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Selling the Gospel is Easy

by Drew 1 Comment

Selling the Gospel is easy. In North America we are awash in a culture that is narcissistically individualistic, market-driven, and pleasure-focused.  To sell the gospel, all you have to do is mimic the market, offer a sleek presentation, and promise people their best life now (and all the great stuff – literally – that comes with it).  There are thousands of McChurches that testify to the ease with which Revered Huckster can package the gospel and sell it to practically anyone.

But this is not how disciples are made.  Followers of Jesus cannot be manufactured. As Eugene Peterson notes,

It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate. Many claim to have been born again, but the evidence for mature Christian discipleship is slim. In our kind of culture anything, even news about God, can be sold if it is packaged freshly; but when it loses its novelty, it goes on the garbage heap. There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sing up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. (1)

We have all seen megachurches, religious personalities, and gurus rise and fall.  Think of how quickly the Crystal Cathedral fell apart after the elder Robert Schuller retired.  Getting people excited about a product is easy.  A gifted, charismatic leader can draw a crowd (for good, or for ill).  But if the orientation is not toward discipleship, it will never last over the long haul no matter how successful the selling has been.  This is something the early church knew and practiced.

One way that some friends of mine are taking discipleship seriously is reclaiming the small group experience of the early Methodist Class Meetings and Band Meetings.  These offer exactly what Peterson tells us is a hard sell: “apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

Such transformation, not wrought in an instant but given by grace over a lifetime, is the only purpose of the church.  C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in Mere Christianity when he noted,

… the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

Selling the gospel is and always has been easy.  Getting people to sign up to follow Jesus over the course of decades is what the church is called to do.

I’ll close with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas, emeritus professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, whose petition matches the intention we have named above:

Spirit of Truth, direct our attention to the life of Jesus so that we might see what you would have us be. Make us, like him, teachers of your good law. Make us, like him, performers of miraculous cures. Make us, like him, proclaimers of your kingdom. Make us, like him, loving of the poor, the outcast, children. Make us, like him, silent when the world tempts us to respond int he world’s terms. Make us, like him, ready to suffer. We know we cannot be like Jesus except as Jesus was unlike us, being your Son. Make us cherish that unlikeness, that we may grow into the likeness made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. Amen. (2)

 

  1. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downer’s Grove: IVP Press 2000), p. 16.
  2. Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove, IVP Press 1999), p. 26.
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Every Church Has a Creed (Whether They Know it or Not)

by Drew 2 Comments

Every church operates from a creed; whether or not their beliefs are codified into a formal, written statement or not, every church (and every religious organization) is creedal.

From David Watson’s excellent new book Scripture and the Life of God:

“Occasionally I have heard people claim that their church or denomination is non-creedal. I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a non-creedal church. There are churches with implicit creeds and churches with explicit creeds. Every Christian tradition, however, is organized around some set of beliefs that set it apart from other traditions, and the adherents of those traditions generally know what those beliefs are. These beliefs help to shape the ways in which the community of faith understands and applies Scripture.”

We’ve had this debate in the UMC (some still claim Wesley was not creedal) but it applies to other churches as well.  Take, for instance, the phenomenon of so-called “Non-Denominational” churches.  In many cases, they have explicit ties to a denomination, but they are quiet about them. Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, for instance, was begun with Southern Baptist money.  In all cases, “Non-Denominational” churches have a set of beliefs one might call creedal.  They are always protestant, and usually some combination of baptist, reformed, and/or charismatic.  (Hint: claim the title or don’t, but if you have a congregationalist polity [read: autonomous] and you practice believer’s baptism, you are a baptist.)

We should not be shy about the traditions we inhabit and the beliefs that go along with them.  In part, this is simple honesty: be up front with insiders and outsiders about who you are and what you are about.  Many hip megachurches look trendy and contemporary, but hide the fact that they don’t let women be in leadership.  Better to own it than to deceive.

