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Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 4 Comments

Jesus was a refugee from state-sponsored terrorism in Egypt.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

Courtesy James-Michael Smith, via jmsmith.org.

That rings more sharply than I intend. The “Jesus was ____” move is sometimes overplayed and unhelpful (and often not really about Jesus). But in this case, it is simply a fact, not a rhetorical ploy. This insight comes to us straight from Scripture, from the savior’s own story: Jesus and his family found refuge in Egypt:

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
-Matthew 2:13-15 (CEB)

There is a plague of fear in our culture. It is not of God, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18) and because we are commanded everywhere and always to care for the well-being of others as much or more than our own. This anti-gospel is everywhere. Most of us, though, can’t see it. Like fish swimming in the ocean, we don’t know we are in water.

Everywhere in the Bible, when God appears, the first word is, “Do not be afraid.” Everywhere in our world we are told, “Be afraid, be very afraid, and especially be afraid of ____.” In this case, it is refugees (which is really just an extension of the fear of immigrants as a whole, which itself is just the good ol’ fear of difference that easily morphs into hatred and prejudice).

We have been down this God-forsaking road before. In 1939, the US refused entry to nearly 1000 Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany. Some found refuge in Europe, many later died in the demonic machinery of the Holocaust:

In a highly publicized event in May–June 1939, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the St. Louis. The St. Louis appeared off the coast of Florida shortly after Cuban authorities cancelled the refugees’ transit visas and denied entry to most of the passengers, who were still waiting to receive visas to enter the United States. Denied permission to land in the United States, the ship was forced to return to Europe. The governments of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each agreed to accept some of the passengers as refugees. Of the 908 St. Louis passengers who returned to Europe, 254 (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust. 288 passengers found refuge in Britain. Of the 620 who returned to the continent, 366 (just over 59 percent) are known to have survived the war.

The Good Samaritan was so-named because he helped the man on the side of the road, beaten and bloody, while the good religious people walked on by.

love syriansGod help me – and I mean that literally, because I am not yet perfect – I’d rather be a Good Samaritan than a pious man passing by who is indifferent to suffering out of fear or caution.

Christians are not allowed the luxury of living based on worst-case scenarios and calculations of how many of a given group might wish us harm.

We are called to a holy foolishness that welcomes the stranger in trust and in hope that we may be welcoming an angel unawares. (Heb. 13:2) It was not that long ago that we turned away Jewish refugees from Germany. It is always easier to fear the stranger than it is to welcome them, just as the mire of sin is always more easy and natural than the graced road of sanctification.

American Christians, left and right, are almost to a person slaves to culture; sometimes that culture is all permissiveness and “tolerance,” so-called, and other times it is obsessed with building walls and circling the wagons. By and large Christians reflect these trends rather than offering a gospel-conditioned critique from what is supposed to be an alternative community. As Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, we tend to be thermometers and not thermostats.survey 1938

But Jesus was a refugee, fleeing slaughter in the town of his birth with his family. To reject refugees in our communities and churches now, is nothing less than rejecting Jesus.

As strangers to the world and her ways, Christians should always have a bias towards loving and welcoming the strangers in our midst. This is especially so when those strangers are fleeing violence and chaos. If that bias is not in evidence – and other, less virtuous biases are – the natural question follows: have we even met Jesus?


The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.


C.S. Lewis Was Right: Bulverisms are Everywhere

cslewisC.S. Lewis stands up to the decades after his death with astounding endurance.

Consider a few instances where, like Chesterton before him, the British literati’s pen continues to prove startlingly contemporary well past his own lifetime:

  • Lewis asked big questions about the nature of the afterlife before Rob Bell made Calvinists’ hearts a-flutter over them.
  • The Oxford don made Christian fiction an art form, and took it to heights hitherto unmet (and CGI is just now making it possible to visualize the products of Lewis’ stunning imagination).
  • Before Rabbi Kushner popularized the theodicy question, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, both of which hold up better.

