12 December 2012

A Question I Heard Often . . .

. . . back when I used to hang around churches.

WHAT IF you're scheduled to work on Sunday? And the question this implies: Is the old Sabbath still in effect today for Christians?
My answer usually goes something like this: I don't think so (read this to find a good reason). But you are indeed to reserve and guard the time for the gathering of the assembly, which, in God's wisdom and since God raised Jesus from the dead on the first day of the week, happens to be Sunday (and it's no small fact that the church eventually confirmed this day too). The day itself isn't sacred. The time and space set aside for the gathering of the elect is.

This is why Christ's disciples "need corporate worship to keep them strong" (as commonly expressed). God decided it would be through these means so to do. If a Christian is asked to work on Sunday, she does so. But she may want to make it clear that she'd prefer not to work during the time the church gathers (the principle still applies even if her Christ-community gathered at some other time during the week). We work when we're scheduled to work (with all due respect to Eric Liddell [but, damn, that's inspiring]). And you let your bosses know that you'd prefer not to work Sunday mornings, since that's when your community gathers (I assume for the sake argument). Going in right after the services let out is of course a perfectly viable option.

As an aside, the ancients (Israel included) reckoned the close of the day at sundown, not at 11:59 p.m. So, technically, if you are sabbatarian, you couldn't work from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday.

Being scheduled to work on the Lord's Day is not a test from God to prove your sabbatarian mettle. But it could be a test from him to prove your standing up for what he has commanded you to do—not forsaking the assembly. And this "not forsaking" isn't a checklist thing, that is, going to church every Sunday. It's a way-of-life thing. To forsake the assembly is to consistently forgo—when you are able—gathering with God's elect for the purpose of re-coventanting together in the name of our triune Lord.

21 August 2012

A Holy Calling

A PREACHER ONCE PARAPHRASED a bygone theologian as a challenge to the congregation: “To convert one sinner from his way is an event of greater importance than the deliverance of sub-Saharan Africa from the problem of malaria.” He went on: “The very fact that we have pause here is an indication of the influence of relativistic thinking among us.”

On the one hand, this point needs to be heard—a church who thinks the primary concern of Christianity is to make the world a better place suffers form short-sightedness. But it also perpetuates a false dilemma. No doubt, for those churches who allow the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to be overshadowed by social action, the fact that top priority must always be given to the conversion of souls cannot be overstated. Yet the last thing a church that is so afraid of falling prey to the social gospel that works of charity are avoided needs is "theological" justification for their inaction. The remedy is clear: the situation ought not be cast in terms of either/or—either work toward the conversion of souls or work for the eradication of malaria in southern Africa (or abortion [through social, not legislative, action] in the West, child prostitution in southeast Asia, or wage-slavery and state-generated oppression the world over). Indeed, a church's works of charity is (or ought to be!) inextricably bound to the news that the king of all kings was born in Bethlehem about 2,000 years ago.

Maybe this stems from our confusion over what “conversion of souls” means. It’s not just about redeeming one’s spirit; salvation involves the whole person. In fact, a soul, in biblical terms, is the whole person—both the body God fashioned from the ground as well as the breath of life he breathed into that body (Gen. 2:7 KJV). “The conversion of souls,” then, has nothing to do with redeeming some kind of wispy vapor animating our bodies (that has more to do with a philosopher named Plato than we might think). Rather, it has everything to do with the calling God gives to those he's called out according to his boundless grace and love. (Note here that conversion, in the language of the New Testament, is denoted by the word calling, 1 Cor. 1:26; Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 3:1; 2 Peter 1:10). So, there’s no doubt the calling of sinners into God’s kingdom, with no qualifications, ought to be the church’s top priority. We just need to remember that God has promised to deal with bodies and tangible things, like all of creation—not shadows and mist—when it comes to redemption.

Connected to this calling is the purpose or mission for which people have been called. Just because a church has a top priority doesn’t mean it's allowed to relegate its subsequent priorities to the shelf—especially when those other priorities flow from the top one itself. This speaks to the purpose of the church’s existence. It is why the church is often described as a “missionary church,” a body of people whose mission is to go into all the world and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (the one given all authority in heaven and on earth), baptizing them as a sacramental act of entrance into the covenant community and of union with the risen Christ. Having been called (converted), God’s people are then “sent” to fulfill that holy calling (John 20:21). But to do what?

This brings us full circle: First, to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord, that sin and death have been defeated, that all people are called to trust in him and turn from sin if they want to be resurrected one day, and that by his Spirit he is establishing God’s kingdom now (hark, powers of the earth!). Second, precisely because Jesus is the one through whom God began this good and final work in the world (i.e., it is well underway), we too must get with the program. We are being sent, and thus we are called to be agents of God’s healing love in this dark world. (This is what it means, incidentally, to be the "people of God," that is, the "elect.")

There is no dilemma here. The two are bound up together in the very same mission. And it’s not a mission to establish a country club or voluntary association that meets every Sunday morning. It’s not a mission to become a better person and develop some kind of spiritual potential. It’s not a mission to huddle together in order to escape from an evil world and to pave the way for heaven when we die. It’s not a mission to fill our heads up with facts. It’s not a mission that merely seeks to encourage others, and it’s certainly not a mission to show the people of the world that Christians are just like them. The mission is clear, distinct, and twofold: the calling of people to talk about the gospel of God with others, as well as the calling to acts of “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

In Matthew 23:1–39, Jesus lays into a series of woes. They serve as warnings to us today insofar as we’ve fallen off the missionary track. Behind these threats of sorrow lie Deuteronomy 27:15–26 and 28:16–20, where Israel is threatened with exile if they do not keep the covenant. This challenge Jesus basically reiterates to the leaders of Israel in his day. Matthew, in recording it, is challenging us too: he puts the choice of exile or long life in the land before us. In which place will you be found?

