Blog Archives

T.S. Eliot on the decay and restoration of the Church

And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying,
…..and always being restored.
For every ill deed in the past we suffer the consequence:
For sloth, for avarice, gluttony, neglect of the Word of God,
For pride, for lechery, treachery, for every act of sin.
And of all that was done that was good, you have the inheritance.
For good and ill deeds belong to a man alone, when he stands
…..alone on the other side of death,
But here upon earth you have the reward of the good and ill that
…..was done by those who have gone before you.
And all that is ill you may repair if you walk together in humble
…..repentance, expiating the sins of your fathers;
And all that was good you must fight to keep with hearts as
…..devoted as those of your fathers who fought to gain it.
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying
…..within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while
…..there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity
…..they will decry it.

~T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock'” (1934)

Flotsam and jetsam (9/14)

Flotsam and jetsam (6/9)

  • C. Michael Patton asks “How Theologically Diverse Should Your Church Be?” Specifically, he’s asking his readers to consider not just what should be included in a church doctrinal statement, though that’s related, but more specifically, how much theological diversity we should intentionally strive for in our churches.
  • Inhabitatio Dei features a multi-authored post on the Kingdom-World-Church relationship. The general argument is that we need abandon ecclesiocentric models that prioritize the church over the world, but should instead see the church as an aspect of God’s eschatological purposes for the world. There’s been quite a bit of discussion on this one that is also worth reading.
  • Colin Hansen explains his concerns about comedy in the pulpit. If nothing else, this one is good for pointing out that someone actually gave a seminar for preachers on “Ten Commandments of stand-up comedy.”
  • Allen Yeh offers a nice epilogue on the Edinburgh 2010 conference. Most helpful were his comments on some of the “glaring gaps” in the conference and a couple of “prophetic” moments.
  • And, I’m sure that Galileo will be very happy to hear that his fingers are now on display in Florence.

Review: The Gospel-Driven Life

Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).

Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)

Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.

I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.

The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)

This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.

But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.

If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)

So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).

And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.

However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.

Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.

And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.

But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.

Relics and religious experience

Relics are easy to criticize. As Antonio Lambatti points in in a  recent post, some people do really goofy things in the name of venerating relics. (Anyone want a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like Jesus?) Such abuses, and their corresponding critiques, have been around for a very long time. The question is…why. Setting aside the question of whether there are true relics, why is the need/desire for relics so powerful that many people will participate in practices that seem (to many at least) rather absurd.

Lambatti offers the assessment that relics manifest a tendency to objectify the divine. People venerate relics out of a “need to see, to turn their idea of the divine into an object which is here with us on Earth.” And, I’m sure there is some truth to that. And, I wonder if the desire to objectify God doesn’t manifest an even deeper desire to control God’s presence so that he can be more reliably experienced. Rather than a spirit who blows where and when he wills, we have God’s presence infused into a physical object where he can be reliably encountered. I saw this dynamic at work when I was traveling in Israel. Many of the students I was traveling with were frustrated that they did not “experience” God the way that they expected when they visited certain holy sites. It’s as though they believed that these sites had been permanently infused with the divine presence such that they could expect to meet him there. They wanted a more predictable God. Now, certainly God can choose to offer a special manifestation of his presence in particular places (e.g. the temple) or things (e.g. the ark). But, that does not mean that either of these becomes a permanent locus of divine presence (note God’s presence leaving the temple) unless God covenants that it be so (e.g. communion). If I’m right, there may be a sense in which the use (and abuse) of relics has more to do with our desire to possess, and therefore control, God’s presence.

Reflecting on this a bit more, I wonder if the abuse of relics also suggests a failure to appreciate our own bodies, and consequently, the embodied nature of the church itself. People find in relics a tangible, physical expression of the divine, failing to realize that the primary locus of God’s presence in the world has always been in and through his embodied people – his “images” in the world (Adam and Eve, Israel, the Church, the eschatological people of God). That means that if we are looking for a tangible, physical point of connection for worship, we should look first to ourselves and to each other as embodied beings. Indeed, I wonder if the emphasis on relics isn’t a way of distancing ourselves from our own role as God’s images in the world. Rather than facing directly the awesome honor and responsibility that it is to be God’s physical image (i.e. idol) in the world, we can project at least some of that burden onto some other object and make that the tangible point of connection with the divine.

