolstoy's. However, even the scoundrel's ideas can be profound (as in Raskolnikov in Doestoevksy's Crime and Punishment). Just as I felt "Family Happiness" accurately described the ways women are dissatisfied in relationships, "The Kreutzer Sonata" accurately portrayed a failed marriage from a male perspective. My favorite line of the whole story was Pozdnyshev's thoughts after he stabbed his wife in a fit of jealous rage. The wound was mortal, but it would take a while for her to bleed out. So, Pozdnyshev had some time to reflect on what he did before she died. He recounts to the narrator what he thought when he looked at his dying wife:

"And so petty seemed all that had offended me, all my jealousy, and so significant the deed that I had done, that I had the impulse to bow down to her hand and to say, 'Forgive me,' but I had not the courage."


Pozdnyshev blames his lust and jealousy for driving him to kill his wife. He says that he never really loved his wife in a true way, only in a romantic way. He says that this is true of most men across the board. This got me to thinking, How much progress have we made as a culture when it comes to gender relationships? Do men see women as equals, or is Pozdnyshev right? As a way of measuring, Pozdnyshev offers the following question. Would a woman rather have a man see her: (A) doing an evil deed, or (B) looking ugly. Pozdnyshev says that most women know how men are and would rather be caught doing something wrong than looking bad.

(In case it's not clear, I am not advocating Pozdnyshev's position, it just got me thinking.)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr

Well, I finally finished Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr, and I took the Christ and Culture test on David Zimmer's blog. I was very surprised by the results of the test, but the more I thought about it, the more the results made sense. I tested as Christ above Culture, which surprised me because I usually disagree with Thomas Aquinas (the poster child for Christ above Culture). But I no longer think that the test was that far off of the mark.

First, I grew up in a conservative Baptist tradition that was very Christ against Culture. I have a lot of respect for people who hold to that view because, having grown up with them, I know that they believe what they believe out of a sincere love for God. Many sacrifice a lot to live the life that they feel God wants them to live. They taught me that there are real forces of darkness at work in this world that are hostile to the kingdom of God. (The Christ of Culture model is not an option for me.)

Second, I have seen the darker side of the Christ against Culture model, and so I have reacted strongly against it. The Christ against Culture model often becomes "Christ against your Culture," whether it be the long-haired culture, the rock music culture, the hippie culture, or worse yet, the Hispanic culture, or the African culture, or whatever. I think we need to be in the culture (plus, we are in it a lot more than many of us would like to admit). So, the Christ against Culture model is out for me.

Third, I was trained theologically in the reformed tradition, and I react strongly against any attempt to force non-Christians to behave like Christians. I think God changes someone's heart before He changes their behavior. Further, I have since rejected the dualism found in Martin Luther that the Christian is simutaneously justified and a sinner. I don't think he takes seriously enough the spiritual change that takes place in a person when God regenerates them. (So, the Christ and Culture in Tension view is out for me.)

That leaves the two I am torn between--Christ above Culture and Chist the Transformer of Culture. Initially, the second sounded more appealling. However, there is that part of me that sees "The World" as hostile to God. There are parts of our culture that cannot be redeemed (the global sex slave trade, unfair global markets, racism, tribalism, etc.), but need to be rejected outright. To take the global sex trade for example, I would not approach the issue asking the question, "How can we redeem this for Christ?" but "How is this a symptom of our failure to understand God and ourselves or of our rebellion against Him?" To me, God has created a right way to have sex, and using sex slaves is a corruption of the divine intent. To change the culture, people need to understand who God created them to be and how their actions are falling short of the divine intent. Then, they need a work of the Holy Spirit to live the life they were created to live.

I guess that makes me a Thomist. Never saw that coming.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Faith and Science

There was an interesting discussion today on Scot McKnight's blog, The Jesus Creed, dealing with the relationship between faith and science. RJS, a guest poster, has been leading a discussion about Francis S. Collins' book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The discussion was about whether a literal interpretation of Genesis was torpedoing our attempts at reaching out to scientists. RJS' question for the board was whether scientific discoveries should change our hermeneutic (especially of Genesis 1–11). I encourage you to read the discussion as it was interesting.

