Five reasons the church should care about the arts

The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.

It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
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Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:

  1. Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
  2. Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
  3. Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
  4. Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.” 
  5. Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.

Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.

Milbank’s critique of some missional church expressions

John Milbank offers a biting critique of Fresh Expressions, a missional church movement in the Church of England. As ever, Milbank’s words are insightful and a helpful challenge to some problematic elements of missional praxis. I’ve embedded the article below and recommend that you take a read.

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By way of a brief response to Milbank let me offer the following observations:

  1. Missional does mean participating in the mission of God in the world.
  2. Part of that mission is the establishment of particularized churches.
  3. These churches ought to be the base camp from which missional Christians go forth.
  4. These churches ought to preach the Word rightly, administer the sacraments, and equip the saints.
  5. The homogenous unit principle, though understandable, is not rooted in Scripture but in capitalism.
  6. Sacramental worship and missional ministry are complimentary rather than contradictory.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Where is God in the world?

The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

26 Time management lessons…for pastors

This series of slides contains a wealth of knowledge about how pastors can work more effectively. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to start thinking of pastors as “non-profit executives” (this is a part, not the essence, of our calling).

The critical work of pastoring–prayer, study, counseling–requires time. And in order to make time for this crucial pastoral work, pastors must be willing to be ruthless about not allowing their managerial work to push their critical pastoral duties to the margins. In effect, managing oneself in ministry is part of discipleship.

Enjoy

Is missional the church’s Vietnam?

The Vietnam War was one of the most unpopular wars ever fought by the United States. It cost a lot of lives. It cost a lot of money. It ended unsatisfactorily. It never should have happened as it did. And while it might seem strange to point to Vietnam as a case study for mission in contemporary America, I think it’s apropos. The Vietnam War demonstrates what happens when leaders confuse tactical change with adaptive change. That is to say, the war in Vietnam turned out the way it did because its military leaders (with the prodding of their political leaders) tried over and over again to what they already knew how to do, only harder. If the church attempts simply to do what it’s already doing, only harder, don’t be surprised if the outcome is similar.

General William Westmoreland
General William Westmoreland

According to Thomas Ricks in his magnificent book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012) the strategic failure in Vietnam took place because the senior military leader, Army General William “Westy” Westmoreland, had neither the intelligence nor the imagination to understand the type of war that he should have been fighting. 

He failed to grasp that anything other than the force on force warfare of World War II and, to a lesser extent, Korea could be effective in achieving the strategic aims of the United States in Vietnam. In his defense, it seems that successive administrations had failed to successfully define those aims.

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Marine General Victor Krulak

 

At the same time a different branch of the armed forces, the Marine Corps, was employing a remarkably different strategy. By the late sixties the Marine Corps had determined that a counter-insurgency strategy was the only option that would provide anything other than minimal results with a high price tag. They had learned this lesson both from French forces who fought in Indo China and the British campaign in Malaya. Writing in 1967 Marine Lt. General Victor Krulak wrote, “The Vietnamese people are the prize” rather than simply taking possession of territory or killing a certain number enemy combatants.

Westmoreland and other senior Army leaders failed to consult the French or the British in their planning. They derided the Marine Corps as avoiding the fight. As (Army) Maj General Harry Kinnard put it, “I did everything I could to drag them out and get them to fight….They wouldn’t play.”

The Army strategy in Vietnam was to envision it as a continuation of World War II only in a different place. This view is nicely summarized by one of Westmoreland’s commanders who said, “The solution in Vietnam is more bombs, more shells, more napalm…till the other side cracks and gives up.” The other side never cracked.

If the church insists that all we need to do is keep doing what we have been doing for the last fifty years, but harder or with better style, we will miss the great opportunity this present moment is giving us to move mission from the periphery of the life of the church to its very core.