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.10 (Oct. 2008): 12–13}

19 July 2012

The Orthodox Church of the West

THE MORE VOCAL I am about my Anglo-Catholic leanings, the more frequently I hear the following question: "What do you think about the Ordinariate?"

The short answer is much and not too much.

On November 4, 2009, in Rome at St. Peter's, on the Memorial of Charles Borromeo (is the significance of this fact due to his being venerated earlier in England than in other parts of the world?), Pope Benedict XVI presented the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. Briefly, it provides a canonical structure within the Roman Catholic Church that "enables former Anglicans to maintain some degree of corporate identity and autonomy with regard to the bishops of the geographical dioceses of the Catholic Church while preserving elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony."

If that sounds complicated, at least the process of becoming Catholic if you're an Anglican isn't.

Nevertheless, what do I think? For an Anglican who finds himself in hostile territory, alone in the wilderness, starving and wishing he were dead under the shade of a tree (HT 1 Kings 19), then (re)attachment makes obvious sense (assuming the Anglican thinks the Reformation is well-nigh over). Why go it alone?

But many of us are not alone: "Yet I will leave seven thousand people alive in Israel—all those who are loyal to me and have not bowed to Baal or kissed his idol" (v. 18). This remnant (hardly analogous to WWII Japanese soldiers fighting unawares that the war is over) embodies the four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (insofar as any Christian communion can in this time between the times). What's more, an Anglican parish (we have to speak in terms of individual parishes these days, alas) that incarnates these four marks finds itself in the unique position of embodying an unrivaled Western Orthodoxy (not to be confused with Western Rite Orthodox—those Orthodox churches that have adopted traditional Western liturgies).

Those from an Eastern Orthodox communion may know exactly what I'm getting at (despite their probable disagreement): An Anglican parish that is part and parcel of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is a microcosm of the Western Orthodox church before the Great Schism of the medieval era (as the Roman Church once was—at least more robustly than today)—more so than any transplanted Eastern Orthodox church or Western Rite Orthodox church. It reflects organically what an Orthodox church looks like having germinated in the soil of the West. I'm talking more or less about its indigenous or tribal features, an element of parish life that most Orthodox communions know all too well.

My current response to the Ordinariate, then, is thanks, but no thanks. In this regard, Anglicanorum Coetibus kind of misses the mark (not to mention its seeming underhanded end-around the See of Canterbury). We'll be getting somewhere when the Roman Catholic Church recognizes these faithful Anglican parishes in the same manner that they recognize the Orthodox. For starters, that means recognizing the validity of Anglican orders (Anglican priests entering the Ordinariate are, by all accounts, treated as if they're being ordained for the first time) and thus the sacraments she administers (which must needs lead to intercommunion).

One other factor remains pertinent: if, collectively speaking, a parish or diocese, etc., avails itself to the Ordinariate, that's one thing. A parishioner of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church operating under a proper understanding of ecclesial authority will not easily act alone—as a secta una—but will instead trust and obey, seeking first to honor the Christ by honoring his duly appointed ministers, the under-shepherds of our souls.

And all of this, perhaps ironically, reminds me of the grand hope of faithful Anglicanism—its end. "Anglicans may choose to regard the incoherences (yet riches) of their own Church as simply a microcosm of those of Christianity world-wide," wrote Aidan Nichols. "In this case they will argue that Anglicanism has no distinctive contribution to make to the coming Great Church: its destiny is to disappear, its triumph will be its dissolution" (p. xx).

Maranâ' thâ'

29 June 2012

Status Symbol Land

FEAR—especially the fear of losing control—serves as the impetus for an awful lot of art. It also, of course, serves as the catalyst for an unhealthy dose of insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and death (either of the silent or walking variety).

Motivated by Alan Noble's "Why Christians Should Read Disturbing, Dark, and Secular Fiction," I thought that since I have read and am now again reading a good bit of it that I'd do well to put some thoughts down on a piece that I've read recently. (This is a bit like pulling the winner out of a hat; I'm working through an anthology of American short stories and there are too many from which to choose. I decided against O'Connor's terrifyingly bizarre "Good Country People" because (1) she's not exactly "secular"; and (2) apparently she's now a Christian-hipster favorite, and I'm like light years ahead of those people.)

So, John Cheever's "The Swimmer" it is (originally published in The New Yorker on 18 July 1964). Summary of the plot:
“The Swimmer” begins with suburbanites gathered around a backyard pool, nursing their respective hangovers from the previous night's cocktail party. The hero of the tale is a youthfully middle-aged, athletic, and affluent denizen of suburbia. His desire to rise above complacently takes the form of an odd, comical quest: He decides to swim home, fifteen pools to the south. The narrative follows his journey from pool to pool, from his initial exhilaration to subsequent exhaustion, from bright and sunny to darker and colder, to unprepared and exposed. After crossing a highway, he descends into a public pool—hell to his social class. But even here he is excluded after failing to provide the proper identification. The journey is further corrupted when he finds his mistress has replaced him with a new lover, and a couple he has previously dismissed socially denies him. Finally, when he is alienated from what he knows to be true, and dispossessed of his comfortable reality, he arrives home to a dark, empty, and locked house.
Truly, I envied the swimmer Neddy Merrill's excursion. It sounded fun. Even in the rain. The absurdity part of it only becomes apparent during the last few dips, and especially when he arrives "home." The fun of swimming across several pools in a couple of neighborhoods looks pathetic indeed when Neddy reaches his now foreclosed destination. And the enthusiasm with which Neddy is greeted at first is subverted by the tale's end: all those drinks and smiles look more like pity than friendship. Status symbols are, we must admit, everything to this crowd (our collective crowd in these United States), and Neddy's loss of them feeds a fear that grips him to the point of extreme denial, acting out the absurd.

