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Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese? (Light from the Dark Ages, part 1)

Church is boring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.

And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.

And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.

Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.

What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?

That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?

In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.

When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.

But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.

  1. Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
  2. The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
  3. You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?

So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.

And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?

  1. Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
  2. Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.

As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.

[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]

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Flotsam and jetsam (1/6)

I actually had work to do today, so I’m a little slow in getting this out. Nonetheless, here are some interesting links for your web browsing pleasure.

For believers…the most decisive turning point was the year 33, when a Jewish rabbi—the Messiah—was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine….This turning-point is not only celebrated but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord’s Day.  Wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven—the age to come—begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age.

While shame and remorse can be an appropriate motivating factor to correct ways of thinking and living, in the wrong hands it is often misused. Stigma unaccompanied by truth is merely an apparatus of a culture not oriented toward Christ, no matter how much they may resemble the Church.

All this being said, no, you do not have to read Lewis to be a thinking Christian. No, Lewis does not answer every question. No, Lewis is not the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. But I personally have found Lewis to be a worthy dialogue partner and someone who anyone can access, great or small, theologian or lay person. You don’t have to read Lewis, but you won’t go wrong in doing so either.

Give us some examples of university theology that has no ecclesial value or some ecclesial theology that reveals how this can be done better by pastors. I’m ready to be convinced but I want to see what is actually involved here.

NT Wright at ETS (part 2)

N.T. Wright presented the third plenary paper at the Evangelical Theological Society titled, “Justification Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” And, he started things off by commenting on the title of the paper. He noted that some might assume this was a reference to the fact that the debate seems to be going on and on. But, the real purpose of the title was to say two things about justification. First, as an allusion to Hebrews 13:8, it points to the fact that justification is rooted in Jesus Christ, who is himself the same yesterday, today, and forever. Everything that we can say about God’s people, we say in virtue of who we are in relationship to him. And, second, the title refers to the “triple tense” of justification: we have been justified, we are currently being assured of our justification, and we will be justified in the eschaton. Wright argued that although we often speak of the three tenses of salvation, we rarely apply that same thinking to justification where it is equally important.

Wright moved from there into what he called his “preliminary remarks.” But, for preliminary remarks, they were pretty substantive.

  1. We badly need a new ethic of blogging. Wright expressed dismay over the state of Christian blogging and the lack of charity commonly exhibited in the blogosphere. (I think we can all attest to that unfortunate truth.) And, he called on people to blog on what he actually says and not on what they’ve decided in advance that he must actually think. Seems fair.
  2. Wright thinks some of his Protestant critics sound rather Catholic in their appeal to tradition. He expressed surprise that some people from Southern Seminary and Tyndale College have accused him of “biblicism” for his rejection of various traditional theological formulations. (Indeed, he commented that he’s not even sure what the term could possibly mean coming as a criticism from such quarters.) And, he pointed out that many of his critics sound like the Catholic theologians of Luther’s day—criticizing him for rejecting long-held teachings of the Church and questioning his appeal to the Bible as having authority over all traditions.
  3. Wright argued that the doctrine of Scripture is grounded in the unrepeatable nature of the revelatory events. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are not simply illustrations of universal truths, but are unrepeatable historical events. Thus, the text has to be understood in that unrepeatable context. We can’t simply take our own questions and situations as normative, forcing the text to speak to them on our terms. Unless we are willing to understand the historical, cultural, and linguistic context of these writings, we will inevitably “demythologize” them.
  4. Finally, he responded to accusations that he focuses too much on minute word studies or on big-picture narratives. He commented that it’s rather ironic, then, that he’s critiqued both for focusing too much on details and too much on the big picture. But, he argued that both are clearly needed. We can’t neglect the details of the text if we are to take the text seriously. And, we all bring a big-picture narrative to the text. It’s not a question of whether you do so, but whether your narrative matches the one given in the text itself.  (As a side note, he made it very clear in this section that he sees his position as related to but decidedly different from that of E.P. Sanders and is obviously tired of being lumped in one pot with him.)

With these “preliminaries” out of the way, Wright launched into the issue of justification.