Some authors who write on this topic suggest that almost all of our current ways of understanding and practicing being the church must be redefined or rejected. Sunday worship? Church buildings? Ordained clergy? All can be done away with according to these writers. The church can become a diffuse organic network of related Christ-followers spread throughout a city and living their lives in mission. This is a wonderful part of the story of being the church, but its just that–only a part of the story. 

We have the chance to rediscover the many resources and ways of worshipping practiced by the ancient (pre-modern) church that will prove to be indispensable as we navigate into our postmodern world.

 

If you’re a Christian, don’t be stupid

People can be stupid. Christians, unfortunately, are no different. Inside Higher Ed highlights a controversy embroiling Florida Atlantic University and centering around student reactions to the actions of a Deandre Poole, himself a Christian and a professor.

Here’s what happened according to the website:

The course at Florida Atlantic University was in intercultural communications, and the exercise involve[d] having students write “Jesus” on a piece of paper, and then asking them to step on it. When they hesitate, the instructor has an opening to discuss symbols and their meaning.

Are you following this? The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that the very letters J-E-S-U-S convey meaning and that in a culture influenced by Christianity, many will have some degree of moral dilemma in being told to step on a sheet of paper containing those letters. 

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Dr. Deandre Poole

There are other symbols that could have been used–flags, crosses, a Bible, etc. And the point of the exercise it to make students uncomfortable, good lessons often do. Yet, responses to the event by parties ranging from a student in the class, to politicians, and also to the university administration can really only be classified as stupid. Let me rephrase: responses have been ill-conceived and in some cases are inconsistent with the very values espoused. “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings. Have the students write the name JESUS in big letters on a piece of paper. Ask the students to stand up and put the paper on the floor in front of them with the name facing up. Ask the students to think about it for a moment. After a brief period of silence, instruct them to step on the paper. Most will hesitate. Ask why they can’t step on the paper. Discuss the importance of symbols in culture.”

Here’s a list:

  • The belligerent student. We don’t know if this student is a Christian or not. For the sake of argument, and because many will assume he is, let’s assume it to. According to reports here’s the student’s response:

After class, the student came up to him [Poole], and made that statement [“how dare you disrespect someone’s religion] again, this time hitting his balled fist into his other hand and saying that “he wanted to hit me.” While the student did not do so, Poole said he was alarmed and notified campus security and filed a report on the student.

  • The racists. Apparently this Christian professor has received death threats, some of which make reference to lynching (which makes me nauseated even to type):

He said he has received hate mail and death threats, some of them coming in forms particularly hurtful to an African American. “One of the threats said that I might find myself hanging from a tree,” he said.

  • The university. Get a spine already.

A statement released Sunday by the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida said that the university erred in banning a classroom practice because some had been offended.

This unhappy episode suggests, once again, that not only is our society dysfunctional in communicating across disagreements but also that many of our cultural institutions seem unable or unwilling to make decisions or support faculty who are the subject of public disagreement or uninformed outrage.

Our culture is infantile. We stamp our feet. We scream our disagreement. And what’s sad is that often it is people who claim the name of Christ who are the worst–not always to be sure. However, in a culture that is moving beyond its Christendom moorings, we should be sure that when the offensive person or cause is related to Christianity, it is natural that our culture will make that connection an emphasis in describing the event or person.

St. Peter provides wise counsel for Christians in our current moment when he writes,

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3.16

That defense, I am sure, did not involve fists or shouts.

[Missional Monday 6] Missional requires focus

This is the sixth post in our series about missional ministry. You can read my prior posts by following the links:

1 – Introducing missional theology

2 – Why you can’t be missional alone

3 – Why prayer is the fuel of missional ministry

4 – Why missional ministry requires vulnerability

5 – Why Missional is Urgent and Lean

Today we explore how making the missional shift requires a great deal of focus. As a brief reminder, a simple way to get a better of a handle on the concept of missional is to replace it with “missionary.” I’m sure there were good reasons for choosing missional over missionary, probably related to some of the cultural baggage associated with missionary, but the two words are both derived from the root word “mission” and essentially mean the same thing. At it’s heart being missional is about placing God’s mission at the center of the life of the individual and the center of the church’s existence, where it was surely meant to be all along.

