Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Stott on our suffering in light of Christ's

"I could never myself believe in God, were it not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering."

from John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 326-27.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The City

Cities have evoked a number of associations in the imagination. For the 17th century New England Puritan, Mary Rowlandson, the city was a haven. During Metacom’s War (a bloody conflict taking place in New England between the English colonists and Indians), Rowlandson was abducted and held captive for three months by the Nipmucs, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags tribes. She tells of this story in the The Sovereignty and Goodness of God. For Rowlandson, the city was a sanctuary from what she described as the “ravenous Beasts” (i.e. Indians) likely to attack those straying from the city’s walls.

Almost two-hundred years later, famous nineteenth century American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, delivered his “Lectures to Young Men.” In Beecher’s Lectures there is a very different understanding of the city than that seen in Rowlandson’s captivity account. Thanks to the industrial revolution, which was hitting full stride during Beecher’s day, and a new wave of immigration, the city was evolving dramatically. The changing shape of cities presented unique challenges, making the city a new environment with which to reckon.

In contrast to Rowlandson, Beecher calls the city a “wilderness” and “desert,” and unlike the “ravenous Beasts” that Rowlandson feared in her wilderness, Beecher’s concern was the greedy. Beecher’s city-wilderness was not any milder than Rowlandson’s. Beecher described greedy men so prevalent in his day as pouncing upon a man in debt “like wolves upon a wounded deer, dragging him down, ripping him open, breast and flank, plunging deep into their bloody muzzles to reach the heart and taste blood at the very fountain.” That this imagery, oozing with primeval barbarity, is applied to the city is telling.

This was a time when the understandings concerning place were being inverted. The city became a wilderness. The wilderness became a haven. The palisades that once protected the polis were broken down and reversed, protecting a new idyllic wilderness. Romanticism provided the philosophical underpinnings supporting this shift.

The latter half of the 20th century has witnessed similar shifts in how the city is perceived. Following the Second World War, many affluent, usually white families fled the city in search of a pristine and spacious suburbia, a migration dubbed the “white flight.” The city was no longer viewed as the place to go for social advancement. Instead, the upwardly mobile began to collect around cities, in the suburbs. This left a void in urban areas that was filled by an influx of poorer (usually minority) families that entered the city en masse. These shifting demographics during post-war America changed the city. As the 1970s gave way to the 80s, the city was acquiring a vicious reputation.

During the 1990s, the cultural winds started to shift again. The city began to shed its grime and took on a brighter hue. A symbol of this change was the setting of popular sitcoms of the 90s. Shows like Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier were all set in urban locations. But the shifting attitude was even more concrete, manifesting itself in the urban renewal projects taking place across the country that sought to revitalize cities.

In the midst of these changes, evangelicals have tended to focus their efforts on the suburbs. During the 1990s, it was the Willow Creeks and Saddlebacks leading the way. These churches were decidedly suburban in both location and ethos.

And these locales fit the traditional hubs evangelicals have gravitated towards. For example, Wheaton, Colorado Springs, Grand Rapids, and Nashville pale in cultural significance to cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Chicago. A recent Christian Scholar’s Review devoted its theme to the city and how Christians perceive it. One article by Mark T. Mulder and James K. A. Smith looked at evangelical attitudes toward the city. In the article, Mulder and Smith wonder if American evangelicals have maintained a bias against the city.

Not all American evangelicals have shied from the city. Beginning in the late 1980s and picking up steam during the 1990s there has been a concerted effort to plant evangelical churches in cities. Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City is an example. After some hesitation, Keller started Redeemer which now has thousands of members and has extended its influence well beyond the boroughs of New York.

In a recent talk, Keller explained that Christians should view the city as a refuge, a place where culture is formed, and a place of witness. As a result, the city has always been a strategic place for ministry. Paul realized this and remained urban-centric in his mission efforts. Keller describes the strategy that exists in the city like this: one could spend a decade in China, Morocco, and Paraguay working as a missionary, learning the language and working with the people. Or, one could go to a major city, like NYC, work with people from all those countries (usually future leaders from those countries) and more without having to learn the language of each of those peoples. The city is indeed a strategic place. Yet Keller warns that Christians would be wrong to neglect non-urban areas (and global missions, for that matter). After all, there is not a dark corner of the universe that does not need the gospel’s light shining upon it. But the evangelical neglect has tended toward the city.

