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? 

19 July 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto, part 2

In his first chapter, Stellman simply carries on his thesis and argues for the distinctiveness of Christian worship (again, as opposed to Christian life) by promoting, and this will come as no surprise to Reformed readers, the ordinary—otherwise known as Word and sacrament. In short, the “faithful attendance on the simple means of grace that Christ has instituted for His people’s growth” (5).

Naturally, then, some time is spent taking aim at new and improved programs at the expense of sticking to what God himself has prescribed: “a simple, straightforward, and easy-to-follow program for the growth of the church and the edification of believers: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (ibid.). The rest of the chapter essentially defends this ‘boring’ program in the face of the many temptations to make appealing, even “sexy” (3), the worship of Christ’s church.

Chapter two calls into question the modern church’s quest for relevance and subsequently compares such a pursuit to grits (as a Yankee, this is particularly endearing to me)—because grits, you see, “takes on the flavor of anything that is added to it, [whereas] salt imparts its own distinct taste to the food to which it is added” (17–18). It comes as no surprise which one Stellman desires the church to emulate, and he thus contends that Christians are to be most distinct from the world when they are gathered for worship. He rests on 1 Peter 2:4–17 to make his case. Does the church need to mirror popular culture in order to seek and save the lost? That is, does it need to “offer baptized versions of every worldly form of program, event, and small group under the sun” (20)? In a word, no, Stellman says (26). 

Objectors will have undoubtedly cried foul already. All this distinguishing, worship from life, sacred from secular, must lead to a kind of carnal Christianity that hypocritically puts on the façade each Sunday only to remove it every Monday. Stellman rightly anticipates this and (finally) sticks his finger in the dike: “Certainly not. As much of the New Testament’s practical instruction clearly demonstrates, a Christian husband, wife, employer, or employee will discharge his or her duties in a manner distinct from the way an unbeliever will (and for very different reasons)” (22). It might’ve been more in keeping with his central thesis to say that Christians will often not discharge their duties in any manner distinct from others, but the reasons behind such diligence to said duties are very different. Still, the fact remains: many of our actions in the secular realm will indeed be distinct from those of non-Christians. “But this requirement for distinctive behavior does not change the fact that believers are citizens of two kingdoms, the eternal kingdom of Christ and the temporal kingdom of culture” (ibid.). 

So, in the end, the cry for relevance is, indeed, most irrelevant, for the call is to holiness, not relevance (25). Even further, “when the faithfully preached gospel of our dying and rising God seems irrelevant to modern man, it is man, and not God, who is irrelevant” (27; again, emphases original throughout). 

The third chapter continues the same trajectory, using the same text (1 Peter 2:4–17) as the springboard, but now expands the discussion to include not just the distinctiveness of Christian worship but of the church’s citizenship (as pilgrims sojourning toward their true home); language (as persons who share the same peculiar and tribal lexicon as Jesus and his friends); and history (caught up as it is in the story of Christianity from the first Adam to the last and in that our ties to the communion of saints—past and present—transcend all others). 

Here’s the money quote that sums it all up: “The insistence that our religion is valuable only insofar as it makes an easily discernible difference in the affairs of everyday life is false. Demands for ‘Christian’ art, music, or dentistry are both an elevation of those legitimate pursuits above their proper station and a debasing of the label Christian by apply­ing it to areas concerning which it has little or nothing to say. Hence, culture is sacralized and cult is trivialized, all in the name of a notion of relevance that God has nowhere promised to bestow” (32). 

The next chapter, in essence, pushes the old amillennial line: “the victory for which the church longs is largely a future promise, with the present being characterized by struggle, temptation, and a status of underdogs” (42). This is good and right, Stellman argues, not just because it’s biblical but because it keeps in check “the lust for victory in the here and now…[which] has the ugly effect of (mis)shaping [the church’s] corporate and personal piety into something as inconsistent with the New Testament as faith is with sight and as the cross is with glory” (ibid.). 

To be sure, the Western church, and particularly American evangelicals, resists such theologia crucis notions of destiny. But this is to resist the very message of Jesus and his apostles (Stellman directs us to Matt. 24:37–39, 42, as an example of future suffering). The arguably better exegesis that sees this particular Matthean pericope pointing to the destruction of Jerusalem notwithstanding, Stellman’s point holds up. “The spirit of triumphalism that characterizes so much of the evangelical church regards such a message as anathema” (47). Who, after all, would rather bear the reproach of Christ than surpassing wealth and power? 