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So why does being missional require focus? The answer is fairly simple, in order to recapture the ancient church’s sense of mission standing at the center of the church’s reason for being we have to unlearn a bunch of habits of thought and practice that we have come to attach to our definition of being church. Because these are deeply entrenched habits they seem, at first glance, to require no justification. We don’t question them. And that’s why becoming missional requires focus.

Some authors who write on this topic suggest that almost all of our current ways of understanding and practicing being the church must be redefined or rejected. Sunday worship? Church buildings? Ordained clergy? All can be done away with according to these writers. The church can become a diffuse organic network of related Christ-followers spread throughout a city and living their lives in mission. This is a wonderful part of the story of being the church, but its just that–only a part of the story. 

The risk here is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The New Testament tells us not to foresake gathering together, as some were in the habit of doing, because we are formed into disciples in context of the church community and in it’s reflection on Word and sacrament. 

Can you see the tension? As missional Christians we’re living in the middle of a paradox. We gather in order to scatter and we scatter in order to gather. The church’s reality is both centrifugal and centripetal–the Spirit pushes us out in mission and gathers us in worship.

It requires great focus, continued recalibration, in order to live with this tension rather than simply collapsing into a simply attractional model of the Christian life (where evangelism is inviting people to church programs) or a cultural model of the Christian life (where gathering is not valued because all I need is Jesus, me, and now).

How does your church manage this tension? If you’re a pastor, how can you guide your people to understand and embrace this paradoxical element of the Christian life?

 

 

Four ways churches manage the tension of gospel and culture

Evangelicals are learning to face some new realities about the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture. The church exists for the purpose of proclaiming the truth of the Christian gospel–that reconciliation with God is possible through Christ. As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc). We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity to do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation. As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned.

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This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.

  1. Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
  2. Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
  3. Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
  4. Change the message, but not the means of communication. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.

These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054. Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel. Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.

Those are my thoughts–what are yours?

Is gay marriage the logical end of consumer capitalism?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in two cases related to same sex marriage. The first case deals with California’s proposition eight, a referendum that defined legal marriage as between a man and a woman. The second case deals with the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), federal legislation that defines marriage–for the purpose of ascertaining right to spousal benefits–as between a man and a woman.

Popular reporting around the issue has tended to emphasize the significant increase in approval for same sex marriages in the general population. Given that most recent votes on referenda to redefine marriage have failed, it seems counterintuitive to state that a majority of Americans now support it.

The internal logic of media coverage is questionable. That a majority of Americans support gay marriage is given as a basis for urging the Supreme Court to overturn both the California and the Federal legislation. However, at least in the case of Proposition 8, the legislation was already voted on by the people of the State of California. The “most people” argument cuts both ways and a good justice will be hesitant to overturn something on which the electorate have voted (Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) notwithstanding).

While these are important issues to discuss, what’s often overlooked is the deeper cultural shift that is taking place. At the core of the debate is a pernicious intellectual shift that places the autonomous individual as the center of his moral universe. This shift isn’t something that simply arose back in, say, 2008. Rather there has been a steady reorienting of our view of the world that moves the “I” to the center.

This is arguably a result of the rise of the discipline of economics and its emergence from the Enlightenment, especially from the work of Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments). In Smith’s work, the individual is the frame of reference for most all economic value judgments–a moral actor who makes decisions on the basis of enlightened self interest.

As capitalism developed into consumer capitalism, it is not difficult to see how our current socio-cultural arrangement makes possible something that has never been plausible before: the redefinition of a natural right on the basis of the experience of a relatively small number of people.