Notwithstanding Keller and others, the hunch of Mulder and Smith seems accurate: American evangelicals for most of their history have tended to have an anti-urban bias. This is ironic at best and tragic at worse. It is ironic because the goal of redemptive history is a city. God’s redemptive purposes are not moving to a return to the Garden but they are escalating to a city, the new Jerusalem. It is tragic because Christians have not been strategic enough. Christians have often ignored a place where the marginalized tend to aggregate (i.e. the kind of hearts most receptive to the gospel), where culture is formed, and a place that has a way of absorbing people from the entire globe, namely, the city.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Deep Church addresses deep problems within evangelicalism

(Note: A version of this review was originally published in The Baptist Messenger, October 15, 2009)

The eighteenth century’s Scottish grown Common Sense philosophy has left a hefty footprint upon American life. This philosophy held a bold confidence in the individual’s perceptive powers. It believed that the ability to accurately interpret the world was a God-given gift, common to all (hence “Common Sense”). The result was a heightened confidence in human reason among Americans. These assumptions about the individual spilled over into American theology, becoming strikingly evident in the thinking of the famous minister Charles G. Finney. During the nineteenth century Finney had this to say about revivalism: “The connection between the right use of means for a revival and a revival is as philosophically…sure as between the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat. I believe, in fact, it is more certain, and there are fewer instances of failure.” Mark A. Noll explains Finney’s logic by saying, “Since God had established reliable laws in the natural world and since humans were created with the ability to discern those laws, it was obvious that the spiritual world worked on the same basis.”

Such unflinching confidence in human reason that was bound up in the Enlightenment project has been a source of frustration and protest for those in the emerging church movement. This emerging movement believes that the epistemological leanings that were seen in Finney are not only more modern than biblical but that they have manifest themselves in harmful ways within evangelicalism, producing the arrogance that they believe often marks evangelical preaching, teaching, and discourse. This has led to profound revisions by emergents, revisions that many within evangelicalism at large have felt go too far.

Enter Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. Belcher’s book seeks to remedy the problems that concern the emerging movement in a way that remains faithful to the gospel and the early Church tradition (specifically, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds). This will offer, Belcher believes, a third way, the way of the “deep church.” In chapter four, “Deep Truth,” Belcher takes readers into the epistemological arena by addressing a protest common among emergents, namely, the church’s long captivity to Enlightenment rationalism. The emerging movement challenges evangelicalism’s commitment to the Enlightenment notion that the individual has the ability to ascertain and interpret reality with certitude (what Belcher calls foundationalism). Belcher believes that this postmodern critique of Enlightenment reason is on target. The postmodern answer, however, is problematic. Postmoderns typically resolve this revised epistemology with a faulty metaphysic, one that denies any objective reality. Some (not all) emergents follow suit.

Belcher contends that the emerging movement is correct to challenge the epistemological foundation that much of evangelicalism has been built upon, the kind of optimism toward the individual’s perceptive faculties so evident in Finney. In other words, Belcher calls for the deep church to be epistemologically postfoundational. This means that Christians recognize the intellect’s entanglement in sin and therefore its inability to attain unassailable certainty, especially toward the mysteries of eternal decree.

Postmoderns and some emergents are incorrect to conclude that simply because humans have difficulty grasping truth, it does not mean that no truth exists. In other words, the epistemological deficiency of the modern project has led many postmoderns and some emergents to unnecessarily leap to this metaphysical conclusion: that no objective reality exists. Through an interesting exchange with Nicholas Wolterstorff, Belcher realizes that the Christian’s confidence that objective reality exists is derived from divine revelation, not human reason. Unlike many American evangelicals, including Finney, but like the emerging movement, Belcher believes that foundationalism is a rickety epistemological foundation. Yet, unlike some in the emerging movement, Belcher contends that objective reality does exist and our knowledge of it emanates from without (namely, God’s revelation), not within (namely, human reason). The deep church, then, is epistemologically postfoundational and metaphysically Christ-centered. In practice, this sparks a humble confidence that is anchored not in the individual—as it was in the Enlightenment model so evident in much of American evangelicalism—but in Christ.