And that only scratches the surface of how insightful Clive Staples Lewis continues to be for our own age.

I suppose it is no surprise that he observed a phenomenon of public discourse in 1941 that has reached vicious heights in 2015.  He even invented a name for it in an essay by the same name collected in God in the Dock: “Bulverism.”  For Lewis, a Bulverism occurs when someone mistakes or substitutes a counter-argument for a psycho-social observation:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”

Lewis goes on to claim that he sees this error everywhere:

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Note that the author goes out of his way to insist this isn’t a strategy of this or that “side” or party.  Bulverisms are found everywhere.  And aren’t they still, today? Such poor rhetoric has become the air we breathe.

An example just came across my news feed today.   A group of African bishops in the UMC released a statement that dealt with issues of global terrorism, human sexuality, and the unity of the church.  Bishop Warner Brown Jr. committed a clear Bulverism in his statement to United Methodist News Service:

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops, said his African colleagues were speaking out of their context.

The tempting reply – if I weren’t hoping to avoid that which I am observing – would of course be: so is Bishop Warner Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco area.  Because after all, who the hell doesn’t speak out of their context?  It’s a facile kind of observation, a victory purchased cheaply, but one that is used ad nauseum:

  • She went to an all-girls college, so you know she’s a man-hater.
  • He comes from money, so he can’t help but act like a spoiled brat.
  • She’s from the Northeast, so naturally she’s going to support Bernie Sanders.
  • He’s from the Bible Belt, ergo he’s a right-wing nut job.

As Lewis saw so well 70 years ago, Bulverisms are not only a poor excuse for an argument, but they threaten the very possibility of virtuous discourse.  The ubiquity of this error is all the more troubling because Christians are ostensibly committed to charity, patience, and honesty – any of which alone should make Bulverisms rare if not extinct among the baptized.  Should is, of course, the operative word here.

I’ll give Lewis the last say, a word of warning that is also a sad description of public conversation today:

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.

Was Lewis right about Bulverisms? Where do you see them? How do we avoid them today? Leave a comment below!


Martin Luther Roundtable (#ICYMI)

What do you think of Martin Luther?conciliar post

That’s the question that a group of us have addressed for a recent Round Table discussion over at Conciliar Post.  I’m really humbled to be a part of such a healthy and deep conversation among Christians of different traditions.  In case you missed it, I wrote the Methodist response, but all of them are well worth a your time (especially the others).  Here’s a sample from my contribution:

Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation.  I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself.  The reasons are twofold.  For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition.  Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are.  Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated.  It should be remembered, of course.  Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery.  But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?

The full article is here.  Thanks again to the CP team for letting an amateur Wesleyan theologian hang out with such a sharp group of talented, bright folks.

Is Reformation Day worthy of a celebration? Is Luther a hero or a villain? Leave a comment below!


The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis [Review]

surprising imaginationA key to understanding the widely-varied C.S. Lewis corpus is to apprehend his astounding use of imagination.  Lewis described himself as chiefly an “imaginative man” in 1955, moreso than a critic or religious writer. Authors Jerry Root and Mark Neal ground their work in this insight in their fascinating new book The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: An Introduction.

Newly published from Abingdon, Root and Neal provide a work that is simultaneously an introduction to Lewis’ major works and a substantive argument about the animating source of his writing.  Their aim is to demonstrate that “through Lewis’s autobiography, children’s stories, science fiction, poetry, religious work…and literary criticism than an intentional use of the imagination is always at work.” (xvii)  Thus there is plenty to chew on here both for the life-long Lewis aficionado and an excellent introduction for those looking for an overview as they begin to treat with the Oxford don.