John Milbank has written of theology’s false humility. It seems that the state is currently manifesting something like that itself. Social philosopher Will Smith speaks for many when he defines marriage as not based in gender complimentarity or procreation, but instead as being rooted in “love” and “support” in this
“difficult thing we call life.”

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Russell Hittinger does a great job of unpacking the state’s false humility in his book, The First Grace:

“The postmodern state…is far less sure of its powers. It claims to be axiologically blind and deferent to individual conceptions of the good. It may not approve of the consequences of abortion, euthanasia, reprogenics, and homosexual marriage, but it feels helpless to use political authority to prohibit–and often, even to publicly discuss–the justice or injustice of these acts. Unsure of the scope of their own sovereignty, postmodern states are prepared to relocate sovereignty in the individual; in other words, postmodern states are prepared to be the guarantor of the rights of individual autonomy. We should not be surprised that individuals now claim private authority to say who shall die and who shall live, who should receive justice and who shall not. Hence we see not merely the privatization of industry and what were once deemed public services (a process that may in some cases be quite defensible and desirable from an economic standpoint), but a privatization of judgments that indisputably belong to public authority: judgments about uses of lethal force and who deserves to live or die, judgments about the strong and the weak, and judgments about whether private parties can claim power over something as common as the genetic infrastructure of the humanum.”

Russell Hittinger, The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World (2003): 137. (Emphasis mine).

It seems to me yet another place where the positions of our political parties are inconsistent with their philosophical presuppositions. Based on its tone in the last election cycle, it would seem that the Republican party should be unconditionally supporting the redefinition of marriage since, in every other element of our life together, they seem to be the champions of the rugged individualist who does as he pleases and wins his fortune through hard work.

In reality, our two parties are closer together than we often perceive. Their differences amount to peanuts in the grand scheme of things.

 

Time famine and future church

I often find myself wondering what church will look like in the future. I’m a member of a large (ish) downtown church that is evangelical in theology while being a member of a mainline denomination. We have a large campus: sanctuary, worship center, educational building, annex for youth and college ministries, etc.

We have a fairly large budget, including a significant budget for mission giving (which we, as campus missionaries, benefit from). We have a lot of staff on the payroll, both ordained pastors and program staff. Traditionally, our ministry in Winston-Salem has been centered on programs.

I find myself wondering about the future of program-centered ministry. Programs take two things that I think are going to be in short supply as we look to the future: time and moneyThe late Michael Spencer wrote about the “coming evangelical collapse” referring to a diminished future for evangelicalism as Christianity moves to the margin of society. This may well mean fewer resources for ministries and churches. Combine this with our culture’s embrace of a manic and consumerist way of life–measuring costs and benefits for every social engagement, invitation, meeting–we are going to be facing a stiff headwind in the next 5-10 years.

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I’m not here to say that this model of church is wrong–I’m saying it’s not enough. The church has to have a hybrid culture, part missional and part attractional. I like to say that the church has to be centripetal and centrifugal–it has to go out and to bring in. The church is ever gathering in worship and scattering on the mission of God in the world.

In light of this churches should to do several things:

  • Think before you build. The church is a relational matrix, not a building or an institutional structure. If you must build, please build in a way that advances the biblical notion of church as called-out, sent people. Remember too, every building decision locks you into a model of ministry. One day you might need to change that model but find it difficult because of your mortgage payment.
  • Think about tomorrow: plant a church. If you have to, call it a second campus. Give it a campus pastor and rent a location for it. It can organizationally be part of your church….just plant a church. We need more Gospel witness in our society and larger churches need to think about how their resources can be deployed to advance the mission of God in new and innovative ways.
  • Be wary of consumerism. Listen to the ways you describe your programs and ministries. Are you using consumerist language. Think about who you’re reaching with those programs. If people are coming from other churches because they like your programs, do you think that God is particularly pleased by that? Consumerism is the air we breathe and, perhaps more than the Gospel itself, it forms the ways in which we unconsciously think and act. Be wary of producing religious services for consumption by other religious people.