Whatever happened to the crucifixion?


“When the church fails to [speak the gospel], it fails to say the thing that it alone is capable of saying.” 

Fleming Rutledge’s book Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ aims to put death back at the center of the Christian faith. Not death in general, but the death of Christ. According to Rutledge, any number of inadequate (and occasionally untrue) themes have displaced the crucifixion at the center of the Christian faith. We say, “God is love.” That is well since the Scripture affirms it. It is a true, yet incomplete sentence. God does love you, yet we have to make sense of the God whose love involved the sacrificial death of his Son.

Making the love of God the totality of our proclamation means that rather than preaching the evangel (“good news”) we are preaching the proto-evangelion (“pre-good news”). God’s love is important, even foundational to the ways in which He interacts with his created order. Yet, God’s love must be paired with God’s wrath against sin, and other important dogmatic themes in order to actually preach the gospel.

In dealing with the death of Christ we acknowledge to the world that difficult things are normal–that far from being the exception, the cross is the rule. In a broken world we suffer, we lack easy answers and problems often seem (and actually are) intractable.

The church doesn’t exist to peddle easy answers for life’s most superficial problems. Such a church doesn’t have Christ–the dying God–for its head.

Jesus did not bring the church into being for the purpose of providing you a pleasing worship experience, a memorable and photographable vacation-like mission trip, or to simply baptize the American dream in either its leftist or right-wing manifestations.

The church introduces creation to reality–a reality that is deeper, older, vaster than the aggregate of our sense experiences. We see, in the words of Saint Paul, “through a glass and darkly.”

Instead in and through the church, Christ extends to the world the invitation to come and die–to come a meet the dying and rising Christ in the Word and in the Sacraments.

In the laying down of our lives we find the freedom that comes from returning God to the very center of reality, the place from which He never moved. In truth all creation is exerting massive energy in the vain attempt to suppress the truth and sustain the illusion that there is no God.

When the church fails to say this, it fails to say the thing that it alone is capable of saying.

 

 

The solas as insights into the gospel

The solas are not isolated doctrines; they are theological insights into the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel, 28

You may be familiar with the “five solas” of the Reformation–the “alone” affirmations, if you will. They are sometimes described as the rallying cry of Protestants in their fight against Medieval Catholicism. The solas are typically formulated as follows:

  1. sola gratia – grace alone
  2. sola fidei – faith alone
  3. sola scriptura – scripture alone
  4. solus christus – Christ alone
  5. soli deo gloria – To God alone the glory

In the introduction to his so-far excellent book Biblical Authority after Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer posits that the “solas” are more than a Protestant version of “Make America great again” or “Hope we can believe in.” Rather, he writes, “The solas are not isolated doctrines; they are theological insights into the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel.”

In case its helpful, let’s define a couple of terms here.

Ontology is a word that refers to discussions about being (“God is eternal” is a statement about ontology).

Epistemology is a word that refers to how we know what we claim to know (“The Bible tells me so” is an epistemological statement).

Teleology is a word for the “ends” or “purposes” of a thing (“The chief end of man is glorify God and enjoy him forever” is a teleological statement).

What Vanhoozer is saying is that the five solas perform the function of communicating right belief (creedal orthodoxy) to everyday Christians like you and me.

He writes, “The solas summarize what the Father is doing in Christ through the Spirit to form a holy nation, and this summary–a rule of faith, hope, and love–functions as a hermeneutical [viz., interpretive] tool with which to arbitrate the conflict of interpretation” (29, brackets my insertion).

In other words, the five solas allow us to come up with a simple statement about God’s mission in the world (here in my words):

God is calling the universal church into being by means of his gift of irresistible grace that alone produces in us to saving faith. That faith is in Christ alone whom we know through the Scriptures alone, and all this is done for the glory of God. 

Later in the book Vanhoozer is going to unpack these solas and fit them together in a way that responds constructively to criticisms of the Reformation leveled by Catholic and Orthodox theologians as well as some Protestants.

Come, let us reason together

Krin Vantatenhove has issued “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family” (read it here). Since I’m a member of the family, and since what Krin names in his post is something I’m observing too, I’d like to respond.

Krin’s central point is that the real fault line within the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t between those who support or oppose the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of non-celibate people who identify as homosexual. The fault line is between those who hold “orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine” and those for whom that expression of faith has become empty or irrelevant: “…there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine.” 

