Friday, April 18, 2014

Five Errors to Drop from Your Easter Sermon

Over at Christianity Today, Justin Taylor and Andreas Kostenberger have teamed up to point out five common misconceptions shared in Easter sermons. None of them are really a big deal, or doctrinally significant, and one of them (point five) isn't really an error, but a point of perspective (and one that i don't think is made  very well). But it is a good way to quickly flesh out your understanding of Holy Week. Read the whole thing here.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What's Wrong With Producing A Worship Experience?

If you haven't seen it yet, Jared Wilson quotes some excerpts from Skye Jethani's Divine Commodity. The upshot? An experience economist rejects experiential economics as a valid basis for church marketing. Interesting read, here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Coffee as a Means of Grace

How not to write a theological paper:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Coming to Terms

Part of studying theology, studying preaching, and studying to actually minister to people has to do with learning how to handle the written word. Sometimes you will hear this called hermeneutics, sometimes exegesis, sometimes Biblical studies, and sometimes textual studies. These are different, but related, disciplines. However, one thing that struck me when studying at (more than one) seminary, was how little attention was paid to the philosophy of the written word. The difficulty here is that a person who wants to understand the biblical texts has to study many different hinds of literature and hermeneutics. For example, Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book remains an excellent book on how to read post-enlightenment non-fiction. But do his ideas work on poetry, prophecy, or just good old fashioned pulp fiction? Of course not, and Adler is careful enough to say so. One idea that Adler puts forth does seem universal, however, and that is the idea that the reader has an obligation to come to terms with the author. Sadly, this is the one area that seems to be lacking on both the right and the left. I knew that I was attending "confessional" seminaries, but I had thought that Baptists were such a disparate conglomeration that I would experience multiple perspectives - which in my opinion is the only way to sharpen one's thinking. I was somewhat disappointed in that regard. The problem with confessional schools is that they don't come to terms with the text. Usually they begin with an "approved" position and find a way to see it in the text. At least, this was my experience. But I have also experienced the same thing from the progressive camp. They have an accepted ethic and worldview, and either 1) find it in the text, or 2) don't find it in the text, and so campaign strongly to either reinterpret the text or marginalize it in one way or another. In both cases the "scholar" has put an agenda ahead of coming to terms with the author. Of course, a reasonably bright individual might respond that coming to terms with the author is an agenda in itself. Of course it is. I am bold enough to propose that this should be the scholar's first agenda. This is why I have great respect for men like Timothy Luke Johnson and Dominic Crossan. They tend to come to terms with the author first, and then proceed to tell us why we should believe differently. This is an honest approach, even though I disagree with almost everything they write.

One common element of the text that seems to bother our contemporary sensibilities is the extreme violence in the canon, especially the Old Testament. I have been doing extensive study for a "book" I am writing (since I am not published and don't have a publisher, I can't really call it a book, but whatever) that specifically looks at the issue of God and death in the Torah. It is amazing to me the effort that scholars of all types go to in order to wrap our contemporary minds around the violence. On the conservative side, you have scholars and ethicists arguing that the violence, especially against the Canaanites, is probably not so bad as it sounds and in any case is justified. On the progressive side, you have people reinterpreting the text or saying that it is fallible human interpolation that shouldn't be taken seriously.

But what happens when we try to come to terms with the author? Well for starters, you can't get around the fact that the author wanted the reader to understand that God mediately (Exodus 32:27) and immediately (Leviticus 10:2) kills people. I don't really see a way around that. Of course the real issue is not what the text is actually saying, but what it implies; what it says about God and what it says about our own sitz im leben. Such an exhaustive study is beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth serious study. Only, let us be honest about what the text actually says, and make it a point to come to terms with the author - on his terms, in his context, toward his purpose.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

World Vision Reverses Same Sex Marriage Decision

In response to the outcry from the evangelical community, World Vision has reversed its decision to allow legally married same sex couples employment within the organization. This turn of events raises an interesting point on the intersection of morality, faith, ethics, and law. You see, there are certain boundary markers to the Christian faith - there always have been, and always will be, although they have changed over time in some places (I know of very few self-professing Christians who reject the Apostles' Creed, for example). One of those boundaries has always been the moral law of God. In fact, there is a name for those who reject God's moral law - antinomianism - and it has been declared an official heresy. There are some fringe arguments about antinomianism, but the conversation has become obscure because of the simple reductio involving the experience of evil in this life. No one would argue that it is ok to take an assault rifle into an elementary school and kill children. We recognize the need for morality and ethics, even outside of the Christian context. The Christian context, however, requires a person to think Christianly about morality and ethics. We believe that worshipping false gods is an abomination, not because there is any harm in burning incense to Krishna, but because there is only one true God who is worthy of worship. Likewise, since the writing of the New Testament, there has been a sexual ethic within Christianity that has been universally accepted among Christians. This ethic limits sex to heterosexual, monogamous marriage. In fact, the ethic was so strong, that when the gospel reached nations where polygamy was normal, it created quite a lot of problems. I don't think Christians should be embarrassed to admit that our religion has always taught that homosexual acts are against the ethic of our religion. But World Vision's initial decision reveals the complex interplay between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this world. We are conditioned to believe that ethics are inscribed by our laws. There are some things which are legal, but unwise - even sinful - but for the most part, whatever is legal becomes ethically normative in the Christian community. This was true during the inquisitions, during American slavery, during the massacre and despoiling of the Native American populations, and it is true today with pornography and other sins. Even if we preach against pornography, it is still being consumed at an alarming rate by Christian men - and women. In reality, the Christian ethic and the secular legal code is better modeled with a Venn diagram - there are sections of overlap, but also things which God has told us not to do that our law system does not delineate. And whether we like it or not, it is silly to pretend that Christianity can accept homosexual acts as anything other than sin. What we do with that ethic is important, but is a topic for another time.