How poignant is the climax of the story today? Neddy swims "home" to an abandoned and decrepit structure. How many of those have we seen walking the neighborhood these past few years? Ah, home ownership, a grand American institution. It looks to be only a vestige of its former glory.

Speaking of American social institutions, what about the extramarital affair? Neddy’s inability to cope with his situation caused him to shut down and retreat from reality, ultimately hurting all the people in his life that he ever cared about. The same could be said about any one of the other poor choices he has apparently made (in response to a financial misfortune).

Neddy’s swimming pool journey effectively parallels our false lives, our swimming through life with eyes half closed, choosing not to acknowledge behaviors that are significant and detrimental to those we love the most. Extramarital affairs, alcoholism, gambling, and debt—all these activities gradually eat away at relationships every day. Of course, these are all symptoms of a much deeper problem: "Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful."

The mix of realism and surrealism, concrete rootedness and absurdity, the lack of a single vision holding reality together, the rusty linings of every cloud, are a few of the reasons I so enjoy this era of literature (roughly described as "postwar"). Yet in spite of all the aforementioned disturbing darkness, we still pine after love and understanding, and thus we must face the vertigo of absurdity with practical action—like Candide tending his garden forevermore.

So, then, "have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for." Or, put somewhat differently, love thy neighbor as thyself.

Listen to Cheever read "The Swimmer" here.

07 June 2012

Open Wound Now Sacred?

NOT THAT I EVER stop thinking about this particular subject, but perhaps a recent revelation precipitated my hitting "publish" on this post. Perhaps.

A couple of months ago I laid out a way of making sense of the church as it is in actuality (as opposed to its ideal), labeling it “Open Wound Ecclesiology.” Bryan Cross responded to it in his way, which is to say, both unsurprisingly and formidably. I regret not to have responded in kind, though I was going back-and-forth on this matter over at Called to Communion at the time (and much of what appears below appeared in some form over there).

What follows is an attempt to further clarify this “Open Wound Ecclesiology,” while answering some of the challenges Mr. Cross put forth in my combox.

Let me first say that I acknowledge the depressing nature of this ecclesiology (a friend responded to me about it in precisely those words). If you’re looking for something a tad more certain, then this is not for you. Perhaps you prefer redefining unity in response to our fragmented reality along with the high-church confessionalists in Geneva (unity=spiritual unity), or maybe you prefer the safety of the Vatican’s walls (unity=visible unity with the Roman Catholic Church alone). I know the openness I’m suggesting is unnerving.

Regarding the ancient creed's confession that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” and its relationship to what I perceive to be a tautology—that the church is disunited—Mr. Cross wrote that “to interpret this line of the Creed as an affirmation of a future hope, and not as referring to a present reality, is to deny this line of the Creed, because it has never meant that, nor does it mean that.” It’s a matter of historical honesty to acknowledge this in the case of the early church, even, of course, in the midst of her struggles with schism. No doubt it’s no different than today, to Mr. Cross’ mind.

My only recourse is to suggest a development in doctrine on this score for Catholics to consider (with Vatican II nudging us along): that the church herself is in process, and thus her Lord along with her engages, and responds to, this process. Only God is sure; all else is subject to change. The body politic is a fragmented mess, and is failing her charge to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. But this is what God himself chose to get into. We are thus left with the question and its implied challenge: What will the church evolve to be?

I hope not what it looks like—from the vantage point of the weeds. So far as this world and our finite perspectives are concerned, Christianity, with all its divisions, worldly alliances, demagoguery, and heterodoxy, does indeed look false.

I of course don’t think it is, but therein lies my hope, which brings us back around to the creed. There is, after all, a unity among all professing Christians, entailed in the creed’s language, that is yet retained (in the language of Lumen gentium: “though they [non-Catholics] do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter,” are “in some real way…joined with [Catholics] in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power”). No need to emphasize any of the words there; and they cannot be undone no matter how hard some of the Good Pope’s bishops and successors try.

Apparently, according to Lumen gentium, we who are not of the Roman Catholic Church are “joined” in some “real way” to that communion. And the locus of that union? The Holy Spirit himself. Nevertheless, it is not God’s ideal for his body, the church, for it’s currently suffering from an open wound.

This decidedly does not suffer from Mr. Cross’ charge that we’re outdoing Christ. There are indeed communions that more robustly embody the faith, and thus represent the visible church with a unified ecclesial structure: these are they who are in succession (through the laying on of hands as well as doctrinally); who rightly administer the sacraments; and who faithfully preach God’s Holy Word; in short, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” It is these who are burdened with the charge to actively reconcile (re-attach) the fragmented body of Christ, precisely because it is they who retain the most robust embodiment of the faith once delivered. They are not (emphatically!) the faith’s sole proprietors; they are its mothers, called to gracefully repent and heal and nurture the body to full communion.