The authors follow a common pattern throughout. They have selected a handful of Lewis’s most-used forms of imagination and describe them, chapter by chapter, by giving an overview of a representative work and explicating how it uses that particular kind of imagination.  For instance, the authors argue that “shared imagination” is especially evident in Lewis’s apologetic masterpiece, Mere Christianity.  Referring to the famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument regarding the identity of Jesus, Root and Neal point out that Lewis here uses an Augustinian strategy to build his case.  This displays a sense of shared imagination about the basic content of Christian faith (the purposes of Mere Christianity) by using a shared (that is, classic) observation from one of the faith’s great teachers.  In the course of that chapter, the reader is both introduced to the content of Mere Christianity and given a sense of how shared imagination functions within.  This basic flow marks all the other chapters as well.  I especially enjoyed the chapter on The Great Divorce (a personal favorite) and transforming imagination, and found myself wanting to dig into the Space Trilogy after reading the author’s examination of Out of the Silent Planet.

The authors highlight Lewis’s varied uses of imagination throughout, but are quick to point out that their work is only an introduction to something quite pronounced in their subject’s writings.  An appendix includes a large number of other forms of imagining and suggestions about where to find them.  In the end, a nod to Lewis’s children’s literature speaks volumes about the importance of this subject to Lewis and all those who would appreciate his full body of work: “Lewis, by using his imagination,” they note, “brings his readers into other worlds, much like Aslan brought children into his world.” (194)  They point out that Lewis uses imagination with a mastery reminiscent of the earliest Christian exegetes, those Mothers and Fathers who pioneered to analogical reading of Scripture centuries ago.

That insight is a fitting tribute to one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last century, who continues to aid readers both to live and articulate their faith decades after his death.  The Christian imagination has been enriched by the imagination of C.S. Lewis, and this new offering is a delightful exploration of and a helpful introduction to a modern master who will continue to illumine our journey toward God for decades yet to come.

Thanks to Abingdon for providing a copy of this book for review.


Darkness is My Only Companion [Book Review]

darkness companion coverImagine a book that NT Wright recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who enjoyed it so much he not only wrote the Foreword, but credits it with renewing his faith.

I could probably stop there and it would be enough to tell you that you should pick up the new 2nd edition of Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Revised and Expanded Edition, Brazos, 2015) as soon as possible.

But, in case you are unconvinced, let me give some of my own accolades, just in case you don’t want to take NT Wright, Justin Welby, or Stanley Hauerwas at their word (Hauerwas has a highly complimentary blurb on the back cover).

Every Christian should read Darkness is My Only Companion.  Here’s why.

Christians, by and large, have difficultly approaching mental illness, and this comes to the fore in a variety of contexts: in caring for friends and family who suffer with it, in attempting to talk about mental illness without blaming God or personal sin, and in coping with personally (because it has been so mishandled by the church, in part).  The societal stigma that keeps the mentally ill shut in on themselves, ashamed and afraid to seek help, is little better (and perhaps sometimes worse) in the Christian community.

Greene-McCreight brings a fascinating perspective, both personal and theological, to bear on the subject.  As the author notes, this book is difficult to categorize. It has elements of personal reflection and memoir, theological exploration, medical and psychological data and devotional piety.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts I’ve name, though. Quite simply, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading in the church, particularly by anyone in a care-giving role.  Christians who are or have suffered from mental illness would likely benefit from the author’s own honesty in sharing her story of living with bi-polar disorder and wrestling with big questions.

She does not shy away from those questions we are often too afraid to ask (or answer too glibly), such as:

  • What is the role of spirituality in coping with mental illness?
  • How does sin relate to mental illness? Is acedia related to depression?
  • How should a mentally ill person read Scripture?
  • How can the church and other caregivers best show support to those suffering mental illness?
  • What is it like to receive treatment (medication, psychotherapy, “electro-shock,” etc.?
  • How does St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” relate to mental illness?

