Header Image - Drew McIntyre | Plowshares Into Swords

The Priority of Worship

by Drew 1 Comment
Catholic_monks_in_Jerusalem_2006

Franciscan monks process in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Abraham Sobkowski via Wikimedia Commons.

Why do followers of Jesus make worship a priority?  The answer is actually not so simple as one might imagine.

Is it a nice addendum, a window dressing to our private devotions and Bible study?  Is corporate worship an aesthetic experience tacked on to the “real” discipleship of service and witness?  Is our praise and preaching, our confession and communion really just a nice – but ultimately optional – show?

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick takes on this line of thought, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, in a post which I would commend to your reading.  He notes,

Worship is reduced to preparation for the “real” Christian life, which is about Christian character, helping people, etc. Thus, worship is where we sort of plug back into the charging station so that we can go out and do the “real” Christian stuff.

How often do we talk about worship in just this way – as a shot of espresso to give a jolt to our “real” life of service and work – and not as a priority of Christian faith?  We talk about worship “feeding” us.  We drive home from worship reflecting on the day’s sermon as if we are judging an episode of Big Bang Theory or Scandal: “That one didn’t really do it for me” or “Wow! Today was a good one.”

Moreover, how many Christians treat worship attendance as something that is only important when there are no other options?  Studies show that while the numbers of those claiming Christian faith are relatively stable, worship attendance continues to decline in frequency even among church members.  (Carey Nieuwhof outlines some reasons for this here.)  For even serious disciples, worship seems to be sliding down the scale of importance.rohr quote

Sometimes we denigrate worship out of a kind of inverted piety.  For instance, I’ve seen the Richard Rohr quote to the right making the rounds on social media of late.  Leave aside that all of these three points are false dichotomies.  The first line actively discourages worshipping Jesus in favor of “following him on his same path.”  This is precisely the kind of move Fr. Damick notes: a supposed priority of witness, of Christian action, over worship.

The problem with this is that gathering to worship is a significant act of worship itself.  The word “worship” comes from “worth-ship,” that to which we ascribe worth.  By gathering to worship, we show our neighbors, our children, our friends that God has worth.  As I outlined as part of a larger argument about online communion, Christians have noted for centuries that simply gathering for worship is itself a crucial act of worship.  Fr. Damick strikes a similar chord:

So the most significant witness a Christian can offer is actually his worship, because it is that worship which is the height and purpose of the Christian life. How he treats others (and all other forms of non-worship activities) is important, but it is important because it points people toward worship.

Christianity is not reducible to activism. Worship doesn’t support witness. Witness supports worship.

Quite simply, worship is the incomparable priority for the people of God.  The gathered community of praise and thanksgiving is not an option or an addendum; our purpose in corporate observance is not merely to an “experience” of enjoyment or fellowship or a jolt to our private spiritual journey.  We worship in this life to prepare for unceasing praise which will shape our lives in God’s Kingdom.

do not neglect churchI close by revisiting the Rohr quote above.  The choice is not between worshipping Jesus and following Jesus.  We worship Jesus because we follow him, for who else has the words of life? (John 6:68) Besides, we may find, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus discovered, that when walk with Jesus, we are drawn to worship almost without knowing it.  After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke tells us in Acts 2:42

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (NRSV)

Note the early devotion to worship as both word (“apostles’ teaching”) and sacrament (“the breaking of bread and the prayers”).  To be a follower of Jesus is inextricably bound up with worship – not listening to music in one’s car, or communing with nature, or meditation – but seeking the Triune God together through communal praise.

From the very first days of the Christian movement, disciples have assembled (“ekklesia“) for worship.  What chiefly separated Christians from their pagan neighbors was not loving the poor or forgiving each other.  What made the early Jesus movement unique – and thus, from time to time, a target of the Empire’s violence – is that they gathered to worship a carpenter who died and was resurrected.  They prayed to him, they sang about him, they read about him, and they ate his body and drank his blood (which is why some pagan critics said the early Christians were cannibals).  The worship of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit was a priority.

In the coming century, as increasing Western secularism, spiritual individualism, and a growing reliance upon technology for community conspire to make corporate worship less attractive, it’s possible that the primary distinction between a disciple of Jesus and a lukewarm believer – or between a follower of Jesus and the spiritual tourist or mildly theistic activist – will be the priority of worship.

Perhaps we are already there.

357 views

No One is Scared of Nonviolence

swanson vegan

Why are we so quick to ascribe fear to our opponents in an argument?

Disagreeing with something, finding its logic faulty, asking questions, or generally thinking something may be unwise is not tantamount to fear.  This is a silly rhetorical device designed to empower whomever is deploying it, indicative of a kind of childish fantasy: if “they” are afraid of something of which I am in favor, or of me, or something I represent, I cause fear. Ergo, I have power over them.

But of course, disagreement is not of necessity based on fear.