But instead of merely arguing that God has determined his church to be the underdogs in this age (an argument that he of course could make, though not, I believe, without criticism), he does the reader a better service by showing how such a minority position is actually the church’s vocation, which has been described powerfully in John Howard Yoder’s words some years ago: “The believer’s cross is, like that of Jesus, the price of social non-conformity” (The Politics of Jesus). Stellman thus challenges the church to live up to its calling, which is, ironically if not uncomfortably, embracing its underdog status encapsulated in the foolishness of the cross. 

The fifth chapter moves to connect the essential distinctiveness of the Christian ‘cult’ to its worship on a particular day of the week, namely, the first. As is often the case (which makes this a fun read, incidentally), Stellman approaches this issue from a fresh angle, starting with a brief discussion on how the various shades of sabbatarianism in America often stemmed from a “transformational impulse—a desire to capture or recover the glory that once characterized America” (52). In so doing, he sets up a good foil to juxtapose with proper worship observance on the first day of the week. 

Stellman thus wants to maintain the continuation of the fourth commandment in the new covenant, but without resorting to the old, Americanized rationale. Instead, he offers (no surprise) a two-kingdoms rationale, one that maintains the distinction between cult and culture, sacred and secular. 

In brief, Stellman rightly notes that under the old covenant Israel was enjoined to strict and proper Sabbath observance (he also adopts the common Reformed premise that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, applicable to all humankind before its particular embodiment in the Mosaic covenant). Stellman adds to his case by walking us through Kline’s views on the subject of new covenant Sabbath observance. In short, Kline restricts the Sabbath’s application to the covenant community (not to non-believers). Nor does its application extend beyond that of the covenant community’s assembly. With the two-kingdoms doctrine as his paradigm, Kline believes that “to apply the Sabbath’s restrictions to activities in the cultural realm would be to stamp the profane with God’s holy imprint, thereby conflating the two kingdoms” (57). 

Stellman, however, and many Reformed readers will be happy to know this, does not desire to follow Kline all the way down this path: “I would argue that [Kline’s] limitation of [the Sabbath’s] application to the worship service alone is insensitive to the eschatological character of man’s existence from creation onward. In fact, the very two-kingdoms paradigm that Kline propounds urges withdrawal from cultural activity on the Lord’s Day” (ibid.). 

This not being primarily an exegetical argument, Stellman’s urgings for cultural withdrawal throughout the entirety of the first day of the week are in the end practical: “it…serves to challenge and subvert the assumptions of this fleeting age” (58). I’m all for such pragmatic responses to this hedonistic world. But of course our pragmatic reasons cannot and should not be elevated to normative status—unless we’re commanded to by God himself (granted, sabbatarians think precisely this). No doubt Stellman is convinced exegetically of the Westminsterian Sabbath view, but he didn’t need to use the particular (and debatable) sabbatarian language of this chapter to make his point. I’ve also always had the sneaking suspicion that cultural withdrawal throughout the entirety of the first day of the week is only a viable option post Constantine. It wasn’t until Christianity became a religio licita that anything like a non-workday during the week began to take shape (Jewish and pagan festivals already enjoyed for some time work-free days). In other words, only those of us with the luxury of a “weekend” can spend time arguing about what the entirety of our day of worship is supposed to look like. 

Despite this reviewer’s disagreement with the underlying exegetical presuppositions of this chapter, it’s sufficient to say that one needn’t be a sabbatarian to refrain from treating Sunday like “Saturday, Part Two” (51), nor is the principle of Stellman’s exhortation to be overlooked: “A ‘subversive Sabbatarianism,’ therefore, does not affirm the world but condemns it, employing God’s divinely ordained tool to challenge the culture and its ‘idols of leisure and consumption’” (61). 

* Look for part 3 of this review on Monday of next week.

13 July 2009

An Exilic Presbyterian's Manifesto

This post begins a multi-series book review, or, rather, walkthrough of Jason J. Stellman's Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and Not Yet. I jotted this down as I was reading the pre-publication manuscript (note therefore that my page numbering may be off) and was thinking I'd cull together some of it for an actual review to be of use somewhere, but the "conflict of interest" factor proved too great. So I'll be posting my thoughts here alone. Again, this is more of a walkthrough, and as such, my personal opinions will be kept to a minimum, except where it provoked a more visceral reaction. Please note that I had nothing to do with this manuscript's acceptance, development, etc.; I have no official role in Reformation Trust. Here goes:

The last thing we need is another book analyzing the problems facing the Western church or how “Christ” relates to “culture,” right? (In fact, once I read Rodney Clapp’s
Peculiar People and then Craig Gay’s The Way of the (Modern) World, not to mention Hauerwas' and Willimon's Resident Aliens, I considered this genre officially closed.) Well, I guess we wouldn’t need another one if the majority of them were more concerned with fidelity to the charter (i.e., Scripture) given to the church by Jesus and his apostles than with “transforming” or improving culture—often through questionable, cultural (and thus ultimately subjective and relative) tactics.