The thing that threw me was the following statement from RJS, before she outlined the evidence for a 4.5 billion year old earth and the common descent of the species:

"So what are the generally accepted facts? As you read what follows remember this key point: NO serious scientist doubts this basic outline – except a few with a prior conviction that evidence from scripture trumps all else."

Now, I never claim to be a scientist. I studied evolutionary biology in high school and then got the "Young Earth" theory at Cedarville. I was exposed to the street level arguments in both discussions, but I hardly understand the technical arguments. Personally, I believe in a relatively young earth. I think there are gaps in the geneologies in Genesis, so I am willing to grant that people have been around for 50,000 years. But I have not been convinced by the evolutionists that the earth HAS to be older than that.

And this is where RJS' comment struck me--the phrase "NO serious scientist." There is a lot implied in this phrase. It essentially means that if you hold to a young earth you are not a serious scientist. You may be a scientist, but you are not a serious scientist. And if you are not a serious scientist, well then you are a fanatic fundamentalist. Do you see the power play in this language? There are the evolutionists (us), and then there are the lunatics (them).

To me, evolution is more of a metanarrative than science. It is a framing story that helps scientists do what they do. And as it functions as such, I am all for it. If evolution helps scientists develop cures for diseases and iPods that hold more music, great. But why do they feel the need to impose their metanarrative on the rest of us? Over 90% of people in the world believe in God, so their attempts are largely failing. But still, scientists carry themselves with this implied authority that because they are scientists, we should listen to them.


Scientism, or naturalism, or evolutionary biology, or whatever you want to call the rejection of the spiritual doesn't answer the questions that I am asking. Can't they be comfortable agreeing to disagree?

On a side note, Francis Collins and RJS are both Christians. I don't know where RJS stands, but I think that Collins supports some kind of theistic evolution. I am sure that both of them are brilliant and they can well defend their positions. I bet they are both great people, too. I am open to the idea that Genesis 1–11 should be interpreted figuratively, but I think Romans 5 implies that Paul interpreted the Adam narrative "literally" (whatever that meant to him). I don't see the need to adapt my metanarrative to match that of evolutionary biology. Why do scientists insist that I agree with them?

Maybe I'm a fundamentalist afterall.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Good Life and the Gospel according to John Part 2

I just finished reading Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown edited by John R. Donahue. Father Brown's work colors my interpretation of The Gospel according to John more than any other author. Although I don't agree wholeheartedly with all of his views regarding the Johannie community and the stages of development of the Gospel, I think he is on to something with his studies in these areas.

Life in Abundance looks at Father Brown's contribution to Johannine scholarship and then tries to show where his ideas will go in the future. Of all of the articles, I found "Methodological Considerations in the Study of John's Interaction with First-Century Judaism" by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky and the response by Adele Reinhartz to be the most interesting.

John often gets accused of anti-semitism because of the way he portrays "The Jews" in his Gospel. On the one hand, I sympathize with Jewish readers of the Gospel who not only see anti-semitism in the work, but also point out that the readers of John have used the work as an excuse for their hatred. On the other hand, the work is thoroughly Jewish and it is almost universally accepted that the ideas originated with Palestinian Judaism. If the author and recipients were all Jewish, it is hard to see how the work could be anti-semitic.

The two articles in Life in Abundance dealt with the Greek term aposynagogos that occurs in John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. Many Johannine scholars of Brown's generation suggested that the Sitz im leben ("situation in life," or occasion) of the Gospel was that the Johannine community was beginning to be expelled from the synagogues because of their beliefs about Jesus. Brown saw evidence for Jewish hostility to Christians in the Shemoneh Esreh--a chief prayer recited by the Jews in the synagogues. In the twelfth benediction, there is a curse against heretics, likely targeted against Christians. Because Judaism was a legal religion, membership in a synagogue would protect a Christian from emperor worship. Expulsion would leave the Christian vulnerable to the accusation of atheism (disbelief in the Roman gods)--a capital crime.