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote this book because what she sought out was not available; thus the importance of this work – it is simply unique, and its power is bound up in the need of the author for a resource to help her journey with mental illness as a disciple of Jesus. “Yet while therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and medications abound,” she notes, “I found no one to help me make sense of my pain with regard to my life before the triune God.” (5)

Both the author’s personal piety (she is an Episcopal chaplain by vocation) and deep well of knowledge (she holds a PhD from Yale) are present on every page.  She peppers her stories of struggle and heartache with petitions from the Book of Common Prayer, and transitions from SSRI’s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to praying with the saints with a deft hand.  Greene-McCreight writes many things that need to be repeated in our pulpits and small groups, such as this simple but profound statement: “Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith.” (117)  As a pastor, I am glad to have this book to recommend, and I will be doing so frequently.

We need to hear this word from a sister in Christ who has walked this lonesome valley and invites us to tarry on with her; we need her wisdom, her depth, and her faithful tenacity in the face of illness.  I continue to be struck by this:

…sick people are not necessarily weak. I am ashamed to admit i did not already know this. Sick people are afflicted. They need the help of the Christian community, not our rejection. Mentally ill people can shock us. The stigma of mental illness can turn us off. But it should be the Christian community of all places where those who suffer are welcomed and supported, prayed for and comforted. (162)

As best as I can tell, churches tend to avoid the uncomfortable topic of mental illness. I am guilty of this.  But I believe I am better equipped to address these hard issues and help reduce some of the stigma in the community I serve after reading Darkness is My Only Companion.  More than anything, Greene-McCreight has convinced me we can and must do better.

I know it is normal to offer some critique as part of a review, even if only for the sake of custom or to appear impartial.  But I have nothing to offer on this score, and I do not wish to make something up for the sake of appearances.  As a pastor, and as a friend and companion to those with mental illness, I am grateful for this book.  I will echo Archbishop Welby, who concludes his Foreword to this new edition by giving thinks “above all to the God who unexpectedly has renewed me in his perfect love and grace” through this profound and unique work.

In the words of St. Augustine: tolle, lege.  Take and read.

P.S. I have not read the previous printing, but I was interested to read the afterword that is new to this edition, in which the author relates some of her own more recent experience with mental illness, discusses new treatments that are emerging, and responds to some of the chief critiques she’s received since the original publication in 2006.

Special thanks to Brazos for providing a review copy of this book.


Strangers Before Schism

broken chalice

“Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.”

 -Hebrews 10:25, CEB

Before the breakup comes the distancing; before the divorce comes the separation.  In the following selection, Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware gives a broad overview of the tensions leading to the Great Schism between East and West in his classic text The Orthodox Church:

“In the last resort it was over matters of doctrine that east and west quarreled – two matters in particular: the Papal claims and the Filioque. But before we look more closely at these two major differences, and before we consider the actual course of the schism, something must be said about the wider background. Long before there was an open and formal schism between east and west, the two sides had become strangers to one another; and in attempting to understand how and why the communion of Christendom was broken, we must start with the fact of increasing estrangement.” (44)

It is often noted that the bitter fruit of schism was nurtured in a soil of linguistic and cultural differences exacerbated by political infighting (crusades and iconoclasm didn’t help, either).  But Metropolitan Ware points out a deeper, broader reality: before a formal split over matters of doctrine and ecclesiology, came something diabolically simplistic: strained relationship.

It’s no accident Paul spends much of his letters simply exhorting the Corinthians or the Ephesians to act like Christians towards others in the assembly.  The quality of our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ is a significant barometer of our relationship with Jesus.  When our relationships suffer, the Church hurts.  Estrangement eventually broke the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

orthodox church wareWe could likely note similar trajectories in other splits: between Protestants and Catholics, Methodists and Anglicans, and, more recently, liberals and fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention.  But differences over non-essential matters in theology, ethics, and polity do not have to divide.  In the context of estrangement, however, it’s all to easy for differences to turn into division, for distance to become divorce.