But creeds also matter, because we need guard rails.  Many people think of creeds as shackles, but this is modernist anxiety run amok.  As G.K. Chesteron put it with his characteristic wit, “doctrine and discipline may be walls, but they are the walls of a playground.”  The creeds help us interpret Scripture, as David Watson notes, because they place us in conversation with the undivided, earliest church.  We will quibble over lesser matters, but if we exit the apostolic consensus represented in the creeds, we know we’ve committed a grievous error.  Within the playground formed by these walls, however, there is a lot of room for running, jumping, and skipping.

Every religious organization has a creed, whether explicit or not.  Churches would do best claim, teach, and celebrate them, both for the sake of formation in the “faith once delivered” (from Jude), and for transparency.

Does your church use creeds? What implicit creeds have you encountered at various churches? What creed is most valuable, and why? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe!

 

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The Historical Jesus vs. the Word of God

To what extent should the historical Jesus reconstructed by scholars be normative for Christian faith today?

A couple of decades ago, the Jesus Seminar made headlines in claiming to (ahem) “scientifically” – that is, using the neutral tools of the historical craft – free the true Jesus from the churchy, dogmatic accretions of the centuries.  Of course, folks like Luke Timothy Johnson have pointed out that such efforts are fraught with problems.  Even though out of fashion in New Testament studies now, the assumptions of the Jesus Seminar and their ilk are still very much in the water.

In a wonderful little book on the Beatitudes, Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal household, reflects on the degree to which historical assumptions have crept into the church and biblical studies.  Is the only authentic Jesus the Jesus of the “nugget” on which a critical mass of scholars can agree? Cantalamessa responds:

The research on the historical Jesus that is so fashionable today – whether by scholarly believers or by some nonbelievers doing farfetched study – conceals a grave danger: It can lead people to believe that something is authentic only when it can be traced back to the earthly Jesus; everything else is considered nonhistorical and thus not authentic. This would mean unfairly limiting to history the ways that God has at his disposal to reveal himself. It would mean tacitly abandoning the truth of faith in biblical inspiration and thus the revelatory character of Scripture.

The Word of God, which is normative for the believer, does not consist in some kind of hypothetical original nucleus variously reconstructed by historians; the Word of God is what is written in the Gospels. The result of historical research should be held in great esteem because it is needed to guide our understanding of subsequent developments in tradition. However, we will continue to exclaim, “The Gospel of the Lord!” at the end of a reading from the Gospel – but not at the end of a reading from the latest book about the historical Jesus. (pp. 49-50)

Notice how Cantalamessa refuses to play the over warmed faux-Barthian move of opposing the written text of the Bible with the Word of God.  The Word and the word ought not be played off of each other, not least because it is a kind of functional Marcionism.

But most importantly, the Pope’s preacher (talk about pressure!), puts in proper perspective the role of historical research in the life of the church and the disciple.  Top put it simply: historical Jesus research is a useful servant, but a poor master.

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Making Friends with the Beast: Hamartiology in Johnny Cash & Eminem

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I am definitely not okay.  You probably aren’t either.  Welcome to the human condition.

The Christian faith has always taught that something has gone wrong in us; something, we followers of Jesus claim, is broken, and though we may find it difficult to explain it, we are nonetheless unable to fix ourselves. The traditional name for this is sin.  Sin infects both individuals and communities, which is to say that it is personal and systemic. This brief piece will focus on the former, in conversation with two musicians: Johnny Cash and Eminem.  For those who like fancy theological terms, this is a post about hamartiology (the study of sin).

In Eminem’s “The Monster,” performed with Rihanna, we hear:

Maybe I need a straightjacket, face facts
I am nuts for real, but I’m okay with that
It’s nothing, I’m still friends with the

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head
You’re trying to save me, stop holding your breath
And you think I’m crazy, yeah, you think I’m crazy

The Cover to Cash’s American Recordings, the first album collaboration with Rubin. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Johnny Cash, under the watchful eye of Rick Rubin, wrote and performed some of the best music of his career in the twilight of his life. One example of that rich collaboration is a song found in their first album together titled “The Beast in Me,” in which Cash confesses, with his characteristic lack of sentimentality:

Sometimes it tries to kid me
That it’s just a teddy bear
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air
And that is when I must beware
Of the beast in me that everybody knows
They’ve seen him out dressed in my clothes
Patently unclear
If it’s New York or New Year
God help the beast in me

The eminent psychologist Carl Jung made famous the concept of “the shadow,” that dark aspect of ourselves that must be acknowledged in order for one to mature and be healthy.  The Enneagram makes space for this concept too, as it describes persons, using its 1-9 numbering system, in both healthy and unhealthy states.  The unhealthy state, I would venture to argue, is akin to Jung’s “shadow” self.