It’s important to note that just as this blog post expresses my opinion–and mine alone–Krin’s post expresses his opinion alone. He is no more a representative of our denomination than I am. What he is expressing–and what I agree with him on–is that the words we use in our corner of the Christian church mean very different things to different people. What he is describing is also far from uncommon in our church. In other words, he’s not describing the fringe left but some very respectable leaders in our churches and our denomination.

The progressive position is something that is rarely explicitly expressed. It’s typically hinted at or implied by things that pastors fail to say rather than what is actually stated, as he notes:

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

Krin refers to himself and many of his colleagues as “universalists,” for lack of a better term and goes on to say:

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus…

From my point of view, I take Krin at his word when he states that he hasn’t abandoned things like “Jesus’ teaching,” “the Good News of grace” or “the pursuit of peace and justice.”

From my point of view he hasn’t abandoned them; he has allowed these concepts or beliefs to evolve beyond the scope of what is recognized as the classical Christianity expressed in our Creeds and Confessions.

He provides an example:

We might say, “[Assent to essential tenets], on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Without wishing to put words in another’s mouth, the claim to “sincerely receive and adopt” something “on many levels” is a warning sign. I’ve taken other vows–one’s to my wife–and I didn’t assent to them “on many levels,” which is typically code for some deviation from classic Christian belief. Instead, I simply said “I do.” I assented to these vows in a manner consistent with the received tradition of Christian marriage.

Our church allows ministers to “scruple” parts of our Confessions. A scruple is simply a stated point of departure from a doctrinal formulation. One might scruple the observation of the Lord’s Day believing that it’s fine to eat out after church.

The thing about scruples is, however, as Krin admits, pastors don’t typically scruple of their own accord despite the fact that our Book of Order places an affirmative duty on pastors to do just thatThey keep their non-traditional views to themselves, perhaps for a variety of reasons some of which are understandable.

The existence of such a broad range of views in a single organization means that it is incredibly difficult for that organization to have focus or to collaborate on common projects. He notes,

…Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

It’s true. When I was in campus ministry I was significantly more likely to partner with Catholic Campus Ministries than with either my own denominational ministry or one of the other mainline groups. The reason? A profound variance in essential belief.

I recall going to presbytery meetings (I was in North Carolina at the time) and being asked to share bright spots of ministry. To a person, every bright spot was some service project or another. We celebrated hikers’ ministry, renting out a fellowship hall to a church youth group, food banks, you name it. There wasn’t a single example of someone having a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and being converted. There wasn’t a single example even of a new Bible study or some new evangelistic discussion group. The reason we didn’t celebrate these thing is that for many of the people at that meeting the idea of a saving encounter with Jesus was a totally foreign concept. People don’t get saved in presbyterian churches–if you want that, try the baptists.

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

In the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Mt. 5:37).

Concerning the true church

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No visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.

J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches

Answers to 5 multi-site objections

I stumbled across a post by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks offering a critique of multi-site churches. You can read the post here. He offers twenty-two objections to a multi-site approach. Some of his objections are reasonable, others fail. In many respects the validity of his argument depends on factors that are not established in the post itself and widely vary from church to church (more on this in a minute).

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Here are his top five and my responses beneath:

1. There’s no clear example of a multi-site church in the New Testament, only supposition. “Well, surely, the Christians in a city could not have all met…” (but see Acts 2:465:126:2).

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the verses Leeman cites establish that the New Testament practice was for all of the believers in a city to gather for worship at a single location. I don’t think this requires a one-to-one correspondence in our practice today (i.e., its not a sin to gather in congregations). I’d suggest that these verses suggest more about the value of worshipping community (since our faith is covenantal, worship is first communal then individual) than it does about the internal organizational structure of the fellowship. 

2. If a church is constituted by the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the ordinances under the binding authority of the keys, every “campus” where those activities transpire is actually a church. “Multi-site church” is a misnomer. It’s a collection of churches under one administration.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, church and congregation are not the same thing. Here Leeman writes out of his baptist tradition with its emphasis on the autonomy of primacy of the individual congregation. For presbyterians these marks of the church are no less true. However, in presbyterian practice a congregation needs to be self-governing under the rule of a session (a council of elders). As long as an individual site has some degree of appropriate representation on the session of the sponsoring church, I see no problem. With Leeman I do see a second congregation (in function if not in polity), but I don’t see a problem with that.

3. For every additional multi-site campus out there, there’s one less preaching pastor being raised up for the next generation.