As a result of important epistemological changes in American theology during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a constellation of shifts followed. One of those shifts related to salvation. The Puritan salvation model that stressed the salvation process as mediated by clergy, family and church, and was more skeptical about gaining immediate assurance in salvation was growing tired. Individuals wanted certainty, and they wanted it quick. A new emphasis on the born-again experience soon followed. The born-again experience’s entry found support in the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. This more evangelical salvation paradigm assuaged previous anxieties by providing a definite moment when one was saved.

The born-again experience also provided a new objective for the many pastors and leaders wanting to win the country for Christ: get the people saved. It was clear; it was simple. And in an effort to reach the multitudes of unsaved Americans, preachers tended to rely on charisma and a simplified gospel that would resonate especially with the frontier-ilk making their way deeper into the hinterland. The preaching became less cerebral, more emotional. Here existed the ingredients for the growth of a stunted gospel. Too busy proclaiming the gospel to astounding numbers of people, many pastors simply did not have the time to explore the depths of that gospel.

And this inherited evangelical gospel is another aspect of evangelicalism that bothers the emerging movement, a topic Belcher addresses in chapter six, “Deep Gospel.” The emerging movement believes that the good news of Jesus’ kingdom has not been stressed enough. While evangelicals have focused on the gospel as a message for the individual, they have failed to act out the gospel’s social implications. On the other side, traditional evangelicalism claims that emergents have simply revived a social gospel that neglects penal substitutionary atonement and, consequently, leads to a work-based model of the Christian life. Belcher believes the deep gospel emerges from penal substitutionary atonement and is the foundation for the coming kingdom of God, thereby unifying the two alternatives.

Belcher closes the chapter by explaining four words that characterize his church: gospel, community, mission, and shalom. These four words, Belcher believes, provide the balance for the gospel’s individual and social implications, thereby remedying the complaints of each side. The gospel is central to their church’s work and identity. As they are affected by the gospel, Belcher’s church has the strength to care for their community. Then, their church’s acts of love should spread beyond their community and into the world. This is their mission. And, finally, as the gospel affects the church individually and corporately, as well as impact the surrounding culture, shalom begins to take root in the world.

I have only underscored two chapters of Belcher’s Deep Church. When reading the book I felt as though I was putting on glasses for the first time; all the issues in this emerging debate took on a new sharpness and clarity. It is probably Belcher’s insider/outsider relationship to the emerging movement that enables him to offer this lucid account of the debate. While not all readers will agree with Belcher’s ecclesiological prescription, every reader will benefit from the clarity his book contributes to the emerging conversation.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Deep Things of God and bridge-building

There is not a shortage of voices lamenting evangelicalism’s biblical and theological atrophy. This doctrinal deficit is not due to a lack of resources. Consider the most recent academic catalogs put out by publishers like Baker, B&H, Eerdmans, and IVP; these publishers churn out a steady flow of worthy books every year. The Internet also offers a myriad of worthwhile theological materials and helps that were previously inaccessible (although these must be sought out with a more discerning eye).

No, evangelicalism’s biblical and theological shortcomings are not so much due to a dearth of resources rather the problem lies in a lack of “bridgers,” that is, those that are able to connect two fairly disconnected worlds within evangelicalism. In one world reside the evangelical academics or elites. These pastors and scholars spend much of their lives reflecting on every pocket of the Christian faith and tradition. The residents of this world attend conferences, read journals, and present papers discussing the fine points of the Christian faith. Rarely do these thoughts make it to the other, larger world within the evangelical galaxy. Those inhabiting this larger evangelical world are ordinary evangelicals. In part, what the Church needs are pastors and teachers capable of bridging these two worlds.

Fred Sanders, associate professor of theology at Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, provides an engaging model of how this might play out in his look at the Trinity. In The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Crossway, 2010), Sanders claims that “the gospel is Trinitarian, and the Trinity is the gospel.” In other words, being gospel people means, by necessity, being Trinity people. And yet for evangelicals who derive their name from the gospel (evangel), the Trinity tends “to be treated as an awkward guest in the evangelical household.” According to Sanders, evangelicals, while giving the Trinity “polite hospitality,” do “not welcome it with any special warmth.”

Sanders’s book seeks to make the Trinity more “at home” in the evangelical abode. And the way he goes about this is instructive. For example, when one thinks of the Trinity it is easy to think of it as an abstraction, the kind of brainy material that is batted around in the halls of seminaries. So when Sanders introduces Nicky Cruz as having an exemplary Trinitarian theology the effect is jolting. After all, Cruz was the former gang member popularized in David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade. Rather than developing his Trinitarian outlook in the pristine halls of academia, Cruz learned about the Trinity amidst the grime and grit of New York’s streets.

