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Life and Death: Twin Moons Circling the Same Planet.

[I wrote this as a guest post for Matt Mikalatos’ blog The Burning Hearts Revolution. Matt is running a series of guest posts to celebrate the release of his new book Night of the Living Dead Christian, a fabulous book that I’ll be reviewing soon. If you’d like to comment on the content of this post, please head over to Matt’s blog and join the conversation there. As usual, though, I’m open to comments about the writing and presentation in this piece. So, if you have thoughts along those lines, go ahead and leave them in the comments here. Thanks.]

Hungry.

It’s been too long. I feel weak. Dizzy. Can’t think.

There. Down there. A woman. She’ll do. She has to.

Drop behind her. Cloak flapping in the wind. Didn’t make too much noise. Perfect.

Grab her shoulder. Push her head to the side. Savor the smell.

It’s time. Bite. Pierce the tender skin. Let the hot blood flow. Taste life. Feel it.

My strength returns. My mind clears. For the first time in days, my cold flesh feels warm again. I’m still dead. Nothing can change that. But, now I get to be dead for another day. She took care of that with her unwilling gift.

Blood is life.

Everything was so good just a few seconds ago. The concert was amazing and I haven’t had a girls’ night out in so long. A quiet walk home under the full moon seemed like the perfect ending to a lovely, summer evening.

Now something has changed. I can’t pin it down, but it’s not right. I’ve got that tingling feeling on the back of my neck that you get when you think someone is staring at you. But, there’s no one here. I’m probably being irrational. Maybe I shouldn’t have walked home alone.

What’s that? It sounds like a flag flapping in a stiff breeze. That’s odd. There’s no wind.

Someone’s grabbed me! I have to struggle, fight, scream, get away, anything. But, I can’t. Something’s wrong. I’m getting weak, dizzy. I can’t think clearly. Everything’s fading. Where am I? What’s going on? What’s happening to me?

I’m on the ground. How did I get here? A few bright red drops hit the ground in front of my eyes. Blood? My blood? I must….

Blood is death.

——————————–

One substance, two very different results. Life and death. Twin moons circling the same planet.

That’s how the Bible views blood. On the one hand, blood is what keeps us alive and allows us to be what God intended. In Eden, God created blood, and it was good. But, sin and evil entered the world and shattered God’s good creation. And, blood came to mean something else. Still the source of life, it also became the symbol of death.

You can see this most clearly in the biblical sacrifices. If you stop and think about it for a moment, sacrifices are weird. Imagine that you’re an Israelite and you’ve just sinned. What should you do? Why, go lop the head off some poor, innocent lamb, of course. That’s a great system. At least it is for the human; I’m sure the lamb sees things differently.

The point of the sacrifice, though, wasn’t to take out Israel’s problems on some innocent animal. That would be weird. No, the sacrifices demonstrated the devastating connection between sin and death. With clocklike regularity, the Israelites brought their animals to the priests and shed blood as a reminder of the fact that they lived east of Eden, in the brokenness of sin, in bondage to death. As Paul says later, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:23). And, every time the Israelites brought forward their sin sacrifices, they reminded themselves of this truth.

At the same time, though, the blood brought a promise of life. Israel always knew that somehow it was only by shedding blood that forgiveness and life would be restored to God’s people. God promised he would forgive and cleanse his people when they brought their sacrifices to him.

But why? What is the connection between blood and death on the one hand and the promise of forgiveness and life on the other? The Old Testament never says. The Israelites just take it on faith that God will be faithful and will do what he promises.

Then Jesus came.

And, we killed him, shedding his blood on the cross.

And the truth became clear.

We still see the dark side of blood. The betrayals, beatings, mockery, loneliness, pain, blood, and death. Could there be a clearer picture? The Messiah came, and we killed him.

But the blood of Christ means so much more. Jesus died so he could break the power of death. His death was not the pointless sacrifice of a tragic Shakespearean hero. It had purpose. Jesus died so that we might be reborn as those who have the gift of life.

Blood is death. Blood is life. On the cross, both are true.

