Monday, June 29, 2009

Hit and Run

Someone hit my car and ran without leaving a note today! Fortunately, a witness whipped out his iPhone and snapped a picture of the truck with a clear shot of the license plate and paint smear. The Gig Harbor PD is on the case. Let's hear it for good Samaritans!

Bulletin Board WIN

Failblog is often in the gutter. This one made me laugh pretty hard.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Post-Game Interview Meltdown Song

Someone has a lot of talent . . . and way too much time on their hands. We're talkin' about practice?!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Natal for XBox 360

Natal was revealed at E3 and a lot of people are buzzing about how "revolutionary" it is. The developer says that it is beyond even what science fiction writers dream about. Critics point out that the demonstration looked scripted and fake (plus, the developer has a history of overhyping the technological innovation of his games).

My question is, Why would I want to play this game? It looks really boring compared to playing with my real son.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

iMonk on the SBC

Michael Spencer has been encouraged by the Southern Baptist Convention so far. It sounds like the younger generation is pushing for a move away from the culture wars and a re-emphasis on missions.

Kiva in Paraguay

Below is an interview with Martin Burt from the Fundacion Paraguaya, a microfinance organization in Paraguay. If you are unfamiliar with microfinance, Mr. Burt gives some clear examples of its power to lift people out of poverty. The interview is mostly informative, but it's good information.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

American Syncretism

I was a missions major in college. We talked about the importance of expressing Christianity in culturally appropriate ways. After all, Christianity in South America need not look like Christianity in the United States. The process of tailoring Christianity to a particular culture we called "contextualization."

Contextualization especially comes to the fore when it comes to worship styles. Should missionaries translate western worship songs into native dialects, or should they encourage nationals to compose their own worship in their own style? Contextualization encourages the latter. Every missionary has to be conscious of contextualization.

You can even see contextualization in missional churches in the United States. Mars Hill in Seattle may be an example of a church contextualizing itself to the indie-rocker youth of urban Seattle. Willow Creek may be an example of a church contextualizing itself to the corporate-ladder boomers of suburban Chicago. (See below for why I say “may be.”)

Another thing we are conscious of in missions is "syncretism." Syncretism is contextualization gone wild--when you take blatantly non-Christian elements of a culture and try to shoehorn them into Christianity.

For instance, polygamy is a huge challenge for contextualization. Polygamy is acceptable in many cultures. What does a missionary tell a new convert who has 2 wives? Divorce one? Only sleep with one? What if both wives have children? Do you kick one set to the curb? Does Christianity allow for polygamy? How does 1 Corinthians 7 apply?

However one chooses to answer that question, most would agree that it is wrong for an already-converted Christian to marry a second wife, even in a polygamist culture. That would be syncretism, as the New Testament advocates monogamy.

So, the challenge of missions is being "contextual" without being "syncretistic."

I am reading The New Shape of World Christianity by Mark Noll. It's a great book about how American Christianity compares to global Christianity. Ours is an age of a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity, and there is no reason for us to assume that American Christianity is normative.

In the book, Noll points out the challenge in identifying syncretism in other flavors of Christianity. He writes, "The contrast between the West and the non-West is never between culture-free Christianity and culturally embedded Christianity, but between varieties of culturally embedded Christianity." Great point! Just because another culture does something different does not make us orthodox and them syncretistic. It could be the other way around!

So, I have a question for you. Let's imagine for a second that you are a first-century follower of Jesus. Maybe you are even the Apostle Paul. You are caught in a time machine that not only carries you into the distant future (2009), but also lands you in the USA in a typical suburban evangelical church. What practices do you label syncretistic, and what do you label contextual forms of orthodox Christianity?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Gary and I have started a new sermon series on the parables of Jesus. Gary started us off with three weeks on The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and I followed with a sermon on The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. You can listen here.