This is a concern, but not necessarily. At least, the same can be said of large individual churches–multi-site or not. It’s a generous preaching pastor who will share her pulpit with a junior colleague so that he can develop as a preacher-teacher.

4. What effectively unites the churches (campuses) of a multi-site church are a budget, a pastor’s charisma, and brand identity. Nowhere does the Bible speak of building church unity in budgets, charisma, and brand.

Here Leeman assumes that these factors–budget, pastor charisma, and brand identity–are the only things uniting a multi-site. I disagree. What unites a multi-site congregation is its theological vision and ministry expression. The other things are factors, but they’d be factors in a single-site church too.

5. To say that the unity of the church (i.e. the unity of the campuses) depends on the leaders is to say that that the life and work of the church depends that much more on the leaders. Members, in comparison to a single-site model, are demoted.

Leeman would need to say more in order for me to believe that this is more of a problem at a multi-site church than in a single-site. 

What do you think?

 

A Christian third way between decision and determinism

Marriage redefinition continues to be a critical issue before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will vote on it later this week. Ironically, no one has framed the issue quite as poignantly as same-sex marriage supporter Mark Achtemeier: “This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.”[1]

He’s right–however, not in the way he intended. Speaking to the Covenant Network–a GLBT lobby organization in the PC(USA)–Achtemeier claimed that nothing less than the gospel is at stake in denominational deliberations on marriage. Continuing to affirm the traditional Christian teaching on marriage–that it is a covenant between a man and a woman–would “undermine the credibility of Christian witness for a generation.”[2] I disagree.

Achtemeier employs what J. Todd Billings has referred to as a “correlationist” approach in his understanding of human sexuality.[3] This sort of approach–common, in different ways, to both liberals and evangelicals–attempts to “correlate” the Christian message with the pulse of the culture.[4].

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“This is an unprecedented spiritual disaster that is taking place beneath our noses.” -Mark Achtemeier

Like many correlationists, Achtemeier has no problem jettisoning the baggage of traditional ways of reading Scripture as a church: “After generations of erroneous teaching, it is within our grasp to move our beloved church to a truthful witness.”[5]

The problem underlying Achtemeier’s critique his presupposition that the pureness of Jesus’ teaching have become encrusted with layers of Pauline interpretation, not to mention centuries of reflection by dominant culture readers. To find the true message of the New Testament it is necessary to “leap over” the tradition and get back to the New Testament.

Moving beyond the hubris of such a position, one is struck by its implausibility. Let us grant that prior generations of readers of Scripture were not perfect—no stretch of the imagination. Let us also grant that they were, in their own unique and culturally-influenced ways, guilty of sin. Despite this, they are still the church. And it is clear–at least to me–that we are as guilty of our own sin and just as subject to cultural myopia as prior generations have been. Indeed, that is why we require tradition: to enable us to see beyond our own limited perspective. As Roman Catholic G. K. Chesterton put it,

 

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.[6]

In their defense, progressives wish to step outside of their cultural moment too. The problem is that they wish to appeal to the future–a future that is, by its very nature, yet to be and therefore unknowable to all except God. Traditionalists will be “on the wrong side of history.” In a way, this is an appeal to the tradition of subsequent generations and based on the false presupposition that we can somehow know what the future will be. It was Hegel who originated the phrase “wrong side of history,” it was quickly co-opted by the Marxists, and that such a phrase is possible points to the view of history that underlies it.[7]

To the progressive, there is a perfectly marked out trajectory of human progress and those who history lauds are those who align themselves–as apparently has Mark Achtemeier–with the arch of that history. The prophet Amos said: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land–not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:5). Our current moment is not the fulfillment of Amos’ words. It is, however, reminiscent of the underlying principle: it is easy to marginalize or even to compromise the witness of Scripture, even with the best of intentions.

Traditionalists have not paid significant enough attention to the pastoral implications of a change of theology of human sexuality. We need to be clear that this is not simply an issue of hermeneutics, theology, and cultural observation. We must be clear that the traditional teachings and practices of the church have resources enough to provide for the full life of which Jesus spoke for all people, including those with same-sex attractions. What we do with our bodies matters. We are not simply souls who connect to Jesus and then use our bodies as we wish and as gratifies us. Speaking to that tendency in the ancient world, Paul wrote:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”[8]

The church has become captive to culture. We have divided along the lines of decision verses determinism. Traditionalists often posit that being “gay” is simply a lifestyle choice. Progressives often argue that being “gay” is the product of biology–an unchangeable orientation. Both of these explanations is overly simplistic. Choices and experiences are involved in sexuality as is our biological make up.