I raised an off-handed hypothetical in a previous post elsewhere, wondering whether or not various groups in the UMC at present worship different deities.  The same might be wondered aloud for loyal PCUSA folks versus their PCA neighbors, or LCMS and ELCA folks. I meant, and mean, no offense; I am genuinely attempting to find an explanation for the current fractures, which are so vitriolic and raw that they surely go deeper than mere disagreement.  Whether this raising this hypothetical is an unfair cause or unfortunate symptom of such strained relationship, I leave for wiser minds to decide.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of something I heard Metropolitan Kallistos share with an evangelical audience.  He quoted a Catholic Cardinal who suggested that, to work towards unity (for which Christ himself prayed), we must love each other.  To love each other, we must first know each other.  We might add: to get to know each other, we must meet each other.  I know too many Protestants who’ve never asked a Catholic about their beliefs; I’ve met too many Episcopalians who’ve never had a conversation with a fundamentalist.  Such widespread ignorance of our neighbors shows that we take Jesus’ prayer far too lightly.

This is why I appreciate and invest in projects like Conciliar Post and Via Media Methodists, places where sincere attempts are made toward healthy dialogue about the disputes that threaten to, and in some cases have succeeded in, bending and then rending the Body of Christ.

It’s entirely possible that we might be the generation that rebuilds Christian unity over cups of coffee, lunch meetings, and late-night porters.  At the very least, when we stop meeting together in such ways, when we give up on the hard work of relating to each other, we remove vital tendons and sinew from the Body of Christ.

This is a good reminder of why a ritual meal is at the heart of our faith.  The people we sup with most often are likely the people to whom we are closest.  That’s why the Eucharist, rightly celebrated, is at the heart of any effort towards establishing and sanctifying our full, visible unity in Christ.  As Brian Wren reminds us in his marvelous hymn,

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

P.S. Here’s a great lecture on the state of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue today, for those who might be interested in prospects for healing the Great Schism that’s lasted nearly a millennia.


The Form Without the Power: “Non-Theistic” Worship

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

A Ukranian (Byzantine) Catholic priest celebrating the eucharist, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why would a church worship “non-theistically”?

The two things I am most interested in, as both a perpetual student and as a pastor, are doctrine and liturgy.  I suppose that’s why I take lex orandi, lex credendi so seriously.  The two coinhere, or both become a joke.  With that in mind, consider the following post from an Episcopal bishop (emphasis added):

Looking at (Episcopal) parish search profiles (for the purpose of finding examples for one of our parishes in transition), and ran across this: “We are an open communion church with a central altar. Our 9am, 11:15 am and 5 pm services are based on Rite II in the BCP, liberally adapted to express our progressive, somewhat non-theistic approach to worship.” There are no words.

As horrific as this is, let us attempt a few words anyway.

The bishop did not name the congregation, but I wish I could watch a live stream and find out what “non-theistic” worship looks like.  Foolishness like this cuts to the heart of what ails Mainline Protestantism, whose erosion I have frequently noted.

Looking back in the vault, then, I would connect the phenomenon glimpsed above to:

  • a failure to explicitly proclaim and comprehend the God implicitly narrated in the Book of Common Prayer and other historic Christian liturgies (a distinction I just learned from Nicholas Wolterstorff).
  • those occasions when “progressive” Christianity nukes the fridge, and leaps from a harmless politically liberal version of historic, Trinitarian Christianity to a loosely defined sub-Christian farce of vague spirituality held together around no-doctrine-as-doctrine at its gelatinous core.
  • a proper caution when considering claims from emergent Christians and sacramental progressives like Rachel Held Evans who link an ancient ritual aesthetic to millennial interest (without a concomitant interest in the creedal and conciliar context for such ancient resources).

Earlier this year, I referenced the doctrinal situation of the Episcopal Church in a post seeking  to affirm a high view of Scripture, something I believe the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” undercuts even though it was clearly held by Wesley and his Reformation forebears like Luther and Calvin.  The danger I sense in my own Wesleyan tribe is something I see in Mainline and center/progressive Protestantism in general:

…though our official liturgies and doctrinal standards speak in accord with the Church across time and space about the Triunity of God and the centrality of Christ, it is quite possible that the presiding clergy and any number of congregants may actually be worshiping the Giant Spaghetti Monster.  God becomes whatever and wherever one finds meaning, and the only dogma recognized is that all dogma is stifling and harmful.