I really enjoyed this sermon. As I reflected on how to preach a parable, I kept coming back to how much of a parable's "punch" is tied to the medium of a story. By changing the medium from story to sermon, we diminish the power of the passage. So, instead of preaching a sermon, I thought I would tell a story.

For this sermon I wrote an original 5,000 word short story and I read it. There is a short introduction and a short conclusion, followed by the reading of Matthew 20:1–16, upon which the story is based.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Despair, Inc on Social Media and Government Bailouts

I love Despair, Inc. You could probably put blogging somewhere in that venn diagram. Here's some other good ones:

Monday, June 8, 2009

Was Mars Hill an Epic FAIL?

Whenever the subject of Christ and culture comes up, people inevitably point to Paul's preaching on Mars Hill as the argument that Christians should engage high culture.

Acts 17 recounts Paul's ministry in Athens and his sermonizing on Mars Hill. Paul's approach was to start with the religion of the Greeks and show that the God they were looking for was Jesus. He says to them in v. 22, "Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects." In v. 28, he quotes some of their poets. His sermon is logical, intelligent, and contextualized.

At first glance, Acts 17 seems like strong evidence that the church should be engaged in confronting high culture of its day. After all, that's what Paul did on Mars Hill. But is that what Acts 17 is really saying?

The Book of Acts says a lot of stuff about what happened in the first century church. Some of it is descriptive (i.e. "this is what happened") and some of it is prescriptive (i.e. "this is what happened and should happen"). In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas get into a heated disagreement so that they part ways. Is this a model of what should happen to ministry teams, or just what did happen to one ministry team?

In the same way, is Acts 17 what should be our approach to culture, or what was one approach to culture? Does Luke give us any clues?

It's interesting to note that Luke never praises Paul's approach as a model for ministry. In fact, he even subtly mocks the Athenians for wasting their time philosophizing (17:21). Paul's sermons don't lead to thousands converting to Christ. In fact, the crowd mocks him when he's done (17:32). Only a few believe (17:34). We never see the city of Athens featuring prominently in church history, nor do we have a letter from Paul written to the church there. If Paul on Mars Hill is a model for ministry, it’s a mediocre model at best.

But note what happens after Athens. Paul’s next project was Corinth. Paul says about his ministry in Corinth:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will thwart the cleverness of the intelligent." Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25)

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
Is Paul contrasting here his ministry in Corinth with that in Athens? Did Paul learn a lesson in Athens? Can we possibly view Acts 17 as a failure in ministry, maybe even an epic one that caused Paul to rethink his philosophy of ministry?

I am not advocating anti-intellectualism. Far from it. But I am not sure we are ever going to win over the popular culture with our message. It is, after all, foolishness. Maybe instead we can focus on being so much like Jesus, so "foolish," that our message becomes irresistible.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wolfhart Pannenberg on "The Gospel"

I finished the second volume of Wolfhart Pannenberg's massive Systematic Theology today. Volume 1 is 473 pages long and volume 2 is 499 pages long. I just found out today that volume 3 is 713 pages long. Ugh.

Pannenberg's work is the most difficult I have ever read, but I find it extremely rewarding. He is brilliant.

In volume 2, Pannenberg deals with the creation of the world, the dignity and misery of humanity, anthropology and christology, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the reconciliation of the world. It's all good, but he saves the best section for last. The last section in chapter 5 ("The Reconciliation of the World") is called simply, "The Gospel."

As it turns out, Pannenberg's discussion of the meaning of "the Gospel" overlaps with the back-and-forth that N.T. Wright and John Piper are having. Pannenberg writes:

In Luther's Galatians lectures in 1516–17 the comment on 1:11 is to the effect that the gospel preaches the forgiveness of sins and the fulfilling of the law that has already been accomplished, namely, by Christ. The law says: Pay what you owe, but the gospel says: Your sins are forgiven you. For this definition the content of the gospel Luther had appealed a year earlier, in his Romans lectures, to the quoting of Isa. 52:7 by Paul in Rom. 10:15. The message of salvation is lovable and desirable precisely because of the forgiveness of sins to those made anxious by the law.