Thus, many voices, secular and theological, artistic, spiritual, and psychological, converge on this same central idea: something has gone wrong.  As they say in 12 Step circles, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Note how, both for Eminem and Cash, the shadow is something immediate and near, something perhaps even intimate.  For Mr. Mathers, the Monster is “under my bed,” and for the Man in Black, the Beast is within him.  There is no attempt to separate themselves or to put a false distance with the shadow.  There is an unrelenting spiritual integrity at work here.

This is critical because both artists remind us of a crucial aspect of reality: that which is unacknowledged cannot be healed.  Like a small scrape that turns into a life-threatening infection, sin does not heal on its own.  Unchecked, evil will only continue to divide homes, communities, nations, and the church.  The cure does not come from any machinations of our own devising.  Rather, the Father acting through Jesus in the power of the Spirit redeems, restores, forgives, and sets us free – something we cannot do for ourselves.

Of course, even acknowledging the “beast” or “the monster” is itself an act of grace; in particular, this is the work of the Spirit to convict us, so that we seek out the medicine from the Physician of our souls.  A scene from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Great Divorce vividly portrays this dynamic:

GHOST: What do you keep on arguing for (says the Ghost) I only want my rights.  I’m not asking for anyone’s bleeding charity.

BRIGHT MAN – Oh then do (said the Bright man) – at once.  Ask for the bleeding charity.  Everything is here for the asking and absolutely nothing can be bought.

As Johnny Cash well knew, the “bleeding charity” of Christ’s love, poured out on Calvary for sinners like me (and you), can be asked for but never bought, received but never deserved.  Sin thus becomes something, as John Wesley said, “that remains but no longer reigns.” Acknowledged, confessed, and healed by God’s grace, the Beast under our beds and in our hearts becomes a reminder of and vehicle for the mercy that has claimed us, as Paul discovered with the “thorn in the flesh” that so vexed him:

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NRSV)

The Beast and the Monster are no match for Christ who is the Lion and the Lamb, who became sin and died our death in order to vanquish them.  The Beast can be caged, and the Monster can be befriended, because we know the savior who alone has broken their power on the cross and in the empty tomb, and will one day utterly destroy every power and authority that stands against God’s purposes.

Thanks be to God!

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American Gods: On Mawmaw’s Faith in Hillbilly Elegy

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw.  Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying.  Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family.  She’s fascinating, to put it mildly.  Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”

Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire).  Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state.  This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving  its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13.  The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.

On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13.  This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state.  Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.

The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism.  A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale.  Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option.  Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:

Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.

By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.

The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians.  Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.

Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties.  To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry.  The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel.  Nationalism can only ever be blind.

I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain.  It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.

I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same.  They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter.  In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts.  Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.

As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be.  This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far.  All governments stand under God’s judgment.  Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right.  Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.

To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit.  Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.

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WNCCUMC Annual Conference Roundup

by Drew 1 Comment

In United Methodist world, we are coming out of Annual Conference season.  I was grateful to be able to contribute in a couple of different ways to covering the events of my own Annual Conference June 22-25 at Lake Junaluska.  Lake “J” as many of us affectionately call it, might be the closest thing Methodists have to Rome’s Vatican. Aside from being the site of many Annual and Jurisdictional Conferences, and the home to many other Methodist gatherings and retired clergy, it houses the World Methodist Council and its museum.  Thus, it represents a spiritual and geographic home for not just United Methodists, but for members of the Methodist/Wesleyan family around the globe.  This year, I wrote two pieces reflecting on worship services and helped out with a couple of podcasts discussing Annual Conference.  Links and descriptions follow below:

  • Remember Your Baptism” is about the opening worship service on the morning of Friday, June 24.  Bishop Leonard Fairley from our neighboring North Carolina Conference preached (he’s currently assigned to Kentucky), and we all remembered our baptisms together.  Besides covering the service itself, this piece covers the significance of United Methodists remembering our baptism.
  • Ordination Service – A Reflection” is, if you’ll forgive me, a bit self-explanatory.  Taking place Saturday night the 24th, the ordination service was preached by Bishop Lawson Bryan of South Georgia.  Here, I reflect on the impact that such a sacred service has on those who experience it, both lay and clergy alike.
  • For the third year in a row, I was fortunate once more to sit in with Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications office and cover Annual Conference happenings on the UM Connect podcast.  In the first episode, we discussed clergy session and the upcoming business of the week.  In the second episode, recorded Saturday afternoon, we reflected on what had already gone on and looked forward to the ordination service that evening.  Whether you are in WNCC or not, there are some great Methodist folks on the podcast regularly, so subscribe on iTunes and give it a listen!

There’s all the things you may have missed from Annual Conference! Thanks for reading and sharing this content. If you haven’t already, don’t forget to put your email in to the right and subscribe. God bless!

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Where All Our Thinking Begins and Ends: On the Centrality of Jesus

Where does thinking about God, or people, or the world begin?  For Christians, there is a very particular answer to this question: Jesus.

I was in a discussion with someone recently about the use of the traditional Trinitarian description of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This individual had a dislike for naming the First Person ‘Father,’ and saw little utility in using that language.  When pressed, the argument was that this person had their own individual experience of God, and thus what they decided to call God should be as reflective of their encounter as was Jesus’  relationship with God, which led him to call God Father.  The implication was quite clear: Jesus’ experience of God was but one of many, and his understanding and/or description of God is no more or no less determinative than any other.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable argument for someone to make who is not committed to the Christian movement.  If one believes, as many faiths and individuals do, that Jesus was only a holy teacher, a wonder-worker, an apocalyptic prophet, or a misunderstood peasant, then of course Jesus’ own narration of the divine-human encounter is just one of many.

Everything changes, though, if we believe Jesus was and is God, and that in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we are given the fullest glimpse possible of who and what God is like.

Karl Barth is famous for placing Jesus, the Word of God, at the center of Christian life and thought.  Among his greatest contributions to theology in his famous (and massive!) Church Dogmatics is his re-narration of the Calvinist doctrine of election.  For Barth, election is first about the election of Jesus, not individual Christians or non-Christians, and the election of the rest humanity is only understood secondarily and derivatively from that election.  Thus, on his reading of predestination the church is committed to

…the unsearchable majesty of the good-pleasure with which God has from all eternity and in all eternity both the right and the power to dispose of the world and us, in which as God He has in fact disposed of us and the world, so that His eternal will is the Alpha and Omega with which all our thinking about the world and ourselves must begin and end.

In this emphasis on Jesus, Barth shows himself to be, in some ways, simply a careful reader of Scripture and proclaimer of the Gospel.  (He was, before he was known as a theologian, a Reformed parish preacher.)  After all, the New Testament operates by a similar logic: everything is different because of Jesus. Everything, from the bottom up, including the Torah, economics, ethnicity, holiness – all of it! – must be rethought in and through Jesus.

Here’s one example.  Notice how 1 John 4:8-11 (NRSV) narrates loving others and describes God’s nature as love.  For John, we know what love is not because there is some abstract, ethereal concept (as in a Platonic form) called love that exists “out there,” but rather we know what love is because God sent the Son to be the atonement for our sins:

Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.

For John, like Barth, we only know what love is because God sent the Son. The truth is known, the deepest reality is apprehensible, not by our individual experience or keen reasoning, but by God’s self-revelation in Jesus, in whom our thinking begins and ends.  Likewise, we know how to live not because of our own ethical imperatives or innate morality, but because we live as a response to the love God has shown us. “Since God loved us so much,” John said, “we also ought to love one another.” (v. 11)

There is popular meme I have on my office door in which Barth says, “The answer is Jesus.”  Like Jeopardy, the answer comes first.  Then, he concludes, “What’s the question?”

I know of no other way to read Scripture or exegete the world around us as Christians except in, by, and through Christ.  If Jesus is who the Church has always said he is – Alpha and Omega, Son of God, Immanuel, Messiah, Christ, Word of God, Second Person of the Trinity – there is no other way to think and live Christianly.