In his book that focuses on the Trinity, The Magnificent Three, Cruz says:

Something has emerged in my walk with God that has become the most important element of my discipleship. It has become the thing that sustains me, that feeds me, that keeps me steady when I am shaky. I have come to see God, to know Him, to relate to Him as Three-in-One, God as Trinity, God as Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit. God has given to me over the years a vision of Himself as Three-in-One, and the ability to relate to God in that way is the single most important fact of my Christian growth.

Not only does Sanders’s use of this quote by Cruz aptly demonstrate the importance of the Trinity for Christian growth, but the selection of Cruz himself packs a pedagogical punch. With this move, Sanders is implying that the Trinity is not an abstract concept remote from the concerns of ordinary Christians.

Alongside strategically chosen guides like Cruz, Sanders’s writing is gripping. The reader gets the sense that Sanders is a teacher at heart, patiently helping readers along what can be rough theological terrain. The writing seems like an act of service to the reader. The prose is both palatable and easy to digest.

The Deep Things of God communicates on a number of levels. The subject matter, the Trinity, is dealt with persuasively. Sanders emphasizes the centrality of the Trinity to the evangelical worldview. He says regarding evangelicalism, “Dig anywhere and you will hit Trinitarian gold.” Whether it is getting saved, cultivating a relationship with Jesus, Bible reading, or prayer, Sanders unearths the “Trinitarian gold” that lay under these decidedly evangelical emphases.

But alongside subject matter, the way Sanders’s treatise unfolds is instructive as it provides a model of the type of bridge-building evangelical education needs. In the book insights from both evangelical worlds meet and, thanks to Sanders’s writing, the ordinary evangelical is warmly invited to sit and listen in on the conversation. Sanders’s demonstration of how the Trinity changes everything hits evangelicals, who tend to prefer activity (especially soul-saving) over sustained reflection, in the right spot. In this way, The Deep Things of God provides not only a helpful examination of the Trinity but also offers the reader an example of the kind of teaching that evangelicalism could use more of.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fujimura and contemporary visual arts

(Note: This blog is being resurrected! Hiatus no longer!)
I like art. In elementary school art (alongside P.E.) was my favorite class. Coloring, drawing, painting and sculpting are all things I enjoyed (and still do!). While I like trips to the art museum, I must admit: I have very little understanding of what is going on in contemporary visual arts. I do know when I see something that is aesthetically pleasing. I also know when I see a piece that is both profound and disturbing (like some of Damien Hirst’s work which often stresses the inevitability of death; click here for more on Hirst). But, for the most, I do not know what is going on in the visual arts largely because I am not really engaged in its “conversation.”

I do, however, know that Makoto Fujimura is a highly regarded artist who also happens to be a Christian (an odd mix). Below is a video of Fujimura describing his latest project, an illustration of the four Gospels. The video not only describes this project but also explains some of Fujimura’s thoughts on contemporary art. One insightful comment made by Fujimura (one which extends beyond the visual arts) is that there is no short supply of depictions of “waywardness.” What is needed, however, is something to bring people “back home.”

Makoto Fujimura - The Art of "The Four Holy Gospels" from Crossway on Vimeo.

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Cyber Move

I have moved to a newer and busier corner of cyberspace. This blog will now lay dormant. The new blog has the same purpose as this one (see here). Now I will be blogging alongside three others (Alan Bandy, Jeremy Freeman, and Brent Prentice). There is a conglomerate of all our posts at the Messenger Insight Network (click here). My posts (and articles) can be found here. Also, the Messenger Insight site has a solid lineup of podcasts and vidcasts. Click here for these.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hume's suggestion to Tiger

Ross Douthat on Brit Hume urging Tiger Woods to turn to Christ.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

Spirituality of Emerging Adults (18-29 year olds)

"Most emerging adults have religious beliefs. They believe in God. They probably believe in an afterlife. They may even believe in Jesus. But those religious ideas are for the most part abstract agreements that have been mentally checked off and filed away. They are not what emerging adults organize their lives around."

From Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: OUP, 2009), 154.