As Christians living in a sin-tainted world, we’re engaged in a struggle–a resistance if you will–against powers that are rebellious and estranged from their true King, Jesus. In Jesus we participate in his project of regaining mastery of the created order and moving it towards re-creation, a new creation that mirrors the values of God’s kingdom.
Jesus is doing this by the creation of a new humanity—the church.
When I refer to the church, I’m thinking of –in the words of the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”—“elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth, her charter of salvation one faith, one life, one birth…” In other words: the waters of baptism are thicker than the blood ties of ethnicity and nationality:
With Jesus’ resurrection, the new age has dawned. The new man has emerged from among the old humanity, whose life he had shared, whose pain and sin he had borne. For Paul, as throughout the Bible, sin and death were inextricably linked, so that Christ’s victory over the latter signaled his defeat over the former. – N T Wright
As Christians, as part of this new humanity, we are God’s agents working to subvert the rule of sin and death in the empires of the present age. This vocation is an active one, especially if we consider Paul’s description of his apostolic mission in 2 Corinthians 10:4ff. as a paradigm for engagement in the world:
Though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
Notice again the comprehensiveness of this vision: between Colossians 1 and 2 Corinthians 10 we see the interplay of spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, dominions and opinions; and through both, powers that are at work.
The hope of Colossians 1—our hope—is that Jesus is not one power amongst a pantheon of competing powers. Instead, he is above, beyond, before, and over these powers—they have no existence independent of him.
This Jesus has given himself to the world in love in order to make reconciliation possible—a returning of prodigal creation to its father that results in a new humanity, the church.
This passage demands our acknowledgement that there is no sphere of existence over which Jesus is not sovereign. God’s rules, God’s values, aren’t legitimate in some places and illegitimate in other places—no, they are over all. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”
A wise friend–John Inazu–who teaches criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis has written an insightful piece about race and criminal law in St. Louis. I encourage you to pick up and read and consider how you might do likewise where you are:
John D. Inazu
“You spent too much time talking about race in this class.” Of all the student evaluations I’ve received over the years, this one rankled me the most. I teach criminal law. In St. Louis. It’s not possible to talk too much about race in that context.
In past years, our class discussions on race have centered on Trayvon Martin, or before that, on the kids shot up by Bernie Goetz on a New York City subway. From now on, the example will come from much closer to home.
In the coming weeks, we will have much to say about the tragedy, chaos and anger surrounding the death of Michael Brown. Among the most important issues will be the connection between law enforcement and race. That is not to say that all police officers are evil or that all black youths are innocent. But it is to insist that criminal justice and racial injustice are intrinsically linked in this city and its surrounding communities. And the injustices that manifest in handcuffs and bullets flow out of the injustices of neighborhoods, schools and shopping malls — all linked to issues of race that nobody in this city likes to talk about.
Like most of you I have a lot on my plate. One of the most challenging elements of life can be making time to continue to learn and develop both as a minister and as a leader. I’ve found that podcasts are an excellent way to learn.
I listen while I exercise. During the warmer months I’m out on the bike and it’s not safe to wear earbuds and listen to a podcast. However, in the winter months I shift my exercise routine toward jogging, which is perfect for podcast listening. I typically run for about 30 minutes which is just about the same length of many of the podcasts that I enjoy.
Podcasts also form a key part of my evening going-to-bed ritual. Research shows that ritual practices can have a calming effect and actually provide a structure that leads to freedom (more about this in another post). I listen to two podcasts right before bed.
So, here’s my list of five podcasts that I really value:
This is Your Life (Michael Hyatt). This is my podcast for running. Michael focuses his podcast on intentional leadership and influence often touching on productivity as well. At around 25 minutes its the perfect length for a run and also features a question section at the end that is helpful.
Insight for Living (Chuck Swindoll). I love Chuck’s Bible teaching. He’s a master of teaching the Bible in a way that’s both true to the text and deeply engaging. I often listen to this podcast while working in the yard or, less often, while relaxing in front of a fire in the living room.
Truth for Life (Alistair Begg). A little known fact is that every presbyterian pastor secretly wishes he had a Scottish accent. Begg is a master of expository preaching and a Bible Calvinist. He excellently preaches Scripture without allowing his doctrinal system to be of greater focus than the Bible. His style is simple, straightforward, and often employs hymnody. A valuable model of the Puritan plain style of preaching.
Pray as You Go (British Jesuits). This daily podcast provides a brief (>15 minute) devotional service featuring prayer, sacred music, scripture reading, and reflection questions. Anna and I listen to this in the evening as we get into the bed and settle toward sleep. There’s something beautiful about the Word of God washing over us as we let go of the troubles of the day.
The Archers (BBC Radio 4). The Archers is the longest running radio drama in the world. Set in the rural community of Ambridge, the drama centers on the lives of the village’s residents many of whom are farmers. What’s intriguing about The Archers is how compelling and interesting a host of small and trivial events can be in the life of a community.
The relationship of religion, culture, and politics in the United States is tricky. Ours is a profoundly religious culture despite the ascendant theory of Constitutional interpretation that espouses a “strict” separation between church and state. Our public square has, to borrow a phrase from Richard John Neuhaus, been stripped of any reference to religion as an authoritative source of moral guidance—it’s naked. Or so it seems.
In reality, our culture isn’t devoid of religion—its haunted. Philosopher James K. A. Smith addressed this topic in his 2013 James A. Gray Lectures at Duke Divinity School. Our current cultural moment exhibits a mutual haunting of immanence by transcendence and transcendence by doubt. We’re Saint Thomases all—to the extent we believe, we do so in the midst of profound and lingering doubt. Given this, how is the church to rightly discharge its commission to faithfully proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments? Can it even be done?
