27 July 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, part 3

On the heels of the sabbath discussion comes Stellman’s next concern (chap. 7): “to highlight the fact that, regardless of any earthly nation’s horizontal goodness and civic uprightness, there is only one nation with which God is in redemptive covenant, and that is the church.” We can thus free ourselves from the notion that any nation-state (such as America or Israel) “carries redemptive significance” (64). Not much else needs to be said other than Stellman’s own recounting of Donald Barnhouse’s musings about what a city would look like if Satan took it over: “He didn’t envision rampant violence and deviant sexual perversion, with Christians being tortured or thrown into prison. Rather, Barnhouse surmised that if the Devil were in charge of a city, the bars and pool halls would close, the streets and neighbor­hoods would be cleaned up, children would say “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” and every Sunday men and women would flock to churches where Christ was not preached” (65; emphases original throughout, unless otherwise noted). This point, Stellman argues, is one with which we American believers need to wrestle. We, in short, need to look in the mirror: “Do we truly understand that no myth of manifest destiny can justify the earthly, fallen, and selfish motives that drive us ‘further up and further in’ to this dream that we have been told is our inalienable right to enjoy? After all, the Babylonian fixation with free markets and military aggression cannot but sound just a tad familiar to those who dare to read the national news (Rev. 13: 1–2, 4, 11–12a). It appears that Bob Marley and the Wailers were wrong: we don’t need to get to Babylon by Bus, for we can simply go the route of Babylon by mirror” (66). 

In the final chapter of this first part on Christian worship, Stellman turns to a defense of “churchly piety” as opposed to the more common concept of piety (“quiet times,” etc.) prevalent in America today (it’s wise to note that at least the concept is prevalent, if not the practice). He apparently doesn’t intend to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter, he simply hopes to bring back into focus God’s actual ordained means for the health and growth of his church and to exhort all Christians to avail themselves to them. Even more succinctly, his point is that "the faith once delivered is also the faith corporately practiced” (81, emphasis added). The alternative is lethal, Stellman argues, for we cannot take a gnostic shortcut that severs Jesus from his church, the personal from the corporate, the head from his body. “If physical decapitation is lethal, then it would follow that its spiritual equivalent is infinitely more deadly” (84).

Turning now to a discussion in the second part of the book on the “good” kind of worldliness, Christian life in the earthly kingdom, Stellman sets up the big picture of God’s redemptive purposes of the cosmos and the individual pilgrim’s relationship to it. In so doing, he hopes to undo the egocentric paradigm that defines much of Western “churchiness” and to help us see “our struggles as parts of a larger saga, a love story of epic scope” (88). The remaining portion of this chapter is spent defending the thesis that the great redemptive battle is already won (with implications to how Christians view life in the secular realm), and he employs Revelation 12:1–6 in the process. This passage gives the church “a glimpse of Christ’s victory in his cosmic war with Satan, and that glimpse provides comfort and protection for God’s people” (89).

Moving from his brief glance at the epic scope of God’s redemptive plan, and how that plan catches each of us who are in Christ up in it, Stellman goes on to discuss how despite the protections and pleasures of the secular, earthly realm (e.g., “Egypt”), it is ultimately unsatisfying (102). Old Testament faithful like Joseph and Moses are taken to be exemplars of this principle (especially as they are portrayed in Heb. 11). “This is not because the blessings of earth are mere mirages, but because they are subject to the ravages of time, while we have been created with a built-in dissatisfaction with anything short of eternal, heavenly glory” (102–103).

Time, then, is the enemy. And it adversely affects, in the Preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes, all our toil under the sun. “Time renders all of man’s earthly pursuits utterly pointless” (104). Stellman thus directs our attention to three of man’s greatest quests for meaning in this life—pleasure, philanthropy, and piety—and how time frustrates and defeats them, and rightly so, for we are “hardwired” to long for that which stands forever. It seems that Stellman’s point here is not to persuade his readers to check out on all earthly pursuits but to challenge them to not divorce such pursuits from eternity. This “serves to rob even the most noble of earth’s pursuits of any ultimate value, for the bigger the barns we build to store our bounty (pleasure to please the body), the more old ladies we help across the street (philanthropy to calm the con­science), or the more deposits we make in our moral bank accounts (piety to soothe the spirit), the more damning will be the ‘Thou fool!’ that we will hear from God’s lips on that final day (Luke 12:16–21; Matt. 7:21–23)” (109).