In a Christian grammar, Jesus is not one of many ways to God.  He is not a mere teacher or prophet.  The Word is not one experience of God to be placed side-by-side with others, including my own.  He is not a guide among many other guides.  Jesus is God, while also being fully human.  He is the best window we have, short of the eschaton “when [our] faith shall be sight,” of God.

If our thinking and living bypasses Jesus, or makes him secondary to any other lens, concern, guru, or hermeneutic, we are doing something other than Christian living and thinking.

 

Source: Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Study Edition 10): Volume II, 32-33 (London: T&T Clark, 2010)

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The Commandments Keep Us: Some Wisdom from the Philokalia

In teaching the 10 Commandments, Christians often speak of “keeping” the commandments – but what if it’s the other way around?

The classic Orthodox collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia contains writings from saints and monks spanning centuries.  Outside of St. Maximos the Confessor, no one contributed more to this collection than the mysterious St. Peter of Damaskos.  Little is known of St. Peter except that he was a monk, living before the hesychast controversy, most likely in the 11th or 12 century.  In his “The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline,” he has a unique take on the commandments:

…the evil that we commit ourselves is our own responsibility and arises from our own laziness with the help of the demons. On the other hand, all knowledge, strength and virtue are the grace of God, as are all other things. And through grace He has given all men the power to become sons of God (cf. John 1:12) by keeping the divine commandments. or, rather, these commandments keep us, and are the grace of God, since without His grace we cannot keep them. We have nothing to offer Him except our faith, our resolution and, in brief, all the true dogmas that we hold with firm faith through the teaching we have heard (cf. Rom. 10:17).

Note the synergism that marks the Orthodox view of salvation.  It is only by cooperating with God than we can obey God, and we return to God our faith and will, which themselves are gifts He gives us that we might keep the commandments.

Or, rather, “these commandments keep us.”  As Chesterton remarked centuries later, doctrine and discipline are walls, but they are the fence around the playground.  They are the guard rails that keep us on the road that leads to life.

The commandments, then, are not arbitrary rules imposed on use from the outside.  They are, instead, the form that grace takes in our daily lives, a means through which God orders our lives so that we might grow in Him. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13, NRSV)

Sin distorts us, our egos betray us, our hearts deceive us, but the commandments keep us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Source: The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume III, p. 89 (emphasis added). The biographical information on St. Peter above comes from the introductory note at the beginning of this volume.

 

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We Don’t Get to Hold God Accountable: Theodicy as a Problem

As creatures made in God’s image, we are given many gifts, broad freedom, and power to represent Him with boldness in the world, but we are never given the right to hold God accountable.

William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence ends with a thoughtful chapter on what is usually called theodicy, the theological discipline that examines the justice of God.  Placher’s project in this work is to show how 17th century thinkers “domesticated” God, emphasizing via human reason God’s immanence (knowablility) to the detriment of God’s transcendence, particularly in classic Christian categories.  Given that focus, it should be no surprise that he finds theodicy exemplifies the worst of this trend.

Classic theodicies, in dealing with a basic (yet difficult!) question of innocent suffering, might pose a question like this: “If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all knowing, why do children get cancer and die?”  This limits the answers, naturally, to compromising some part of God’s character: God either must not be omnipotent, benevolent, or omniscient.  The only other alternative is that either the supposedly innocent sufferer is not really that innocent, or that the suffering serves some higher purpose to which we do not have access.