None of this is to say that we should denigrate the role of the physical in worship. I completely affirm that we are physical beings and that we can, indeed must, express ourselves physically in worship. And I greatly appreciate the renewed emphasis on physical worship that you find in some branches of evangelicalism. Done well, that could be a great way to deepen evangelical worship. But, if popular abuses of relics do indicate a strong tendency that humans in gneral have toward trying to control the divine presence and/or distancing ourselves from our own role in imaging God, then we would be wise to be mindful of these concerns as we deveop our own forms of physical worship.

Sociology and the church – there’s always more to the story

In keeping with our recent discussion of Imaginary Jesus and its look into the world of American evangelicalism, I thought it would be fitting to note Andy Holt’s review of In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church. In this book, the author, Gina Welch, pretends to become a Christian so that she can explore and experience what it’s like to be an evangelical Christian in Virginia. In the process she comes to appreciate the sincerity and strength of conviction evidenced by these believers, while remaining spiritually uncommitted.

Andy summarizes what he likes about the book as follows:

The most rewarding development of her journey was her newfound understanding of evangelism. She had always thought of evangelism as an exercise of religious imperialism designed to subdue every soul in the world and force them to believe precisely the way the evangelist believes. For her, and for many liberals, it is solely about power. But she came to understand that evangelism is rooted in empathy. Because evangelicals sincerely believe people are lost and doomed to hell without Jesus, evangelism is an exercise of love and hopeful rescue from the worst fate that could befall a person. After watching her friend Alice led a couple to the Lord in Alaska, Gina writes, “Giddy tears were filling my eyes. …I was wired with delight, and I wasn’t even a believer. But one didn’t have to believe to see that this was indeed the birthing room, and if it wasn’t the birthing room of God in that moment, it seemed to be the birthing room of fresh possibility.” (244)

The review concludes by asking the obvious questions about the ethics involved in deceiving people like this just so you can get an apparently unaffected view of their spiritual lives. I also found myself wondering about the issue of accuracy and bias in a work like this. In some ways, I sure that the author managed to present a more “accurate” picture than a committed evangelical would have. Being an “outsider” like this would have allowed Welch to see things from a fresh perspective, uncolored by her earlier experiences with similar people/churches.

But, I also believe that many aspects of the church simply cannot be objectively observed like this. Insofar as we see the church as living a graced existence grounded in its union with Christ through the power of the Spirit, there will always be more about the church than can be captured through sociological analyses like this.

So, in many ways, books like this help demonstrate the complicated nature of the church. As a creaturely entity, the church can and should be observed and assessed through sociological analysis. But, as a divine reality, there must always be more to the story. Sociology cannot have the last, or even the first, word on the subject.

Taking the offering or offering worship?

In a class this morning, we were discussing the challenge of giving in the evangelical church. You are probably aware that the average giving of an evangelical in America is around 2.5%. You may not be aware that there are significant generational differences within that number. Older evangelicals give a decidedly higher percentage of their income than do younger ones. So, we got into an interesting discussion of why this was and what we can and should do about it.

Now at least some of this may have to do with the soccial demographics of affluence in this country. It’s entirely possible that older Christians are simply better off financially than younger ones. I don’t know that this is the case, but it’s possible. And, I’m sure that this is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors. But I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I think are at work here.

First, the younger generations, as we all know, are significantly less driven by duty and institution. Indeed, institutional loyalty is, for many, virtually non-existent. Unlike previous generations, the younger generations won’t give just because they’re supposed to. But, that doesn’t mean that they won’t give. Actually, when these younger Christians find something that they resonate with, they can be exceedingly generous. So, the question is, how do we help them resonate with the church?

That leads me to my second point. The younger generations want to give to mission, not institution. They want to know that their offerings (nad their lives) are making a difference. If we want them to step up to the plate financially, we need to convince them that the church (your church) really has a mission worth investing in. If we find that these younger Christians are not resonating with the church, and consequently are not giving, it may be because we have not succeeded in convincing them that our churches really are missional.

Finally, in many of the evangelical churches I’ve attended, we’re doing a terrible job celebrating giving as worship. Instead of seeing giving as inherently connected to a lifestyle of praise, it feels more like and intermission or addendum to the real task of worship. I find it interesting that many churches sound almost apologetic when it comes time to take the offering. We make it very clear that we don’t want this to be a burden, we don’t want visitors to feel obligated, etc. What we often don’t make clear is that this is an expression of worship. This should be a time of joyous celebration, glorifying in the bountiful goodness of God’s grace. Even for those who lack financial resources, it can be a time of gratitude for the gifts we have received and a renewed awareness of how much we do have to offer back in gratitude. Instead, the “offering” sometimes feel s more like paying a bill than worshiping the King. We need to teach this generation to worship.

I’m sure there’s more. But those were the issues that immediately jumped to my mind.