This means that, yes, I’m suggesting that what God wants from us (ecclesiastically) isn't what he has received from us. But this does not provide an example of “ecclesial deism,” as if I’m saying that while God wants visible unity from us, he then simply stands back to see what he’ll get from us. If striving toward unity is "outdoing Christ" (in that "it seeks to go beyond the unity that Christ Himself saw fit to establish in His Church by imposing on what He founded as a merely invisible entity a visible unity He Himself did not see fit to establish"), then so too is living the Christian life, that is, keeping the faith—or else apostasy is only ever merely hypothetical.

Has anything ever been decreed absolutely by God (when it comes to his contingent creation), without any expectation of meeting certain conditions on our part, without any response on his part to intervening historical contingencies? Taking our cue from the Sacred Scriptures, we see that even those decrees (oracles, prophecies, apostolic utterances, etc.) that appear at first glance to be absolute, are nevertheless laden with conditions (when dealing with humankind in particular).

I submit that the same holds true with respect to the people of God and their calling to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What I'm describing is quite down toward the opposite end of the spectrum from deism, and, if anything, can be taxed with placing too much emphasis on the immanence of God in relationship to his creation. I'm talking about a God who called out of the massa perditionis a Christ (the eternal Son of God who took upon himself our nature), in whom people are united (through baptism and faith), which people are then called to be what they are. Being thus made posse non pecare they are given the tasks laid out in various places throughout the Scriptures of embodying what it means to be corpus Christi, and, by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of God, are thus able to do so. In doing so, they falter, they err, and all the while their loving and patient God struggles with them, responding to them, and continually goads them on toward the unity (of will and purpose and substantiality) that is shared among the Godhead, the great Three in One.

I've already mentioned how Vatican II and its doctrinal development revolving around ecclesiology pushes us on toward this unity. This is also where I’d like to bring in Henri de Lubac to further help suggest the way forward: the Eucharist, he wrote, makes the church. The idea is not new (Augustine saw it when he wrote that “we become what we have received”). The so-called “communion ecclesiology” ensconced in Vatican II has paved our way (in the West; Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology already gets it, in my opinion, even if it too needs to be goaded here). The sacramental purpose of the Eucharistic body has seemingly been forgotten: it is to create the ecclesia (not merely pontificate about how Christ is present). Put another way, the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is inextricably tied to its purpose—the creation of his one body.

Why not, then, break bread together? This open wound will not be healed without shared participation in the meal Jesus gave us. Indeed, what anticipates that future marriage feast more clearly than open communion?

Catch up with your most recent ecumenical council, Catholics, for the love of God (or is "for Pete's sake" more apropos?).

05 June 2012

Check, Please

The empty tumbler
tumbled onto the floor,

Accentuating the
saturninity of the scene.

His lecture lowered,
only now through clenched teeth;

Her eyebrow raised and curled,
unbroken yet abashed.

*Produced as a result of Judith Baumel's poetry exercise "Anglo-Saxon Lines" in The Practice of Poetry.

30 May 2012

When the Ice Melts

© Chema Madoz
THE LAST TIME I ever thought about touching that deadly rock happened while sitting in an apartment without furniture, watching a group of addicts huddled in the center of the "dying" room, like scavengers hovering over a carcass, snarling at each other to pass the pipe, to not take so big a hit the next time.

That memory haunts me still.

Nothing smells or tastes like crack cocaine. I don't type this lightly. In fact, it's a horrific and embarrassing thing to admit. I don't do so merely to bring attention to myself. I do so because at times I smell it and taste it—not as if I'm tempted to partake in that particular activity, but because it still trips me out. Like a shadowy ghoul perched on my shoulder, I'm reminded of sensory experiences that I cannot shake.

When the ice melts (perhaps over a bowl of ash), what will you leave behind? What will you have left?


I posted this about a year ago and then took it down. It seemed a bit too self-absorbed, even for me. I know not many, if any, former crackheads (I was not one, being more of a "generalist") read this blog. So what purpose would this post serve? On the other hand, I'm sure lots of folks out there often feel like they have little control over the events in their lives. And it keeps piling on, forcing you to fix your gaze only on the temporal, which causes fear, anxiety, depression—basically all the stuff that gets you screaming for some quiet.

I'm still shaken and mesmerized by how a piece of rock melts beneath its flame. Its alchemy. And that thirty-second high. There's little competition out there for how high it actually is.

Unfortunately, I've learned time and again that the troubles I walked away from in that scene described above have followed me in different forms these past (almost) twenty years. Starting to take the Christian faith seriously (i.e., practicing it), which is how I'm describing conversion (or perhaps a return of sorts), as anyone knows who has been at it for any length of time, means many years of painful refining, often commensurate with how deeply the evil one's way has become one's own. Sanctification, too, is by grace through faith.

One the reasons my spiritual journey is comprised of a series of rejections of modern evangelicalism (how's that for a non sequitur?) is its obsession with salvation through change—the personal amending of one's life. "Clean up your life and become a Christian!" If we can just stop doing this or that, acting this way or that way, then God will pay it all off with his grace.

On the contrary, the cart of reformation indeed comes. But it's pulled by the workhorse of a restoration wrought by an irruptive grace.

10 May 2012

The Insatiable Hunger (a brief character sketch)

Benjamin hadn’t done anything extraordinary. In fact, he avoided most opportunities that remotely smacked of doing something that could conceivably produce an extraordinary thing. The young women that considered him cute mistook his silence as strength. Those closer to him thought him simply odd. Those closest to him knew he was just scared.