What the church is missing in our discussion of human sexuality is any notion that there is a third way of conceiving of this that is different from decision or determinism. That third way re-appropriates the ancient church’s understanding of the Christian life as one of practices and beliefs that inculcate virtue into the life of Christian through the communion of the church. This is needful, of course, far beyond simply the issue of our human sexuality. As the church moves into a post-Christendom culture, it is vitally necessary that we develop practices that will sustain us as a missionary people in the midst of skepticism.

Notes

[1] Mark Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: http://covnetpres.org/2014/06/will-know-fruits/ (accessed 17 June 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] J. Todd Billings, “Catholic and Reformed: Rediscovering a Tradition.” Pro Ecclesia. Vol. XXII, No. p. 135-136.

[4] Billings notes, “[T]hey start with our own cultural agenda, questions, and needs, and then correlate an answer from the Bible in those terms.” p.137.

[5] Achtemeier, “You Will Know Them by Their Fruits.” Address to the Covenant Network. Available online at: http://covnetpres.org/2014/06/will-know-fruits/ (accessed 17 June 2014).

[6] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

[7] Jonah Goldberg, “The Empty Threat of Future Judgment.” National Review (March 2014) available online at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/373856/empty-threat-future-judgment-jonah-goldberg (accessed on 17 June 2014).

[8] 1 Cor 6:9, ESV.

The suffering Christ and the un-suffering God

Earlier this year I read a piece [subscription required] in Books & Culture: A Christian Review by John G Stackhouse of Regent College. I’m not terribly familiar with Stackhouse except through his small book Finally Feminist which I enjoyed immensely and would encourage you to read (it takes only an evening). While you’re at it, subscribe to Books & Culture too. It is a wonderful resource.

The subject of Stackhouse’s article was kenotic theology. This is a way of conceiving of Christ’s sojourn on earth that takes seriously the Christ hymn of Philippians two which tells us that Jesus “emptied himself.”
Stackhouse defines the school of thought like this: “[Kenotic theology] suggests that God the Son voluntarily relinquished his powers as an equal member of the Trinity in order to experience a genuinely human life and death in our place.”
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I have to confess not being all that familiar with the work of the any of the great theologians who emphasized kenosis. Having studied at a confessional and evangelical  divinity school, there wasn’t a great deal of space for left in the curriculum the study of kenotic theologians. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, all education is necessarily limited by constraints such as time, faculty, and students who are interested in learning the subject (unless it is required).
There are problems with kenotic theology when you look at it from a reformed perspective. As Stackhouse notes, it challenges both the impassibility of God as well as the immutability of God. In effect, it argues that there are changes that take place in the life God (and in humanity) that do not undermine God’s divinity just as suffering may be experienced without fundamentally altering God’s divine nature. It’s worth asking the question precisely how God can change without somehow undermining His divinity and how God’s inability to suffer (His impassibility) relates to His deep providential concern for His people.
 
Kenotic theology is appealing in a number of ways. I’m sure that what makes it chiefly appealing is its potential pastoral implications. It has long been a criticism of reformed theology that its emphasis on God’s otherness and omnipotence makes Him difficult to relate to. It’s also been noted that hyper-Calvinism has almost no place for Jesus — it’s almost as though nothing had changed in the coming of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
In the midst of suffering is it more helpful (and we can argue about what this word really means) to hear that God is suffering with you or that God is in control of your situation? 
 
As a pastor, I think it depends.
It is, of course, foolishness to enter into the suffering of another with a pithy statement asking them to “let go and let God.” Likewise, it is foolishness for those of us who are teachers in the church to basically espouse what Christian Smith has called “moral therapeutic deism” from pulpit, table, and font before suffering comes and then expect our parishioners to somehow experience that suffering with their belief in God’s sovereignty, and indeed His goodness, intact.
Rather, the role of the pastor and of the church is to teach and live the Scriptures in such a way as to apply them to our life together and our individual lives as well as to communicate theology so that it becomes a set of lenses that gives insight and shape to our life and experiences.
Ellen Charry’s book By the Renewing of Your Minds suggests that theology is not an abstract academic endeavor alone, but it is also a pastoral, local, embodied, way of forming the way a people know, experience, and follow the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. The contemporary church is in danger of forgetting this.
 