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Come and drink. An invitation to vampires everywhere.

[This post is part of our series on the Gospel. Please feel free to check out the posts and let me know what you think.]

6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages

Yesterday’s post on 9 things worship leaders need to stop doing raised a number of concerns about modern worship practices. But, as I was reflecting on those issues a bit more, I realized how similar some of them are to difficulties that the church has faced before. And, if God’s people have dealt with these challenges before, wouldn’t it make sense to take a look back and see what we can learn?

So, I thought it would be interesting to start a short series on what we can learn as we wrestle with some of the same challenges in a new historical context. Specifically, I want to look at challenges that developed in the church’s worship practices during the early middle ages, particularly as they relate to the Eucharist (communion), and how that can help us understand the difficulties we encounter today.

For those of you who aren’t into church history, I realize this might sound a little abstract. What could we possible learn from the “Dark Ages.” Well, first, “Dark Ages” is a horrible label for this time period. Far from being a time of unrelieved darkness, the early middle ages are a fascinating time of exploration and discovery in the face of tremendous challenges. But, more importantly, regardless of what we call this time period, it’s still a time in which God’s people sought to carry out God’s purposes in God’s world. Unless we want to believe that God abandoned his people during this time (he didn’t), then we should still be able to learn plenty. So, stick with me.

Here’s what I have in mind. As we look at the eucharistic practices of the early medieval church, we’ll find them wrestling with 6 key issues that I think have parallels to today’s worship struggles. I’ll tackle these one at a time over the next week or so and see what we come up with.

  1. The Difficulty of Language
  2. The Problem of Attendance
  3. The Role of the Visual
  4. The Complexity of Worship
  5. The Design of the Churches
  6. The Understanding of the Act

Flotsam and jetsam (1/17)

But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, as I read the situation, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Facebook. These aren’t the symptoms of a company that is winning, but one that is cashing out.

Our self-conception is in fact based on a three-fold myth of American religious freedom that distorts the current debate about religion in public life.

I noted above that in Judges and Exodus the command is expressed in terms of avoiding treaties and driving the Canaanites out. In Joshua and Deuteronomy the command is expressed in the language of “utterly destroying them”. The conclusion we have reached is that the latter is figurative language and the former is literal. If this is the case then the command was to drive them out and it was not to literally exterminate them.

Stories are powerful. And they are nowhere put to such compelling use as they are in religious ceremonies of remembrance.

  • And, Flavorwire shows off the libraries of the rich and famous. (Somebody needs to tell them that if your books are arranged by color, no one is going to believe that you actually read them.) And, if that doesn’t give you enough of a fix for your bibliophile tendencies, here’s a site devoted to Bookshelf Porn (i.e. photos of amazing personal libraries.

Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/28)

Flotsam and jetsam (5/27)

  • Joe Carter has an interesting post on “Why Evangelicals Love the Jews,” arguing that, at the popular level at least, it has less to do with eschatology than with evangelicalism’s biblicism and general ignorance of history.
  • Peter Leithart offers a good summary of Kereszty’s argument that the late middle ages saw a general degeneration of the Eucharist, which the Reformation did much to restore.
  • The New York Times has a good piece on the meetings that are taking place between the two most significant leaders in the Orthodox Churches, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. There is hope that these meetings will alleviate some of the tensions that have developed between these two branches of the orthodox church in modern times.
  • Over at the Internet Monk, they’ve begun a “new” series rehashing some of their overall criticisms of evangelicalism. If you’re looking for a refresher course in what people mean when they say they’re fed up with contemporary evangelicalism, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
  • The Christian Science Monitor has a good article covering the ongoing violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. I haven’t heard much about this recently, and I thought it would be good to highlight so we don’t forget what’s happening over there.
  • In a news flash, apparently head banging is bad for your health.
  • And, sadly, the Onion reports that the Dread Secretary of Evil Hammond S. Reynolds, head of the U.S. Department of Evil, has issued a statement demanding that all residents of the U.S. must die…as soon as they get the necessary budgetary approvals.

Flotsam and jetsam (5/26)