  1. The relationship of justification and soteriology. I’m going to try and say this more clearly than I think Wright did. In a number of places, Wright suggests that justification is not about soteriology. That is actually an overstatement of his own position. As he made clear in the course of his presentation and subsequent discussion, justification does occur within a broader soteriological framework. So, justification does have to do with salvation. But, Wright’s concern is to emphasize that justification has nothing to do with entering into salvation. And, he wants to make clear that, according to him, when Paul is talking about justification, salvific issues are background rather than foreground issues.
  2. The nature of justification. With this in mind, Wright goes on to state clearly his own position that justification is about declaring who is and who isn’t a member of God’s covenant people.  Wright spent considerable time on the law court background of justification language, arguing again that this metaphor is central to Paul’s theology of justification and refers to a forensic declaration that a person has a given status (i.e. member of the covenant community). And, he points specifically to Philippians 3 as a clear example where Paul rejects works of the Law as markers of covenantal identity, affirming instead the sufficiency of faith and grace for determining who is one of God’s people.
  3. The Reformed background of NPP. Wright reiterated the claim that his view of justification and the Law stands in direct continuity with that of Calvin. I forget where he first made this claim, but he again stated that if Calvin’s view of the had become dominant in Protestantism rather than the Lutheran view, a new perspective on Paul would not have been necessary.
  4. The importance of not “demythologizing” the text. Wright referred to this idea several times. By this he means that the traditional Protestant reading of certain texts tends to downplay the historical particulars of the situation, focusing instead on their transcendent, universally applicable, and often abstract truths. Wright certainly favors considering how these texts apply to us. But he wants to make sure that we’ve taken the historical realities of the text seriously first. So, he rejects any attempt to turn Abraham in Romans 4 or Galatians 3  into a mere example of faith. Instead, he contends that we need to see Abraham himself as central to Paul’s argument. Similarly, he thinks that we too quickly move past the sociological implications of Galatians 2 to what we think are the universal soteriological principles. Such moves are what Wright calls “demythologization” – ignoring the historical particularities in favor of abstract universalizations.
  5. The main point of justification. Wright concluded this section with a brief comment on the idea that justification language is always bound up with Israel and Messiah. There simply is no way to understand what Paul means by justification without this context.

Wright’s second main section dealt with the language of justification. Or, more specifically, with the question of what “reckoned as righteous” meant for Paul.

  1. The covenantal background of the reckoning. Probably the most interesting move in this section was Wright’s argument that “reckoned as righteous” refers to the gift of covenant community. Wright argued that both Psalm 106:31 and Genesis 15:6 connect the reckoning to reward of covenant community. Thus, Paul’s reference to Abraham being reckoned righteous apart from works does not refer to an imputation of Christ’s righteousness (more on this later), but to the fact that Abraham was blessed with covenant community because of his faith-response to God’s covenantal faithfulness (i.e. God’s “righteousness”).
  2. The definition of “righteousness”. Wright also made clear that he understands “righteousnesss” to refer to “covenantalness.” That is, whenever righteousness is used, it refers to the covenantal relations in some way. When used of God, it refers to his covenantal faithfulness; when used of humans it refers to status within the covenant.
  3. The law court analogy. Wright returned to the law court analogy here to explain that the ancient law courts always involve one person against another person (as opposed to modern law courts which are often state vs. person) in front of a judge who makes the final declaration. So, when God declares a person “righteous,” he is simply declaring a verdict in their favor. There is no “transfer” of righteousness (i.e. imputation) as though righteousness were a thing that could be passed from one person to another. So, the idea is that all humans are in the dock before God, but God has made covenantal promises to his people. So, the question is, how is God to work this out without abandoning his covenantal promises or declaring an unjust verdict? And, of course, the answer is given in the Messiah as the one who fulfills the purpose of humanity and renews the covenant people.

Wright then moved to an exegesis of particular passages. Unfortunately, by this point in the paper, he was running pretty short on time. So, he could only offer a few cursory comments.

  1. The exegetical basis of the argument. Wright started by arguing strongly that the debate should be driven by exegesis rather than tradition. And, he suggested that his critics need to spend more time on exegetical arguments, explaining how they read key passages and why his own readings are inadequate.
  2. 2. Romans 4:4-8. Wright started to get into this passage, but ended up cutting himself off short. Basically he argued that the “reward” needs to be understood in the context of Genesis 15:1, where the reward is covenant family. And, the “ungodly” (as in Galatians 3) are the people who have not yet been included in the covenantal family. So, Romans 4 is essentially the same as Genesis 15—God promises that he will create a covenantal family that will encompass all the nations of the earth through grace and faith.

Finally, Wright moved to a section on theological synthesis.

  1. Final justification. In one of the more helpful parts of the paper, Wright made it clear that he does not think final justification comes “on the basis of” works, but “in accordance with” works. This is the first time that I’ve heard Wright clearly articulate that final justification is not grounded in works. He does think that the final declaration of “justified” will be given with reference to works (cf. Rom. 2; 2 Cor 5; Rom. 14), but clearly states that Christ alone is the ground of final justification and that we will not earn or merit it.
  2. Assurance of justification. Wright was also very clear that his position should not cause anxiety about current justification. Justification is grounded in the work of Christ and applied through the work of the Spirit. So, I trust in both Jesus and the Spirit for the assurance of my own justification. As Wright states, you only get to Romans 8:39 by working through 8:1-30. God’s people have assurance now through the Spirit. Thus, future justification does not endanger present justification by faith in any way. According to Wright, “The verdict of the present is firm and secure….The pardon is free and firm and trustworthy. You can bet your life on it….Following that final verdict we will be more happy but not more secure.”
  3. Incorporation in Christ. I wish he had discussed this more, but he concluded this section by saying that he was fully in agreement with Kevin Vanhoozer that incorporation into Christ and adoption into God’s family are critical motifs with the potential for drawing together the various proposals. (The paper that he’s referring to is the one that Vanhoozer presented at the Wheaton conference. You can listen to it here.)