Fear marked Benjamin’s life. He recoiled from falling leaves. He would turn around and walk the other way to evade almost-chance encounters with folks he neither cared for or didn’t trust, which was just about everybody. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he’d wake up shaking. Uncontrollably shaking. Too many Xanax became the only remedy. But too many Xanax led to that sneaking suspicion that everything was wrong. Brain shivers. Self-loathing. Unreality.

One late morning, after a night of the shakes, Benjamin went for a drive. He had no destination, but he found himself at the local park. He unexpectedly cried for a few minutes before leaving his car, and then moseyed around, eyeballing the many baseball games underway. He saw a yellow Lab walking a child next to the concession stand and felt nothing. Finally, finding a small hill some distance from the fields, Benjamin sat and half-watched the games as dusk approached. His thoughts eventually centered on his wife, Kate, as they often did. He always wanted more from her, but it would never be enough. He had never learned how to love and thus he’d suck the life out of every lover. Fear has an insatiable appetite, a fact he already knew, but suddenly conceded.

Some time ago, he had read, in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, about the supposed source of religious sentiments:
“The derivation of religious needs from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father aroused by it seems to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate.”
At the time, Benjamin escaped the incontrovertible opinion of Freud by positing his own unassailable opinion—that the religious-needs vacuum within his heart existed as a result of his being relationally separated from the divine; that, in short, religion being present in most cultures is a result of humankind’s being created imago Dei.

Benjamin knew he could no longer muster up this belief. Fear, he realized, was far more powerful in creating religiosity than a personal Fate.

Night came. The field lights flickered off. Benjamin was jarred to stand up and walk toward his car, and he didn’t know how long he had been sitting there. Since that long morning, it seemed like he was watching his body live and move and breath, like he had no control over where it was heading, like he was merely observing the day’s events through his eyes with someone else at the helm.

He prayed that he would die on the way home. His prayer was not answered.

07 May 2012

A Faith of Whose Own?

AS A TWO kingdomite, of the Pannenberg persuasion, I always begin reading “Christ & Culture” books with a sigh and some hesitation. Jonathan Merritt's A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars was no exception.

First, though, I'll warrant that I'm not representative of the target audience of this book, for the following three reasons: (1) I've read my fair share of academic "Christ & Culture" books; (2) I'm in my late 30s (and thus a cynical, disengaged and barely Christian genXer); and (3) I am not southern (though I am intimately familiar with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Royal Ambassadors, Living Christmas Trees, 4th of July Sunday extravaganzas, as well as Freddy Gage crusades). But enough about me.

This isn't to say that I ought not to have read the book, or that I didn't enjoy it, for what it's worth. I do think the target audience very much ought to read this book, however. If you're just coming to the "Christ & Culture" discussion, if you're in your 20s–early 30s, if you were raised in the Bible Belt, or (which I didn't mention previously) if you're from an older generation and desire to get a glimpse of the angle from which Millennials are engaging these matters, then read this book.

I think I'd commend it even if I didn't largely agree with it; I remain somewhat surprised that I did, actually. I was expecting a conflation of the kingdoms at least on every other page, but Merritt is refreshingly aware that if he were to simply swing the pendulum the other way, to simply react to the cultural construction in which he was raised, that he'd end up being just another side of the same coin (e.g., Fundamentalist/Modernist; Christian Right/Christian Left; Mohler/Wallis, etc.). In the end, Faith of Our Own is essentially a lay-level version of certain bits of James Davison Hunter's To Change the World.

Nutshell message:
  • "As one plunges deeper into the culture wars, one loses a sense of reality and embraces a partisan perception" (p. 35).
  • Christians are not to abandon the public square, but we need to learn how to engage it in a less worldly and politically partisan way.
  • "Good Christians are good citizens, and as such, they should establish a faithful presence in the public square as in media, business, science, education, and the arts" (p. 40).
  • "Ousting is a typical culture-war tactic," leading to third-degree separationism. (And I would add, it's a typical tactic among those who think they have the corner on dogmatic truths.) "The result is an insulated group in an isolated echo chamber where conservatives become more conservative and liberals become more liberal. No one has permission to think for themselves" (p. 61).
  • "We take a slice out of the Bible-pie and then call it the pie" (p. 88).
  • "The change we're witnessing is a shift from a political faith to an incarnational faith. One that seeks to be a faithful presence in the public square but knows that real change happens when we heal and help each other" (p. 153).
  • In his role as public representative of his church (and, by default, Christianity), he "never wades into debates about specific legislative proposals," and "where the culture wars are fought, unity is almost always absent" (p. 160).
It wasn't until the last chapter that it became clear to me that Merritt's thinking about the relationship between the church and state (or "Christ & Culture") was one that I hope others of his generation and younger pick up. Merritt recounts a time when Richard Mouw had written an essay on social ethics that caught the eye of Carl Henry. Henry wanted to publish it, but not without implementing a few edits. Here's the text (from pp. 173–74):
Mouw argued that the church should take stands on specific issues of social justice, but Henry wanted to change the wording to speak of individual Christians' needing to take stands. But Mouw . . . believed that the church as an institution should speak to specific social justice concerns in the public square, so he turned down Henry's offer.
Note that by "specific social justice concerns" what's not meant is the church as an institution decrying in general poverty, racism, criminal justice reform, hunger, etc. (I mean, who would disagree that those are societal ills?), but rather specific legislative solutions to those problems. As the story goes, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, Mouw let Christianity Today publish the essay:
The final version asserted that the church must maintain its prophetic voice and say "no" to the status quo of injustices, but stopped short of saying the church should endorse specific policy solutions. . . .