Faithful witness begins with the realization that secularism means that all beliefs are fundamentally contestable.[i] According to Smith, “belief is one option among many and not the easiest.” Every source of knowledge—each plausibility structure that provides the scaffolding to our belief—is susceptible to critique.
The result is a vision of life in which everything beyond the immanent has been eclipsed. At first glance this seems exclusively a burden on Christian witness. Our culture is no longer like a pinball machine with buffers and an incline that inevitably lead us to belief in God and a shared morality.
At the same time, the very contestability of knowledge applies to all knowledge, not exclusively religious knowledge. Despite our confidence in science, some are still aware that there are dimensions of reality of which science cannot meaningfully speak. This offers the church an opportunity to speak into the void the words of the gospel and, moreover, to make the gospel a lived experience.
In our new hyper-modern reality boredom, loneliness, and distraction replace rapture, friendship and longing. Over the last thirty years, for example, the number of Americans reporting feelings of loneliness has doubled despite all the advances of mobile technology that allows us to present to others across the globe albeit in a mediated form.
We are electronically connected, Smith noted, but life in a highly technological age centers on ex-carnation—the removal of experience to a plane other than the physical. Consider the number of hours a day you spend communicating with people who are not physically present to you. The phone. Facebook. Email. Twitter. All are ex-carnations of community. Public worship experienced via satellite image. The Eucharist experienced over Social Media. Phone sex. All are ex-carnational—they move us out of our physicality and into the realm of the disembodied self.
Ironically, in the midst of this loneliness epidemic, more people—especially teenagers–report the feeling of being always available, watched, monitored. And not just by the National Security Agency. Social media is creating in people a sense that their life has to be exceptional, that they must chronicle and broadcast these experiences to others in order to validate their existence in the eyes of others. Moreover, social media users are also increasingly aware of what they’re missing out on—the games night you weren’t invited to, the employee-appreciation lunch at a large firm you didn’t get, the Caribbean vacation captured on Facebook that you couldn’t afford, you name it. As others sculpt their lives and publish them virtually toward the end—conscious or unconscious—of creating a branded self, we compare and measure ourselves against our competitors in the marketplace of life. As a result our lives are becoming increasingly superficial.
In the context of this dilemma the church has the chance, according to Smith, to engage in tcounter-cultural proclamation that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. The antidote to our modern dis-ease is the renewal of the church’s ancient liturgical practices, which are necessarily incarnational. The church must offer an intentional liturgical response that invites moderns to experience God as the only one who sees them as they are and loves them completely.
Yet, much of the church is as enamored of the very conditions creating our present malaise as the rest of the culture. Too many of us believe that if we create a worship service that is a polished, technological marvel then eventually we will generate enough hype to become “the sort of church that un-churched people want to come to” as Andy Stanley describes his congregation. And so we anchor the gospel to modernity and we lose sight of the fact that in worship heaven and earth meet.
To recapture the mystery of worship Smith points us to pre-modern sources. These sources can reawaken our imaginations—a faculty often neglected in the age of special affects and low literacy. Young adults don’t want to be entertained in order to stay in church. In fact, my own experience is that young adults don’t trust entertainment. They realize that entertainment is really a platform for selling. Rather than entertainment, these they are yearning for a tangible, tactile, liturgical, rooted community.
What they’re getting instead is very often entertainment. In evangelicalism and mainline Christianity we see two approaches the same issue. The former tends to place unhealthy emphasis on increasing the production quality of worship ironically delegitimizing many of the very questions being asked by millenials about the broader culture. The mainline church often panders to what they believe enlightened youth would want. Changing social attitudes define doctrine because, like evangelicals, it’s a marketing scheme.
What is required now is something deeper than accommodation or improved performance. The church needs to recover its theological vision. That theological vision is the foundation on which its ministry and witness will be built. That vision ought to be connected directly to the witness of Scripture, the Creedal and liturgical heritage of the church. As Richard Lints puts it, “The modern theological vision must seek to bring the entire counsel of God into the world of its time in order that its time might be transformed.[ii] That vision is the work of “translating” God and his Kingdom for a generation who speak a different dialect. Secular young adults may reject the gospel. It is to our shame, however, if they reject simply because they never encountered it expressed in accessible terms and in a life of authentic discipleship.
Ours is an age of hyper-connectivity. Yet despite the fact that there are more ways for the average person to communicate with others, loneliness is skyrocketing. The Wall Street Journal reports:
The rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled in the past 30 years, says John T. Cacioppo, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who studies loneliness including analysis of several large studies. These days, he estimates, some 40% of Americans report being lonely, up from 20% in the 1980s.
Persistent feelings of loneliness, alarmingly, were as accurate a predictor of early death as was alcoholism or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It seems we are social animals, made for community. Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alonethat participation in civic organizations has sharply declined with the advent of new technologies. This is a perpetual concern of the modern period. In the 1920s The Middletown Studies expressed concern that the advent of radio was causing a decline in social connection in the community of Muncie, Indiana.
Loneliness is more than being alone. Parents of young children will attest that being alone at the end of the day can be blissful. Loneliness is an internal sense of isolation:
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely, as anyone who has suffered through a bad relationship or an awkward holiday gathering can attest. “Loneliness is the feeling of social isolation or dissatisfaction with your relationships,” Dr. Cacioppo says. “It’s not just about whether there are others around you. It’s about whether the ones around you are those you can trust.”
Our growing sense of social isolation is a challenge and an opportunity for the Christian community. If the church can remind itself of our call to be a counter-cultural community of disciples then there’s hope that we can peacefully resist the tide of loneliness. It’s difficult to know exactly what this would look like, but it could include a number of innovations.
Leave a comment and tell us how you think the church can address the loneliness epidemic.