What’s shocking is not that such congregations or clergy exist; what is shocking is that Mainline Protestant leaders lack either the interest or the will to do anything about it (or both).  To name a few: in the UMC, the PCUSA, and Episcopal Church (and let’s not forget about our United Church of Canada friends) we tolerate the abandonment of our Reformation roots and basic orthodoxy among our leaders with barely a sigh of resignation.  If we will not even insist our ordained clergy believe in God, we quite simply deserve to die so that God will no longer be mocked.

There is a place for “non-theistic” worship with Christian trappings, and it is the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Otherwise, ostensibly Christian communities who engage in such deformed liturgies are doing little more than highly organized lying.

I take comfort in remembering that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church rests on the firm foundation of the birth, holy life, cruel death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Though many forces threaten to tear us asunder, our spiritual union with the Tripersonal God – our whole purpose for being, by the way – cannot be sundered, no matter how much human cowardice and supernatural evil conspires to separate the church from he who reigns as her sole Head, Israel’s messiah, and the world’s true Lord.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.


The God We Worship [Book Review]

liturgical theologyMost of what passes for liturgical theology is really theological reflections on liturgy; rarely is a truly liturgical theology attempted.  This is a driving assumption behind an interesting new book by the eminent philosophical theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff titled, simply enough, The God We Worship: A Liturgical Theology.  In his new tome, Wolterstorff examines the liturgy with a very particular project in mind: “to uncover the fundamental presuppositions of the Christian liturgy.” (17)

Wolterstorff relies throughout on a couple of guides for this task, one Orthodox and one Reformed.  From the East, he frequently draws on Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s masterful little book For the Life of the World, a classic in liturgical theology originally written for Orthodox youth.  From the Reformed tradition, the reader often encounters J.J. von Allmen, from his 1965 book Worship: Its Theology and Practice.  The author references these two works regularly and plays them off one another in helpful ways.  Moreover, the specific liturgies referenced throughout include a similarly ecumenical variety: the Catholic Mass, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and Orthodox Divine Liturgy are the most commonly examined.

At this point, you are likely tempted to think this is only of interest to those who practice and/or teach “high church” worship.  To be certain, this is frequently the connotation that “liturgy” possesses, particularly among Protestants.  On  Wolsterstorff’s reading, however, this is a mistake.  “Christian worship is liturgical when it is…the scripted performance of acts of worship,” he insists in the introduction. (8)  Note that a “script” is not necessarily written down; liturgies, including highly regulated and written liturgies like Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer, often contain unwritten actions and gestures that are not written down and vary from place to place.  Woltersorff goes so far as to claim, “I know of no body of Christians who get together for worship whose worship does not take the form of liturgical worship.” (9)

The God We Worship then unfolds in a logical sequence, focusing on what is, on Wolsterstorff’s reading, “implicit” in the liturgy.  God is first worthy of worship (thus Christians express reverence, awe, gratitude, and other attitudes in the liturgy); God is vulnerable (for if God is worthy of worship and does not receive it, God has allowed Godself to experience injustice); God participates in mutual address, which in turn lends itself into an understanding of a God who listens (and then hears favorably), and who speaks.  Wolstersorff concludes by ruminating on what understanding of God is implicit in the Eucharist.  Here he draws heavily on Calvin, concluding “This is a form of communion that goes far beyond that which takes place in mutual address; indeed, it has no close analogue in human interactions.” (161)

From the description thus far, the reader who is interested broadly in worship and liturgical theology may note that this book sounds quite different than many books usually placed in those categories.  That instinct is correct.  Wolterstorff is, in a real way, treading new ground here.  If he’s correct, making explicit the theology implicit in our common liturgies offers not necessarily a corrective on the broad Christian tradition, but a different accent.