[Mouw later wrote] "What I really wanted to say is that the church—in the form of both preaching and ecclesial pronouncements—could do no more than merely utter a 'no' to some social evils. There were times, I was convinced, that the church could rightly say a bold 'yes' to specific policy-like solutions. I now see that youthful conviction as misguided. Henry was right, and I was wrong."
What else can I say? [queue: Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus] If this isn't a good two-kingdoms start in the right direction, I'm not sure what is. God bless you, Jonathan, for not offering the same old reactionary tripe.

But this wouldn't be a proper review without some critique, right? While I'm not familiar with Merritt's other writings, the prose is just okay. Not much literary flair here, even if there's a good handful of quotable content throughout it. He also nudges up against pietism at times, spiritualizing everything. And despite his caveat in chapter 9, his generation comes off smelling a little rosy. He sometimes conflates the two kingdoms in his desire to alleviate societal ills through Christianity, as if the gospel itself is about making the world a better place. Sure, it may serve as an impetus to do this or that, but more properly this is where the concept of natural law would enter, which for obvious and forgivable reasons didn't have a place in this book. Finally, his brief recognition of the sinful fragmentation of the church catholic in chapter 9, while commendable, offers little more than the typical Protestant low-church ecclesiology (pp. 162ff.; but Merritt is Baptist, after all).

Because Faith of Our Own is, as one endorser put it on the back cover, "part memoir, part manifesto," the reader ought to move beyond it pretty quickly. Anecdotes can only take one so far. Here's my short list of "Christ & Culture" must-reads, for those whose palates have been whet (in a somewhat arbitrary chronological order of reading):

    1. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge and The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion
    2. The Politics of Jesus
    3. Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong
    4. The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist
    5. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society
    6. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
    7. The Cost of Discipleship

27 March 2012

Free Is Not Cheap

The ovens of Buchenwald | © Chris Donato
WHEN JESUS PREDICTED his death to the disciples (Matt 16:21), it surprised them. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die—especially at the hands of the pagan Roman empire. In another sense, however, it wasn’t all that surprising.

Prophets like Jesus, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist often met with less than happy endings. In this case, it’s equally surprising that he pushed on toward Jerusalem. But such was the cost of discipleship.

Jesus understood well that his messianic work of establishing God’s kingdom entailed more than preaching and eating with unclean sinners. It included suffering and death, and, of course, vindication through resurrection. Upon these final acts, the whole battle hinged. If the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would have the effects of his kingdom bear on earth as they do in heaven, then his Messiah would have to shoulder the battle that would eventually end all battles.

Jesus therefore easily makes the connection from his suffering to ours, not because ours redeems anyone but because he was fulfilling God’s plans through the cross, which began in the garden; thus we too must go his way. That is, if we want to belong to the new covenant community in this time when the Evil One continues to wage war, then we also must say no to our selfish desires, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

This call so captured a young Lutheran pastor during the rise of the Nazi regime that he wrote in 1937 what is now the classic Cost of Discipleship. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like so many with a prophetic voice before and after him, paid the ultimate price for refusing to consider his Christianity, his following of Christ, as nothing less (but certainly more) than active protest against injustices—an undeniable facet of bringing God’s will to bear on earth. Jesus knew such sacrifice all too well (and his disciples would also learn this soon). He didn’t doubt for a second that the likes of Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, and Caesar would cut him down the first chance they got. His message challenged their little kingdoms by undermining their pathetic attempts to grasp for the kind of power that sets itself up against the throne of God.

Hitler’s Germany posed a threat to the world and a challenge to the Christian church. History sadly records how badly the established church in Germany did in facing that challenge. After the Reformation, Bonhoeffer argued, the church again cheapened the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, and this has seriously weakened her witness: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the Word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. . . . But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.” Thus the collective consciousness of the country went on with business as usual, baking their bread, selling their goods, with a prison camp like Flossenbürg just a few miles outside of town.

It was in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, incidentally, that Bonhoeffer met his untimely death in April 1945, just as the American forces were approaching. The account is gruesome. Suffice to say it was slow and painful. Thus Bonhoeffer understood well the difference between what he called costly grace and cheap grace: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Or, to put it even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” If the gospel made no such demands for discipleship, then Bonhoeffer could and should have happily joined the ranks of the organized church in Germany. And we too can happily join the church in America at those precise points where it baptizes the injustices of its culture.

Nazi Germany, however, is an easy target. Wading through the subtleties of idolatry and calling them out in America is another matter. Where do we begin? How do we avoid both extremes of baptizing anti-Christian culture or withdrawing to the point of quiet inaction? The cost of discipleship in these United States doesn’t seem all that costly. Or have we missed what it means to be a disciple? Consider again Jesus’ warning to us: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (Matt 16:25). What good will it do for us to accumulate bigger, better, and more things and yet lose our lives?

{Part of this originally appeared in Tabletalk 32.7 (July 2008): 28–29}

24 February 2012

Confirmation & Stuff

OVER AT JESUS CREED, Scot McKnight posted about a "note from a pastor in a denomination that baptizes infants and then proceeds to catechism and confirmation, but this pastor has his doubts." (There are some good thoughts/advice in the comments section over at JC, btw.)

I too responded in the combox, but this issue is one that's near to my heart, having taught such classes for a few years, which teaching challenged me more than any other to date (whoever said "if you can't explain it to children, you don't understand it well enough," was right in my opinion).