If this was the Sitz im leben of John, it would explain the prominence of the "remain in Christ" motif. If staying loyal to Christ would lead to expulsion from the synagogue and would make one vulnerable to accusations of atheism, many followers of Jesus would be tempted to deny him to protect themselves from persection. Remaining in Christ would mean not denying Him. This would also explain John's emphasis on confession and his negative portrayal of people who were afraid to follow Jesus through tough times.

I have heard and read several scholars deny the probability that the synangogues expelled people for being Christians. The typical argument is that the assembly of Jamnia in 90 CE that confirmed the curse was not authoritative to most Jews of the time. Thus, they say, Christians likely started the hostility, left Judaism, and created the stories about their being kicked out.

This idea kind of rubs me the wrong way. If it can be established that there was hostility between the Johannine community and "The Jews," which is more likely--that they had reasons for such hostility or that they were simply racist? Given the fact that most of the early converts to Christianity were Jewish themselves, I think it is far more likely that hostility toward "The Jews" was a reaction. Further, even if the council of Jamnia was not authoritative in and of itself, a council would be some serious ammunition for people who already had a prejudice against Christians.

Ultimately, I think there is something going on with John's use ot the term "The Jews." I don't think he is talking about the race, but the leadership of his own people. In John's view, these leaders had rejected the Messiah and handed Him over to the Romans to be crucified.

It is unfortunate that John chose that term to describe his opponents, since so many have taken his words to justify hate. When I teach through John this year, I will go to great lengths to emphasize that "The Jews" are the ruling authorities who rejcted Jesus.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy is one of my new favorite authors.

Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been my favorite author. I have read all of his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Adolescent), and a good chunk of his short stories. People who see me reading Dostoevsky always ask me what I think about Tolstoy. Until recently, I had never read anything by him and was unable to give an answer. I've heard good things, so I decided to pick up a Tolstoy book. I thought it might be nice to start with something short instead of wading into War and Peace or Anna Karenina, so I picked up a copy of Barnes and Noble's The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Short Stories. I have to say--I am hooked.

Tolstoy is great. Every bit as great as Dostoevsky, but in a different way. They two seem nothing alike, and yet they both seem to have mastered the psychology of why people do what they do.

"The Death of Ivan Ilych" is about just that--the death of a guy named Ivan Ilych. What makes the book great is the responses to death by everyone in the story--especially Ivan's response.

The plot of the book is simple. Ivan falls and hurts his back, and the injury proves worse than he first thought. Doctors are baffled about why his pain isn't going away, and it isn't long before everyone realizes that he is going to die. However, no one wants to talk about it and they continue to act as if he is going to recover. Ivan is terrified by death, so his friends' and family's hypocrisy infuriates him. He starts to hate them for pretending he is okay. The sicker he gets, the angrier and more hurtful he gets.

When Ivan is about to die, he encounters Gerasim, a peasant who waits on him and who isn't afraid to talk about death and its inevitability. Ivan starts to envy Gerasim, both for his youth and vitality, and also for his simple life and his boldness in the face of death. All of this starts Ivan reflecting on his life and whether or not he had lived right.

At the end of the story, Ivan has kind of an epiphany that relieves him of his pain and suffering. I had to read this part over and over because it wasn't clear what he realized. I did some research, and it looks like there are several opinions about what happened to Ivan. Perhaps this is the genious of the story--the reader is left to decide for himself or herself what Ivan realized.

There are some clear allusions to the New Testament when Ivan dies, and this impacts the way I read the story. Ivan's cries, "What death? Where is it?" and "Death is over. It is no more" seem to me like clear allusions to 1 Corinthians 15:54–55. Also, the spectator's comment, "It is no more" seem like an allusion to Christ's words on the cross, "It is finished." (Tolstoy had converted to Christianity shortly before writing this story.)