But neither Paul nor Isa. 52:7 says anything of the sort. In Rom. 10:17 Paul speaks of the need to proclaim the message of salvation in order to make possible faith in the Lord, who is the content of the message. The reason why this message is a message of salvation is not directly stated but is presupposed: Those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (10:13). The whole complex of Paul's concept of eschatological soteria is bound up with this thought. But in Isa. 52:7 the reason for joy is the dawning of the reign of God. To relate this message to the promise of forgiveness of sins is at best a very spiritualized exposition. We have here an orienting of the gospel to the promise of absolution in penance as it was practiced in the Western church in the Middle Ages.

What is forgotten is that the gospel has to do with the dawning of the reign of God that brings salvation. The forgiveness of sins abolishes the separation between us and God. Basic here is the presence of the rule of God in the work of Jesus. Where the salvation of God's lordship is present, all separation from God is overcome. For believers, then, participating in God's reign means the forgiveness of sins and the new commandment of love. But to restrict the salvation of God's kingdom that found expression in common meals with Jesus to the forgiveness of sins is not keeping with the message of Jesus and makes sense only against the background of the penitential piety of the Middle Ages. Even the event of reconciliation that is the content of the gospel for Paul does not consist only in the promise of forgiveness. It is a matter of life and death.

I love how he puts this. The Gospel is about the coming reign of God and the reconciliation of humanity to God. Sure, sin is what separates humanity from God, so the forgiveness of sins is an essential part of reconciliation. But forgiveness of sins and the Gospel are not identical. Basic to the Gospel is the reign of God (or, we might say the "kingdom of God") as present in the work of Jesus.

Another strength of viewing the Gospel as the coming reign of God is that it makes room for the work of the Holy Spirit and the existence of the church. If the Gospel is just the forgiveness of sins, why do we need the Holy Spirit? He becomes little more than an afterthought. If the Gospel is just the forgiveness of sins, why do we need the church? It also becomes an afterthought. But both the church and the Holy Spirit are essential in Pannenberg's paradigm. If the Gospel is the coming reign of God, then where is that reign manifested? In the church. If the Gospel is the coming reign of God, then how is it coming about? Through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Pannenberg is hardly an evangelical, but his thoughts are substantial and his arguments weighty. Where I agree wtih him I am encouraged, and where I disagree with him I find myself challenged in new ways. He's given me a lot to chew on.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Oh My God" by Jars of Clay

I'm a little late in hearing this song for the first time. It's been out a few years.


It's about all the contexts in which the phrase "Oh My God" can be used--everything from a curse to a cry of need for the divine.

Pannenberg on Substitutionary Atonement and Teaching Doctrine

It's kind of the en vogue thing amidst evangelicals to bash and/or question substitutionary atonement. Some find it "unhelpful" or "not intellectually or spiritually stimulating." Some have suggested moving on in the language we use to describe the effects of the cross.

In contrast, I read a refreshing thought in Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology today. About substitutionary atonement he says:

The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their content with sufficient force or clarity.

I like these words. But it surfaces the tension I face as a preacher: Who is my target audience on Sunday morning? Do we discuss the intricacies of doctrines like substitutionary atonement and talk over non-Christians who have gathered with us to hear from God? Or do we keep everything at street level? The former option excludes outsiders but grows insiders. The latter option includes outsiders, but leaves insiders wanting more.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dr. George Tiller (August 8, 1941–May 31, 2009)

I obviously disagree strongly with Dr. Tiller's line of work. What he did was apalling. But violence is not the answer. As a supporter of the pro-life movement I want to condemn the actions of those reponsible for Dr. Tiller's death in the strongest way possible. And what's worse, he was shot in church.

Our country has a great legal system. It's laws can be molded and shaped by voting citizens. There are peaceful and responsible ways to work for social justice. Let's not allow our beliefs to be associated with hate and violence.