The discussion can easily turn into a perspectives match on why—or not—baptism is efficacious (covenantally binding and enabling grace), essential, and preferably paedo- to following the Christ. But that's not the point of this post. Rather, it's simply to get at an answer to the question: What do you think would improve confirmation? By way of personal anecdote, I'll try to offer part of a suggestion:

I was raised Baptist, which of course didn’t use words like confirmation but nevertheless had a baptism preparation class that carried with it all the automation and pressures of most confirmation classes. To be sure, a profession is expected before enrolling in this class. If memory serves correctly, I was six or seven, which, to my understanding, for the majority of Baptist traditions is kind of young (perhaps not among Southern Baptists—see, for example, this article on the upward trend of pre-schooler baptisms since 1974).

At the time I started practicing Christianity more seriously (around 20 years of age), I was not re-baptized, as many of my fellow Baptists were wont to do. However nascent my theological understanding was in these matters, it seemed to me one dunk was clearly enough.

Some five years later, I married in to a confessional Lutheran family, and my wife’s experience in confirmation, despite the automatic feel among that crowd, was, according to her, absolutely confirmatory (a bolster) for her faith.

I should note at this point that I think we fail to grasp what confirmation is, not least as a result of its relationship to (the historic church’s view of) baptism, if we’re losing sleep over this “automatic” flavor. That said, I understand why (theologically) Baptists and Anabaptists take umbrage with it.

Fast forwarding to my own practices and experiences in the local church as a teacher: At the church I had been a member of (an independent Reformed congregation) for six years during the first decade of this century, I taught the communicants (confirmation) class for four years.

Here’s what was cool about this particular church’s practice: We asked parents to decide when to put their children in this class. This meant that during any given year, I had children ranging from 5 (the youngest) to about 12. Average ages were 8–10. All throughout the class, I spent time with each parent discussing their children’s “progress.” Receiving first Communion was by no means automatic after taking part in this process. The final class(es) consisted of walking through the gospel (in age appropriate Q&A form) with a (senior) elder present. That elder would make the final call regarding the child's understanding of the gospel (if Scot reads this, I made sure it was not the potentially truncated "soterian" version being rehearsed, as described in his book on the subject).

Now, given my conviction regarding baptism and confirmation (that the former is efficacious and enabling, and the latter is meant to confirm—sacramentally, though not in the same sense as baptism and the Supper—what has been promised and thus presumed in the former), I’d made sure that each of my kids would be admitted to their first Communion. But even then, a small handful over the years would come back the next year for a do-over.

I hope this last personal experience and example helps answer the question. In short, what do I think would improve confirmation? Put the ball in the parents’ court to decide when to put their children forward. Move past the notion that every child has to be a certain age before he/she can enter confirmation. And get a spine—imagine the words coming out your mouth, “Your child is not ready,” and then brace yourself for the consequences. Finally, see each family as a mentoring opportunity—both for the child and her parents.

Or sidestep this whole issue and just go Eastern Orthodox—their children receive confirmation (chrismation) right after they’re baptized (but whence comes catechesis, which is what I think constitutes at least one major import of confirmation in the West [along with the sealing of the Holy Spirit], in the Orthodox tradition?).

30 January 2012

Church of the Open Wound

A COLLEAGUE recently brought my attention to this portion of Jürgen Moltmann's The Trinity and the Kingdom (p. 49):
God and suffering belong together, just as in this life the cry for God and the suffering experienced in pain belong together. The question about God and the question about suffering are a joint, a common question. And they only find a common answer. Either that, or neither of them finds a satisfactory answer at all. No one can answer the theodicy question in this world, and no one can get rid of it. Life in this world means living with this open question, and seeking the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored.

The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through experience of the new world in which ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound.

The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation.
Moltmann's underpinning panentheistic doctrine of God notwithstanding, let's focus on two themes that arise as he writes of theodicy and the so-called "problem of evil":
  1. The question of God and suffering is an "all-embracing eschatological question," because it can "only be answered through experience" of the new heavens and earth. Right now, it is, in fact, not really question at all. It just is; it simply hangs here all heavy and stifling, just like an . . . 
  2. . . . "open wound." Theodicy is the open wound of life in this world. It can't be answered sufficiently this side of the eschaton: "Life in this world means living with this open question."
It seems to me that the reality of a fragmented church in a world that has witnessed the ascension of God's Christ also falls under the "question" of theodicy. And it is a great evil too easily dismissed by Protestants in general (Carl Trueman and others like him being exceptions)—and by evangelicals in particular (leading to a kind of gnostic ecclesiology, as the folks over at Called to Communion often note).

Just a few short centuries ago, we Protestants were, of course, Roman Catholic. And our forebears—of the first generation, at least—from the start had their eyes on reforming their Mother, the church of Rome. In this, I'm reminded of Stanley Hauerwas' 1995 Reformation Sunday homily:
Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.
To put it as Trueman did in the hyperlinked article above, "Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic."

At any rate, my Roman Catholic friends would deny the possibly of real body fragmentation, that is, of members of the body being severed from the body. No doubt, they do think people can be separated from the body, but they're not taking a part of the body, so to speak, with them.

I, along with everybody who isn't Roman Catholic (and perhaps Eastern Orthodox), demur.

The notion of a "perpetual divine protection of the unity and orthodoxy of the church through the apostolic succession of the bishops, by virtue of its being a continuation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, in his mystical body" makes little sense in light of the realities of the church's history, which continue to surround us ("St. Ignatius of Antioch on the Church"). It's not the latter points with which I have problems (apostolic succession; the church being a continuation of the life and ministry of Christ); it's the former—the "perpetual divine protection of the unity and orthodoxy of the Church." That conflates the truth with the proclamation, or participation in, the truth (ousia vs. metousia). Scripture, tradition, and reason demand otherwise. And "the person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer" that attempts to justify God's ways in this matter.