All of these miss the mark, of course, if one is committed to the Trinity of Christian belief and worship.  Placher cites John Hick as an example of the spiritual gymnastics one must do to resolve the tensions inherent in traditional theodicies, by which we [read: theologians] seek to hold God accountable:

…in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick proposes that a world without pain “would lack the stimuli to hunting, agriculture, building, social organization, and the development of the sciences and technologies, which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture.” Like right-wing politicians urging reductions in welfare benefits to force people back to work, such a theodicy seeks to justify God in the face of starving children by pointing out that their hunger constitutes a stimulus to agriculture and hunting. This seems to manifest a kind of moral tone-deafness. My point is not to launch personal attacks on particular writers of theodicy, but to suggest that something about the enterprise of theodicy itself drives even thoughtful, decent folk to morally unacceptable conclusions. (204, emphasis added)

As Hauerwas argues in his magnificent God, Medicine, and Suffering (first published as Naming the Silences), it is the entire practice of theodicy that must be rethought, not simply this or that variety thereof.  Theodicy as normally undertaken inevitably results in compromising some critical facet of our understanding of God or humanity.  The quest to hold God accountable is thus bankrupt from the jump.  What is needed is a way of honestly confronting evil and suffering while holding on to God’s character revealed in the self-giving love of Christ.  This results in its own difficulty, but a difficulty that is altogether better than the kind of alternatives represented by John Hick and others in the tradition of theodicy.  As Placher has written before in regards to the Trinity, Christians must hold on to, rather than attempt to resolve, an inherent tension that we run up against:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

To sum up, it is not our job to hold God accountable. We are mere creatures, and so our search for God will always carry with it some degree of mystery. And our efforts to do so, however humble, pastoral, and well-intentioned, result only in alternatives that are worse than living with the tension Placher names above.  As Brueggemann and others point out, the Bible nowhere offers a “theodicy” in the traditional sense. The only answer Job gets is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The Bible treats evil as a reality to be confronted rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The laments of the Psalms are the finest example of this, teaching us to call out to God in the raw reality of agony, not wax philosophically over our predicament.  Laments hold together the goodness of God with the incomprehensibility – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality” of evil – that mars so much of life on this side of the eschaton.

We don’t get to hold God accountable. It is not ours to justify the ways of God to us.  But neither can we be deaf to the cries of innocent suffering or blind to the raw evil in our midst. That tension is precarious, but it is better than the alternatives.

Is theodicy by nature a bankrupt discipline? Should we seek better alternatives, rather than abandoning it altogether? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to enter your email at to the right of the title and subscribe to get these blogs in your inbox weekly!

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Neil Postman vs. Joel Osteen

I just finished Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. This important work, from a communications professor and cultural theorist, is more relevant now than when it was written in 1985.  I will be digesting it for a while, but the chapter on religion was especially interesting.  Postman’s basic thesis is that Western culture has shifted from a typographic culture to a television culture.  Challenging a common misconception that a medium is neutral to the content it transmits, Postman looks intently at the sea change that television has wrought across Western society and predicts dire consequences.

Reading him 30 years after the fact, where the Internet has taken over from television, Postman is even more prescient.

The last half of the book is mostly spent looking at these consequences as they have played out in particular slices of culture including education, politics, news, and religion.  In the chapter on faith, Postman quotes a former Executive Director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association:

“You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

This serves as a kind of summary statement for how television has shaped the expression of faith that comes over the airwaves.  The medium (television) is thus anything but neutral to the shape and telos of the content:

“You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader – from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther – who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user friendly.” It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”

I literally wrote the word “Joel” in the margins the book beside this paragraph. (Yes, it’s a paper book, because they are better than those electronic monstrosities, as recent sales figures show.) We don’t need to rehash all the issues with the prosperity gospel in general or Joel Osteen in particular; we’ve covered the basics before here.  But, whether you like what Joel does or not, I think it’s easy to see the connection between the marketing/consumerist goal of “offering people what they want” and Joel’s platform as a combination of “good cheer,” celebrated affluence, and celebrity.

Postman’s chapter-long take on religion and television will put not only Joel but many of those popular televangelists in a stark light.  While he wrote in the era of Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, others – include Joel – have taken up these gilded mantles.  I’m not sure even Postman at his most cynical could imagine preachers asking for $60 million luxury jets, for instance.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a must-read that will make you rethink the way you engage all forms of media, not just television. I would also recommend Deep Work, in which Cal Newport draws on Postman and others to recommend a new approach to work based on the temptations of social media and other features of electronic culture.  I’ll give Postman the final word, as he concludes that the effect of television’s influence on preachers can result not just in a difference of quality, but of kind:

“I believe I am not mistaken in saying Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

 

 

Source: Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books), 121.

 

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