 “Liturgical theology does not contradict…other forms of theology; at many points, it overlaps them. But it has its own distinct configuration. Much of what it highlights, the others place in the shadows. Liturgical theology highlights God as listener and God as vulnerable. Conciliar-creedal theology says nothing about either of these.” (167)

Wolterstorff acknowledges in the conclusion that those initiated into the tradition of liturgical theology will find this volume “highly idiosyncratic,” and I would concur.  He concludes by noting an assumption that is, shall we say, implicit throughout: most of what is usually called “liturgical theology” are really “theologies of liturgy,” including the master works of his interlocutors Schmemann and von Allmen. (169-170)

Time will tell whether theologians and liturgiologists will take Wolsterstorff to task for his innovation or not; at the very least, The God We Worship is a unique and ambitious treatment of liturgical theology.  While not always easy to read, and with one vexing Wikipedia reference to divination that made me curse out loud when I read it, this is overall both a fascinating and important reflection.  If Wolterstorff is right, along with others, that worship is quite simply what the church exists to do, we shall need more such guidance in the future, and the Body of Christ will be blessed should he and others continue to develop this new avenue in liturgical studies.


Thanks to Eerdman’s for providing a review copy of this volume.


Managing Sin or Following Jesus?

managing sin is not God's intention for us

Willard warned us about the dangers of just managing sin almost two decades ago.

Are we following Jesus, or merely managing sin? Nearly two decades ago, Dallas Willard observed:

“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how we deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 41)

He famously blamed this marginalization of the gospel’s impact on our actual lives on the ascendency of  “gospels of sin management.”

Gospels of sin management focus on sin rather than Jesus; they start with where we have gone wrong, rather than what God has done in Christ out of love and grace.  The result is tragic: rather than living God’s kingdom in its fullness, we manage sin and never really enjoy the kind of life God intends.

The net effect is that we make the gospel about mitigating sin and not about a salvific, lived relationship with God.

If that sounds too much like sophistry, let me go at it another way.  Eric Metaxas summed up the life and teaching of the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

As Willard goes on to point out, when and where God’s will is done, the Kingdom is present. We pray every Sunday for the Kingdom and often don’t think about it: “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is there, but the Kingdom – God’s will actively being carried out – is central.

Gospels of sin management come to us in two forms, and distort our visions of the Kingdom accordingly. There is a gospel of sin management on the right, and a gospel of sin management on the left. The conservative version of sin management focuses on personal sin: on moral effort towards (for instance) lying less, having fewer lustful thoughts, or being less prideful. On the right, managing sin is about Jesus atoning for my personal faults so that I can go to heaven.

There is a gospel of sin management on the left as well. Instead of focusing on personal sin, it focuses on social and corporate sin, on structural evil. In this progressive variant on managing sin, Jesus came to overturn injustice, he came as an advocate for the marginalized, and is concerned not so much with my stealing or cheating, but about poverty and homelessness and injustice. Jesus came to help us manage society’s sins and if we get right with Jesus there just might be a little less injustice.

Both of these pervert the Kingdom of God based on their particular visions of the gospel. Like the best lies, they rely on a kernel of truth and wrap it up in great falsehood. Now, lest anyone accuse me of antinomianism (being against moral law), hear me out: personal sin is awful, and against God’s will; structural sin is awful, and against God’s will. But if we only aim at managing sin, we miss the One who is our true life.

Personal sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward on the other side of life, removed from real life except for the knowledge of forgiveness. Social sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward in this life for human effort; instead of the fullness of God’s reign, we celebrate a little less evil in society as if it is the ultimate goal of God.

Both of them fail as gospels in the sense that you can buy into them fully and never have an active, living relationship with Jesus Christ.

When I observe Protestant Christianity in North America, I see us managing sin – left and right – all over the place.  I see a lot of Christians fighting over how to alleviate sin, and barely any energy put towards actively following Jesus.

Willard has hit a chord, in my estimation. He was right almost twenty years ago, but we are still getting it wrong.  What say you?

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