Thus, the disunity of the church catholic is an open wound. Put another way, I think Roman Catholics (helped by none other than John Calvin, who took his cue from Cyprian & Cyril!) are right to demand that the ontological connection between Christ and his church by the power of the Spirit be upheld, but I think they're wrong that her being necessarily leads to an infallible act. Again: the church's union and communion with Christ in ontological relation doesn't by its very nature procure infallibility. The words of Jesus and his apostles regarding the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, like the prophetic utterances of old, are to be construed as goadings toward righteousness—toward that oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity—not as absolute promises or blueprints of infallibility that will simply unfurl throughout the course of history.

Let me try to put it more plainly: I think that the church is to be one in this time between the times. One, not just in will and purpose, but one physically and ontologically—in a collegial episcopate (in contradistinction to the universal jurisdictional claims of the Roman pontiff). I think this is what God wants. But I also think that we have failed miserably in this regard, that the body has indeed fragmented, that toes have left their feet, that wrists have left their arms and have caused whole hands to suffer the same.

In other words, the church—both catholic and local, invisible and visible, one and many—suffers from an open wound. I therefore think God would have us continually aching for reattachment, of having broken hearts at the church's division, or else we're left with being an end in ourselves, that is, anathema.

But whence the credo? How can we pray, "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," if it doesn't quite exist?

With hope.

It may be that this open-wound ecclesiology can only be resolved in "the future in which the desire for God will be fulfilled, suffering will be overcome, and what has been lost will be restored," but ignoring the charge to be one (or worse, to theologically justify fragmentations) is fatalistic at best and heresy at worst.

18 January 2012

Yet More Perspectives on the Sabbath

Scott Oakland of ReformedCast called me on Monday for a live podcast revolving around the book Perspectives on the Sabbath.

The time flew by, but I do think this was one of my more articulate presentations. I could be totally wrong on that score (I know one thing, participating in radio/podcast interviews are quick lessons in humility—the boring, monotone sound of my own voice; the fumbling diction; incorrect facts; sticking my foot in my mouth, etc.). Why not listen for yourself?

05 January 2012

Dominical (& Ecclesiastical) View of the Sabbath

ON PAGE NINE of Perspectives on the Sabbath, I outlined the four views ensconced in the book. As a final note, I wrote that "Roman Catholics, traditional Anglicans, and the Orthodox, while maintaining a much stronger magisterial and thus 'dominical' view of this matter, exegetically fall somewhere in between Arand [the Lutheran] and Pipa [the puritan sabbatarian]."

Truth be told, I had wanted the Lutheran position position to fill this gap, but, as it turned out, Arand ended up being a little too close to Blomberg. Had I known, I would've also invited an Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox thinker to contribute (while retaining Arand's important discussion in the mix as a mediating position between the aforementioned group and Blomberg).

When writing the above, I footnoted two sources: the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, III.ii, 1.3 (also para. 1166); and These Truths We Hold—The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings ("Orthodox Dogma and Doctrine: The Ten Commandments, no. 4").

All this to say that I came across Taylor Marshall's brief synopsis of Aquinas on the Lord's Day. I had not read this bit from Thomas in quite some time and thus forgot about it as I was preparing the manuscript for Perspectives on the Sabbath. It doesn't contradict any of the above, of course, just further elucidates the so-called "dominical" view and its quasi-sabbatarian leanings (in even asking the question, "May Catholics Work on Sunday?"), even though it does posit a significant (redemptive-historical) break between old covenant sabbath observance and new covenant worship.

AS AN ASIDE, it is commonly asserted that Calvin and other early reformers held to this "dominical" view. At least as far as Calvin is concerned (and Luther, with a slightly different twist), I think this holds true. Put differently, I think Gaffin is essentially right in his thesis that Calvin represents a via media. While Gaffin downplays the disparity between the reformer and Westminster on this point, he nonetheless acknowledges it. This is another reason why I wrote in the introduction to the book that the view "exegetically falls somewhere in between Arand and Pipa."

As an aside to this aside, Gaffin also argues that Calvin saw Rome as perpetuating a strict continuation of the old covenant sabbath. I forget what the literature concludes on this subject, but I do recall some of it highlighting the increasing sabbatarianism of the medieval church (e.g., Bauckham argues that starting in the sixth century pockets of legislative activity supporting Sunday sabbatarianism began appearing, until finally it became assumed practice by the late Middle Ages [From Sabbath to Lord's Day, 302–304]).

What I'm sure about is that there was increasing canonical enforcement of Sunday worship (and thus "servitude to another man," in Aquinas' words, was forbidden on the Lord's Day); what I don't think holds up, however, is the notion that it was "any day is as good as another" when it comes to the gathering of God's people before that, in the early church and in apostolic times. Gaffin's use of Rome as a foil is, I think, overstated. And, besides, criticizing High Middle Ages sabbatarianism is a bit ironic for a Westminsterian, don't you think?

Final aside: the "dominical" view is also necessarily an "ecclesiastical" view, because everybody that holds to some form of the dominical view, to varying degrees, grounds Lord's Day practice both in scripture (e.g., Jesus' resurrection on the first day of the week—as opposed the idea that the old covenant sabbath carries over into the new covenant) and church tradition (some of which is actually inscripturated).

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