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.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Psalm 18

It's been a while since I've posted on the Psalms. Today I looked at Psalm 18.

The difference between David's concept of God and my own amazes me. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Psalm 18 is long, so I m not going to include it in its entirety. But here are verses 37–50 (NET):

37 I chase my enemies and catch them;
I do not turn back until I wipe them out.

38 I beat them to death;
they fall at my feet.

39 You give me strength for battle;
you make my foes kneel before me.

40 You make my enemies retreat;
I destroy those who hate me.

41 They cry out, but there is no one to help them;
they cry out to the LORD, but he does not answer them.

42 I grind them as fine windblown dust;
I beat them underfoot like clay in the streets.

43 You rescue me from a hostile army;
you make me a leader of nations;
people over whom I had no authority are now my subjects.

44 When they hear of my exploits, they submit to me.
Foreigners are powerless before me;

45 foreigners lose their courage;
they shake with fear as they leave their strongholds.

46 The LORD is alive!
My protector is praiseworthy!
The God who delivers me is exalted as king!

47 The one true God completely vindicates me;
he makes nations submit to me.

48 He delivers me from my enemies;
you snatch me away from those who attack me;
you rescue me from violent men.

49 So I will give you thanks before the nations, O LORD!
I will sing praises to you!

50 He gives his chosen king magnificent victories;
he is faithful to his chosen ruler,
to David and his descendants forever.

I don't think you can escape the conclusion that David is giving the LORD credit for giving him the power to kill his enemies. Further, Christian tradition has approved of this and canonized this psalm.

In some ways I don't know how to respond. Do I file this psalm away and pretend its not there like that crazy extended relative we all have? Is it evidence that my concept of God is terribly inept? Do I do some kind of exegetical and hermeneutical gymnastics to try to make this psalm consistent with Jesus' teaching on loving your enemies? Or do I just say, "I don't know what is going on here. David killed a lot of people, and God helped him do it. But how that relates to me, I don't know."?

I think I am going to opt for the last one. Like Ferris Buehler, David was a righteous dude. In his day, God chose to wipe out evil-doers through the hands of his king. Today, God wipes out evil-doers through the death and resurrection of His Son. He is wiping them out by transforming them through the power of the Spirit. But we can't forget--God may be gracious, but He can be pretty violent, too.

"40 You make my enemies retreat;
I destroy those who hate me.
41 They cry out, but there is no one to help them;
they cry out to the LORD, but he does not answer them."


"Father, I confess that in many ways we have emasculated You with our weak visions of Your holiness and power. If I had any realistic idea of who You are, my life would be very different. I pray that like David I might be able to say, 'The LORD repaid me for my godly deeds; he rewarded my blameless behavior.' I thank you for Christ. I thank you for His death and resurrection, and the power of the Holy Spirit in conforming me to godliness. We look forward to the consummation of Your kingdom. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 of D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited is titled, “Refining Culture and Redefining Postmodernism.” In the chapter, he does just that. First, Carson addresses four questions targeted at his approach of comparing a biblical portrait of Christ to culture. Then, he speaks at length about postmodernism, responding to James K.A. Smith’s book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Smith’s book was in part a response to Carson’s books, The Gagging of God and Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church.)

The first question Carson addresses is whether sweeping questions about “culture” are appropriate, given the diversity of cultures and their overlapping nature. Carson answers that while indeed, individuals inevitably belong to a number of cultures, one can still speak of generalities in culture. Breaking culture down to the minimums would mean that everyone is his or her own culture, something that contradicts the definition of the word itself.

Second, Carson addresses the question of whether it is appropriate to speak of one culture as superior to another. While we should be aware of our propensity to elevate our culture over others, Carson asks the question of whether or not is appropriate to label the Nazi culture as more “evil” than other cultures since they committed genocide. His point is that in many ways we can compare a culture’s relative adherence to the biblical narrative to evaluate how “good” or “bad” it is. Otherwise, we approve of the Holocaust.

Third, Carson addresses the point that Christians inevitably constitute a part of the culture so that “Christ and Culture” becomes a false dichotomy. Carson says, “They are distinguishable entities, but not mutually exclusive entities, in the same way that Hispanic-American culture is distinguishable from the broader American culture yet an integral part of it” (D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 75).

Fourth, Carson answers the question about whether the diversity of opinion about “Christ” nullifies anyone’s attempt to talk about “Christ and Culture.” Here Carson says that there are certain truth’s about Christ taught in the Scriptures and the degree to which one’s “Christ” corresponds to the biblical witness determines the degree to which one can appropriately talk about “Christ and culture.”

After answering four major objections to his method, Carson moves to what I think is a non-sequitur in a discussion about postmodernism. He responds to the work of James K.A. Smith. Essentially, he says that his “postmodern” critics caricaturize him as holding positions that he does not hold. Just because he is not a postmodernist does not make him a Cartesian. Carson concludes that maybe hardcore postmodernists and hardcore modernists are both wrong and that they need to learn from each other. To the modernists he says, “We are all perspectivalists, even if perspectivalists can be divided into those who admit it and those who don’t” (90). To the postmodernists, he says, “We see through a glass darkly. Nevertheless, we do see” (94). He writes:

“It does no good to camp out with those moderns who demonize postmodernism, for in fact, whether we like it or not, we are all perspectivalists; equally, it does no good to camp out with those postmodernists who demonize modernism, for in fact, within the limitations of what it means to be finite creature touched by grace, we can know and proclaim the truth” (113).

Carson has some good stuff in chapter 3. First, while I disagree to the extent to which he has narrowly defined Christianity, I agree that there are boundaries to what is orthodox and what is unorthodox. Therefore, it is possible to speak of Christian and non-Christian cultures, and the dialogue between Christ and culture is a real one. Also, however strange it was to see the postmodern discussion in this book, it is comforting to see that Carson is not as hard of a modernist as his critics make him out to be. He is right in saying that the “chastened modernists” and the “soft postmodernists” are saying largely the same thing.