One of the great challenges of the parish is creating what Eugene Peterson has called a theological imagination. It is one thing (and certainly no bad thing) to be able to quote the catechism, but it is quite another thing to be able to see in one’s minds eye how God can be simultaneously loving, powerful, caring, and unsuffering. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to fully do this, perhaps some of the saint have come closest, but in the end the purpose of the church isn’t to make us happy so much as to make us saints.

Inerrancy: an Augustinian view

One of the interesting things about my life is that I have the pleasure of inhabiting a number of intellectual worlds that, by and large, don’t often come together. As an employee of a moderately evangelical campus ministry, a teaching elder in a mainline presbyterian denomination, a chaplain at a university, and someone who lives in the South I regularly interact with people right across the theological spectrum. It’s invigorating and, sometimes, frustrating.

Take the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible, for example. In its simplest form the doctrine holds: “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1994). This assertion, simple though it might appear, is actually quite a difficult proposition to establish. It has at least three constituent elements: (1) establishing the original manuscripts, (2) establishing the affirmation, and (3) establishing fact. These three elements bring in textual criticism, hermeneutics, and historiography. What seems, on its face, a simple affirmation has turned into a complex interdisciplinary exercise largely beyond the scope of the average Christian. Of course, this complexity certainly doesn’t negate the importance or the validity of the doctrine. It does, or at least it ought, to give us pause before using the term.

In my denomination and on the university campus the term “inerrancy” is closely associated with fundamentalism of the Jerry Falwell variety. In my campus ministry the term is rarely mentioned. Among evangelical in the south the term is widely used and often closely associated with fidelity to the gospel.

The recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society featured a panel discussion featuring several theologians and biblical scholars. Of the several who participated, the presenter whose views fall closest to my own at are those of Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve enjoyed his writing for a while now and had the privilege to have his daughter Emma, herself a scholar and also a poet, as a student in Graduate Christian Fellowship.

His views are presented in this video. His proposal is a form of inerrancy that he refers to as Augustinian. At the end of the day it is difficult to establish whether or not the Bible is demonstrably inerrant. Perhaps the wiser choice is to follow the lead of Gerald Bray. In his systematic theology God is Love (Crossway, 2012) he argues that the Bible ought to be treated as “functionally inerrant.” 

Church in the Christ-Haunted Secular Age

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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[i] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

[ii] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

Making a life or making a living?

News reports regularly give statistics about the rise or decline in new applications for unemployment benefits. Each of us probably knows at least one person who has been unemployed for more than a year. We likely know many more who have been without work for a shorter period of time. Our society has generally embraced the model of work for wages–we exchange our knowledge and/or manpower for cash. Most of us can’t think of any other way in which to order our lives. The question is, however, does this arrangement really work all that well? Does making a living require us to sacrifice our lives?

make-a-difference

Frederick Buechner has written:

We must be careful with our lives, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.

Given the premium our culture puts on comfort (the ‘good life’), it’s ironic how little we intentionally our lives to see if we are treating them as precious or as simply a means to an end. Are we simply doing more and more meaningless things with ever greater efficiency?

What does making a life really look like? In a recent post Scott Martin notes:

Those focusing on making a living see wealth solely in the context of the cash nexus: the opportunities, possessions, luxuries and leisure that money affords. Those focusing on making a life see wealth in terms of the depth and quality of their relationships, the strength of their home, the memories they make, the moments they share, the lives they touch. In fact, the people I most respect who have made lives worth emulating rarely focus on money at all. There have been times when they have had plenty and times when they have struggled, but the constant is in how deeply they have loved.

Imagine sitting down with a financial planner and in addition to totaling your bank accounts and mapping your investments, you also mapped your significant relationships and explored your relationship to your home.

Martin continues quoting Buechner:

Buechner writes that the world is full of people who “seem to have listened to the wrong voice” and are doing work that “seems simply irrelevant not only to the great human needs and issues of our time but also to their own need to grow and develop as humans.”

It’s ironic that some of the vocations that directly seek to meet the greatest human needs are the least esteemed (and rewarded) in our culture: teacher, care-giver, social worker, priest. Could it be that our value system is inverted?

Ask yourself: am I making a living or making a life? What two things could I most easily change in order to improve the quality of my life (in terms of relationships)? Resolve to start making those changes.