Wright concluded the paper with a powerful proclamation of the Gospel. He is obviously frustrated that people think that his approach undermines the Gospel. To the contrary, he contends that his approach fully affirms the Gospel of Jesus and the necessity of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption for salvation.

This post is already way too long as it is. So, I’ll wait until after I’ve summarized the responses before offering some evaluative comments of my own.

When Lazarus died, Jesus wept – grief, mourning, and “getting on with life”

We don’t know how to grieve. That’s the thought that has been floating around in my head for a few days now. We know how to cry, we know how to be sad, and we know how to “get on with life.” But we don’t know how to grieve, how to mourn, how to process the pain of deep loss. And, oddly enough, as I was processing these thoughts, I found an interesting connection between an ancient religious tradition and a modern chick flick.

These thoughts started rattling around a few days ago when I read an iMonk piece on the importance of mourning and grieving in community. That piece included a quote from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline explaining her concern that we lack the traditions and rituals necessary to grieve effectively:

What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

The piece goes on to explain the advantages that a religious tradition like Judaism has in the way that it approaches grieving. Unlike most of our churches today, Judaism has explicit rituals and traditions for grieving, making it clear that grieving is a discipline that involves both the mourner and the community in a process that will take months, and even years, to complete. Thus, unlike our approach, which tends to emphasize the quick-fix and and an individualistic, therapeutic model of grieving, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that grieving is a long-term, communal, and deeply religious affair.

While I was still processing these ideas, my wife and I watched P.S. I Love You. I have to admit that I went into the movie expecting a fairly standard chick flick. And, you can definitely watch the movie from this perspective. It’s a story of a girl who meets the boy of her dreams, loses him, and learns, haltingly, to love again. Very touching.

My wife hated it.

That by itself is odd. My wife loves chick flicks. She’s seen While You Were Sleeping and Notting Hill more times than I can count. What was different here? Passionate love. Touchingly humorous side stories. Quirky supporting characters. Strong female lead (Hilary Swank is terrific). She should have loved this movie.

But, it wasn’t primarily a movie about love; it was really a movie about loss. Even more, it was a movie about the fact that we don’t know how to grieve.

Early in the movie, the main character loses her husband—the love of her life, her soul mate—to a brain stumor. And, of course, she immediately begins to grieve. The problem is that she really doesn’t know how. She locks herself in her apartment, cries a lot, watches old movies, and imagines that her husband is still around. She’s alone, desperately trying to process her uncontainable grief. As I watched, I mourned her inability to mourn—her loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

And the people around her have no idea how to help. Her mom just advises her to “Get back on your feet.” Her friends really want to be there for her, but the best they can come up with is to encourage her get back to work, go out for a night of fun, and, after a suitable period of sadness, hook up with some random Irish guy. Everyone in the story lacks a sense of how to grieve.

Everyone, but one.

Fortunately, one person in the story understands that grieving is more than just feeling bad for a while and moving on. Rather than showing her ways of escaping her grief, this one person helps her enter into her grief more deeply, gently coaxing her through rituals designed to help her remember, celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry, rejoicing in the memory of the relationship even as she experiences the pain of its loss.

As I watched the movie, I came to a better appreciation for the argument that we lack rituals, traditions for mourning. We don’t have any intentional, communal activities meant to lead us through the process of grieving. Instead, we are expected to privatize our grief, be sad for a while, and either “get on with life” or seek professional, therapeutic assistance. It’s as though we’ve determined that Paul’s declaration that death has “no sting” means that we should not grieve. But, the fact that Christ has conquered death does not mean that loss has no pain. It only means that it is a pain that we can understand in the context of a greater hope. But it is still pain—deep, abiding, and often bitter, pain. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept.

I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t offer any answers for what this might look like. But, I’m coming to recognize the inadequacy of the typical evangelical approach to mourning. Mourning does not come naturally; it should not come naturally. To grieve properly, we need help. And, I’m open to suggestions for what a deeper, more intentional, more tradition-al approach to mourning might look like.

 

Flotsam and jetsam (8/30)

  • Glenn Beck’s rally has garnered lots of attention (see especially here). Probably my favorite so far is from a Slate.com article describing it as “the overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pity.”
  • iMonk has started on the three stream in the new evangelical coalition: the New Calvinism.
  • Paul Helm discusses the criticism that a pre-temporal covenant of redemption between the three persons of the Trinity opens to door to an implicit tritheism. Instead, he contends that the ideas of perichoresis and coinherence protect from tritheism, even while maintaining sufficient distinction between the persons to allow room for covenantal relations.
  • Carl Trueman reflects on the value of ministering in smaller churches.
  • William Black discusses the Scripture/authority article in most evangelical statements of faith and how they relate to the Orthodox understanding of Scripture and Tradition.
  • And, if you’re feeling the need to reorient your Monday, try this. Go to Google, type in “elgooG,” and hit “I’m Feeling Lucky.” That should get things turned around.
the overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pitthe overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pityy

Flotsam and jetsam (8/24)

I’m off to a faculty retreat this morning, so just some quick links today.