All that to say, that World Vision's initial argument is valid - they are a parachurch, and should not be in the business of determining who is "in" or "out" - that is up to the church. Since some churches affirm same sex marriage (determining them to be a part of the in group), World Vision would be justified in accepting them for employment. On the other hand, World Vision call themselves Christian, so it is also logical and acceptable to tell people that they will not be considered for employment if they are actively living in or endorsing sin. This becomes obvious if we talk about other, less politically incorrect, sins. However, I suspect this was more of a business decision than a carefully nuanced change in their approach to what a parachurch is and how it safeguards the faith.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

World Vision: Why We're Hiring Gays in Same-Sex Marriages

Christianity Today has an article outlining World Vision's new decision to allow monogamous, legally married, gay couples to work for World Vision. The article is very interesting, especially given World Vision's recent efforts (which involved taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court - and winning) to ensure faith-based hiring practices are not infringed upon. According to Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, the decision is rooted in the organization's ecclesiology. World Vision sees their ministry as para-church, and therefore, other than the Apostles Creed and their trinitarian (abbreviated) statement of faith, they choose to leave theological boundary markers up to local churches and/or denominations. Since many Christian churches now affirm same-sex marriage, World Vision felt it was time to update their conditions for employment. The interesting thing about this case is that I know a good many people who would agree strongly that para-church organizations should not be in a position to determine doctrine, etc. But many of these same people would see same-sex marriage as a violation of Christ's teaching as well as the writings of Paul and Peter. We have seen something similar with Thrivent's recent decision to sit the sidelines on abortion, gun control, etc. So what does this portend? I suspect the future will see far less "big tent" para-church organizations, and see more division along denominational lines. Time will tell.

A Contra Perspective on Metaxis on Bonhoeffer

I blogged recently about my experience hearing Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) speak about his book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. Scott Paeth, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul has just written a scathing post on Metaxas and his book. I admitted my own concerns about the presentation, although I did not share any book review. I am glad that Scott offers a dissenting approach - our thinking is only sharpened when we engage those we disagree with. Scott brings up some good points, but I was disappointed in his style. Frankly, he doesn't sound like a professor at all - he sounds like an angry sophomore. For example, he opens with
"I could have as easily titled this post "The Egregious Eric Metaxas's misuse of Dietrich Bonhoeffer," because, make no mistake, Metaxas is egregious, and the cottage industry he has cultivated in selling right wing Christian self-righteousness under the banner of comparing their moral sclerosis to the genuine courage and moral risk taken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is disgusting and offensive." 
Unfortunately, his entire post is shot through with this kind of language. Notice that he makes a value judgment - without any real argument - and uses emotive language to try to persuade his audience to feel negatively about Metaxas' work. Well, there are people whose opinions are based on emotion, and people whose opinions are based on fact. The former is persuaded by emotion, the latter by fact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find Scott's post unpersuasive. In fact, I find it kind of tedious. I demand much, much more of the professors I have paid to instruct me (not that I have always gotten it). I would much rather see a logical post outlining how and why we should not accept Metaxas' historiography of Bonhoeffer. For example, Scott favorably quotes another negative review, "Luther’s anti-Semitism is attributed to his digestive troubles, and Metaxas does not address how anti-Semitism, whatever its source, had permeated the mindset of German Protestantism and the wider culture." This kind of glib quote doesn't help anyone think better. For starters, it lacks the nuance we would expect from an intelligent writer. What Metaxas actually wrote was that Luther's cantankerousness increased as the man aged, and seemed to correlate strongly with his deteriorating health. As a result, he wrote some contradictory things throughout his life. And while the source of anti-semitism is beyond the scope of Metaxas' work, he does point out the way in which the National Socialist movement cooped all the worst parts of Christianity to defend their Aryan reinterpretation of society and culture. Scott uses terms like "hatchet job", "peddling evangelical victimology", "hijacking", and "crime against history". It is quite difficult for a thinking person to accept these kinds of emotive labels sans any kind of argument. An argument, in its most basic form, consists of at least two sentences - a proposition, and the reason why the proposition should be accepted. Scott seems to have forgotten the latter. In the end, I regret that Scott's post sounds like a hissy fit impelled by Metaxas' suggestion that mainline "liberal" churches in America look similar to the state church in Germany during the Reich. I am trying to eat the meat and spit out the bones, but it like trying to eat a shrew.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Metal Monday: God is Dead?

(I couldn't find any without adverts, sorry about that. Official Video above.)

Lost in the darkness
I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience
And murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine

The blood runs free
The rain turns red
Give me the wine
You keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Is God dead?

Black Sabbath won the 2013 Grammy for Best Metal Performance for this song. It is a raw, existential lament that recalls classic Sabbath. The essence of the song is that we are surrounded by the seven deadly sins, a situation that causes the singer to doubt that God is in fact living. There is so much truth in the honesty of this song that it makes CCM look downright saccharin. I mean, more than usual. The presence of evil is not only the toughest nut to crack or Christian philosophers, it is the existential power that creates doubt, despair, and confusion. The clever wordplay on the sacraments hints that the singer wants to drown his sorrow in alcohol - or maybe blood. The lyrics are intentionally vague. Very well done, and worthy of a Grammy.