One of the many reasons, it seems, that Christians drift toward this latter tendency is their forgetfulness. What do they forget? The stated central thesis of Stellman’s book: “…the new covenant situates us in a tension between ‘the already’ on the one hand and the ‘not yet’ on the other” (xiii). This tension arises out of the fact that God’s Messiah has already come and inaugurated his Father’s kingdom, while leaving some aspects of it not yet enacted. “God’s delay in ushering in the kingdom in its glorious and final form means that we live in the intersection of the present and the futures as exiles and pilgrims in the divinely ordained overlap of the ages” (xiv).  Sound like a bore? Maybe, if you already have this stuff figured out. But the actions, concerns, and emphases of the majority of American Christians betrays otherwise. Thus the need for yet another book on this subject. In short, what we’ve got here in Dual Citizens appears to be young, restless, and, with apologies to Mr. Hansen, thoroughly Reformed.

The book itself is split in two: part one looks at worship and part two deals with life. Both are discussed under the rubric of living as pilgrims in these times between the times.

Expecting the reader to scratch his head in response to the subtitle, “Worship and Life Between the Already and Not Yet,” Stellman begins by taking to task what is often taken for granted in the Western church. Thus his introduction begins by tearing asunder what many Christians think God hath joined together: worship and life. “Characteristic of this position,” Stellman writes, “is Reformed theologian John Frame, who insists that ‘there is no real difference between worship and the rest of life…[for] it is very difficult, in general, to separate “life” from “worship” in a biblical framework’” (xviii). Contrarily, Stellman argues that God’s Word maintains this distinction, and he spends the remainder of his introduction attempting to prove just that (it is this particular point that distinguishes Stellman’s attempt from so many of the others. Most, in my experience, collapse this distinction, and, indeed, decry it).

The main reason he finds the distinction valid is due to the place Christ’s church now occupies: “The people of God under the new covenant are in a situation more like that of the patriarchs under the Abrahamic covenant than that of Israel under the Mosaic covenant” (xxv). That is to say, the church is not a “triumphant theocratic nation dwelling in an earthly holy land, but a band of dispossessed pilgrims whose true country—of which Eden and Canaan were types and shadows—is not to be found ‘under the sun’ but beyond it, in heaven itself” (Ibid.). Note his connection of the nation of Israel—the ‘cult’ (a religious realm as distinct from the secular realm, see fn. 2, xxviii)—to their land.

Following Meredith Kline (in Kingdom Prologue), Stellman argues that God’s rule over both pre-fallen man and Israel included a realm, namely the garden of Eden and the Promised Land. For both Adam and Israel, God provided “for his covenant people a distinct land in which they are to serve Him as His loyal subjects…[where] cult and culture, church and world, temple and palace, are one” (xix–xx). But under Abraham, as under the new covenant, the situation can be characterized as “pilgrim politics, a term that highlights [the patriarch’s—and the church’s] status not as a triumphant theocratic army but as ‘resident aliens’ and ‘tolerated sojourners’ whose inheritance was not yet a reality” (xxi, emphases original throughout, unless otherwise indicated). Indeed, precisely because of the church’s lack of a distinct country, “we exist in a cultural realm that is distinct from that of the cultic. We are, like the patriarchs religiously particular but culturally indistinct. For the new covenant church, cult is distinct from culture, church is distinct from world, and the sacred is distinct from the secular” (xxvi).

Has your hair begun to bristle? So keen are we Christians to transform or improve culture in the name of Christ that such notions of seeming withdrawal produce reflexive scorn. But Stellman doesn’t back down (nor does he intend for the church to “withdraw,” as we shall see). He sees himself comfortably couched not just in the Reformation principle of Christians simultaneously living in two kingdoms but in the Pauline notion that culture has its own legitimacy apart from cult (again, understood as a secular realm distinct from the religious realm). The American nation is decidedly a “non-theocratic context” and thus we Christians, like the Christians of the first century, are to submit to the governing authorities, as well as participate in them (ibid.). Both the secular and sacred are under the reign of God, and thus distinguishing between life and worship, as the subtitle of his book suggests, Stellman argues is “a necessary consequence of careful Bible study” and life under the new covenant (xvii).

I suppose I could just leave the whole discussion here, since this series is filled with spoilers…

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