I think that Ivan realized that the society in which he lived idolized the wrong things. Ivan's epiphany was that he "felt sorry" for his wife and his son. I think he felt sorry for them because they were locked into Russian high society's way of thinking. Ivan realized that Gerasim's life was the good life--the life he should have lived. Gerasim lived for others--he happily served Ivan in the last days of his life, and he responded kindly to abuse. I think that Ivan's epiphany was that he realized that the selflessness of the peasants was a better life than the hypocrisy of the aristocracy.

Tolstoy's story was a needed reminder to me that I need to live "the good life." It is so easy to get caught up in the American dream that just one more promotion, or one more award, or one more digit in my salary is going to make me happy. In the end, Ivan realized that it was in his youth when he enjoyed his family that he was the happiest. It's tempting to want to work myself into the grave, wanting to do something "great" for the kingdom of God. In the end, its the little things that we do for the people in our immediate community that are the most meaningful.

New Believers Fellowship Web Site

The new Believers Fellowship web site is finally done! The site redesign was one of the first projects I was assigned after joining the staff in November of 2006. I put a ton of work into it and worked with several different designers to pull off what I think is now the best looking church web site in Gig Harbor.

The first step in the design process was to come up with an overall look to the site. So, we decided to hire someone to design a new logo and branding for us. Angela Conlon, my friend from Dallas, did the design work and came up with a great logo. Her thoughts and questionairre really helped up narrow down the focus of what our church is about.

After deciding on a logo and branding, we decided to hire a photographer. In my opinion, great photos drive great looking web sites. We hired my friend Promise Tangeman to take the pictures for our site. She did a great job.

Once we had our logo and photos, I started working with a web design team--crossroads creative in Seattle. Travis and Danielle Ness are the son and daughter-in-law of our former office manager here at the church. They came up with several great designs to match our logo, and were extremely flexible in working with our particular wants and desires. They were patient with us as I struggled to finish writing the copy and we decided which of Promise's pictures we liked the best. Travis was great to work with and we love the site they made.

Check out the new look site. Also, we now have sermon audio download, so if you want to hear any of the sermons I have done at Believers Fellowship, you can hear them here.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Love INC Project Finished

One of the things that I do at Believers Fellowship is organize periodic outreach activities in which I get the church involved with a local ministry for a one-time event. In my opinion, there is no need for us to reinvent the wheel when there are so many great ministries doing awesome things around Pierce County. Why should our church start a homeless shelter when the Tacoma Rescue Mission already does that? Isn't it better just to get our church involved in what they are already doing? I think so.

In order to connect people with local ministries, I team up with their leaders to come up with a one-day event that we can do together to expose people to what is going on around them. My hope is that once people get their feet wet, they will be more willing to volunteer in the future.

The latest group that we worked with is Love INC (In the Name of Christ) of Pierce County. Love INC does a ton of cool stuff around the country, but one of the things that the Pierce County chapter does is provide furniture to people who have lost everything in a fire, flood, etc. One of the most common scenarios in which people need furniture is when they are forced to take their kids and leave everything in a domestic violence situation. In such cases, Washington State hooks women and children up with a place to stay, but doesn't give them furniture. Love INC steps in and fills this gap.

Well, the folks at Love INC needed a place to store all of the donated furniture. They had this old barn on site, and we thought that with a little bit of renovation, it might be a good place to store furniture. The only problem was that there was 9260 pounds of junk in it. So, our project was to clear out the junk, pressure wash the inside, put up a new wall, create some mattress racks, and install a garage door. Also, I thought it would be cool to have a used furniture drive at the church so that when we were done building the structure we could fill it with furniture.

We finished this past weekend and the project was a huge success! We filled a 26 foot rental truck with donated stuff and even had to take 2–3 pickup trucks worth of stuff separately. The work we did over the past few weeks is going to impact countless people around Pierce County. The question I asked the congregation for this project was, "When is a couch more than just a couch? When it provides hope for a new life." That's what we did these past few weeks. We worked toward giving people hope.

I am so impressed by the people of my church. They have an amazing heart for social justice and community development, and they are the most giving congregation of which I have ever been a part. I am excited about the things we will do in the future! Enjoy the video.