Most poignantly, this brings into question the common idea found in modern evangelism, “that before a person can be expected to repent and trust in Christ he must be convinced of his dissatisfac­tion with life as he presently knows it.” Stellman refers to this as the “Jesus Is Better Than Drugs” method of evangelism (111, which, as those of us know who have participated in such extracurricular activities, isn’t true, “if what is being compared here is the feeling one derives from Jesus on the one hand and drugs on the other”). It’s not that worldly happiness is a farce; rather, thinking this way highlights what modern Christians, again, so often forget: “it is the height of vanity to identify our lasting treasure with the stuff of earth; the ‘not yet,’ God’s still-unfulfilled promises, make the earthly treasures of Egypt utterly unworthy of our affection” (112).

Just when the reader may think that Stellman’s leaving them with the utter uselessness the Preacher bemoaned, he turns to consider what, if any, earthly pursuits are worthy of our devotion. Always taking our futures, the telos of God’s cosmic, redemptive plan into account is necessary. “We are to live with our heavenly destiny in view” (115). And what is that destiny? Eternal life on a renewed earth in renewed, resurrected bodies. Humanity, according to Stellman (taking 1 Cor. 14:42–49 as his cue), longs for such an existence, one that transcends the merely earthly and Adamic to which we are currently confined.

But more than humanity groans for this destiny. The entire created order eagerly anticipates it. Citing Romans 8:19–22, Stellman points out that “the fate of the created order…is bound up in the destiny of God’s people, and creation knows it.” He emphasizes this so as to challenge the reader to consider that if subhuman creation groans for more, and if all people also ache for eternity, then how much more ought the people of God “recognize this longing and give expression to it? …The irony, however, is that the unbelieving world often displays, through its art and other media, a greater frustration with earth than many believers exhibit” (119–20). The charge, then, for all believers is to embrace biblical “escapism,” one that is true and grounded in fact (which actually undoes the charge of escapism)—and to live like they believe it. Stellman quotes Kreeft: “Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism” (121).

The last section of this chapter enjoins the reader to think deliberately about which narrative of origins defines who he or she is. While Stellman does seem to adopt the view that the scientific evolutionary narrative of origins is directly opposed to the narrative of Scripture regarding humanity’s being made a little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5), he ends up focusing precisely where he needs to: “Are we simply pushed by our past, driven by mere instinct and the desire for the survival of the fittest? …The chicken is indeed produced by the egg, and, likewise, we are the product of our ancestry in some sense. But all of that pales in light of the deeper question of what the chicken is for. Sure, the ‘origin of the species’ is important, but not nearly as important as its final destination” (122). Quite right. Even if we were to grant the neo-Darwinian synthesis its basic veracity, the point is still the same: Are we humans going to live down to our natural instincts? Or are we going to live up to God’s goal, bearing his image, reflecting his glory? 


Steve said...

Good stuff, Chris.

I only have one question: may I mail your 2K card yet? I also have a bunch of "I heart NYC and wouldn't change a thing" lapel pins and "Yeah, I'd vote for a theological idolater, why do you ask?" tee shirts . Those are really hard to unload.

Chris said...


I disagree with Stellman's basic premise (wh/ I suppose isn't really his so much as it is Calvin's via Luther), but I'm enjoying your review and much of his thought nonetheless.

I esp. appreciate his critique of 'Jesus-is-better-than-drugs' evangelism! That, I believe, is a particularly deadly form of idolatrous behavior.

Chris Donato said...

@ Chris: Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting. Of course, I'd appreciate any further thoughts, especially with respect to your foundational disagreement with the "Reformational" 2K premise.

@ Steve: Is there any chance my 2k card would get revoked if I incorporated at times Hermann Sasse's (if not Pannenberg's) take on the issue (i.e., is it a specifically WSC2k card)?

Love the pins and shirts, incidentally. I'll take them.

John Schaefer said...

So if I'm understanding you right, Jesus is not better than drugs, but instead he's really, really different from drugs. ;)

I also love the Babylon By Bus reference! The misreading, not so much: Jamaica and other places where dem people are trodden on the winepress are clearly not Babylon, lacking both money and guns. Does this mean such folk don't need to look in the mirror? And what should godly Babylonians do when Jah people rise up and trample down Babylon? Inhale? I guess not Jesus...

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