I have in view a recent piece by Michael Hidalgo over at Relevant titillatingly titled, “Why Are So Many Christians Scared of Nonviolence?”

The author offers this overwrought opening salvo:

“There is something that terrifies and angers many Christians even more than the threat of violence: nonviolence.”

Christians of intelligence, good will, and deep faith actually do disagree on this.

Christians of intelligence, good will, and sincere faith actually do disagree on these matters.

The author prooftexts some of the early fathers to good effect, rehashing the usual arguments from Christian pacifists.  It’s not so much an original offering as a summation.  For what it’s worth, I should note that I respect the position and appreciate much of the literature it has produced.  I went to seminary at Duke Divinity School, and many of my teachers and fellow students were (and remain) ardent advocates of nonviolence.  I took Stanley Hauerwas my first semester and wrestled with these questions for the duration of my time in seminary, and in subsequent study.  I was never convinced, though I appreciate the positions of folks like John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated Christian nonviolence for quite different reasons).

What the author of this piece fails to realize is that, potentially, what angers some interlocutors who disagree with pacifism is not the position itself but the manner in which it is espoused.  I am not “afraid” of pacifism.  This notion, if I may channel the eminent philosopher Ronald Ulysses Swanson, makes as much sense as being afraid of vegans.  But I do find the way in which pacifism is sometimes defended to be arrogant, simplistic, and dismissive towards all who disagree – much like the tone of the piece to which I am responding.

Let me describe it another way, via analogy.  A much-respected retired UMC pastor once told me that his worst experience in ministry was serving a charismatic church; many of the people in the congregation spoke in tongues and manifested other pneumatological gifts.  He said it was his worst experience in over four decades of ministry because he could not lead, or even provide spiritual care to, a congregation who viewed him as a second class Christian because he did not share their experiences of the Spirit.

In a variety of conversations and interactions, I have observed that Christian pacifists – at least those of the neo-Anabaptist variety to whom I’ve been most exposed – can often treat Christians who do not share their convictions in a similarly non-charitable manner.

(See what I did there? I critiqued people without ascribing self-aggrandizing motives.)

Seminary was a funny place. Guys would walk around in Che Guevara t-shirts or sport a good old Soviet hammer and sickle logo on their earth-friendly coffee thermos, and no one would give them a second look.  But question Yoder’s pacifism, or suggest that a military response to 9/11 was appropriate and perhaps even just? Such an egregious breach of groupthink would bring your discipleship into question.

(Note Hidalgo’s call to “look at our hearts and ask where our deepest commitment and allegiance resides.”)ad hom ref

So maybe – just maybe – some of us have a strong reaction to certain presentations of Christian nonviolence because it presents opponents as sub-Christian troglodytes. Perhaps some anger is understandable when pacifists assume themselves to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground, the true biblical witness, and the narrow way of Jesus.  Maybe we should not expect for our arguments to receive the hearing we feel they deserve if they are dripping with snark, ad hominem, and straw men.

Note the amateurish psychology of the following analysis:

“Maybe that’s why nonviolence is so threatening. It asks us to be willing to give up everything—all our wealth, power, possessions and influence that lend us a sense of self-worth and security and certainty. Maybe that’s why we get so angry at the suggestion of nonviolence; we are terrified of losing what we have worked so hard to get.”

Methinks Pastor Michael is confusing nonviolence with monastic vows.

Though he presents nonviolence as a radical way of self-denial, a costly form of discipleship, in reality there are few places in the 21st century West where this is even a possibility. As Karl Barth and others have noted, nonviolence is a commitment which lacks virtue in the absence of a military draft, or the possibility of facing actual violence; this is particularly so if one’s nonviolence is chiefly lived out among such existential threats as MacBooks and lattes.  But I digress.

Just to reiterate: I do not fear pacifists.  No one does.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid that the state of moral argument among Christians is so egregiously dire.

155 views

The Anti-Establishment Establishment

by Drew 3 Comments
Courtesy wwwhousandgarden.co.uk

Courtesy www.housandgarden.co.uk

The leading candidates for both parties in the 2016 Presidential contest are all trying to paint their opponents as “establishment.”

Post-Obama America, when the platitudes of “hope” and “change” failed to hold up under the weight of reality, voters are in many ways more cynical than ever.  The only broad agreement is that politicians in general are the problem; the more insider they are, the more a particular politician represents the ways of that mysterious phantasm known as “the establishment,” the less interested we are in electing them to the most powerful office in the land.

The problem, of course, is that the idea of “the establishment” is ephemeral.  It’s a construct with little purchase on reality.  It’s an idea with rhetorical power but very little content.  Defending National Review‘s whole issue devoted to slamming The Donald, editor Jonah Goldberg argues,

“Anti-establishment” is almost entirely devoid of any ideological content whatsoever. An ideological category that can include Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Occupy Wall Street, the tea parties, Ted Cruz, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, and Ben Carson is not a particularly meaningful one.

Some reply, oh no, it shows that the people are angry! I hear this all the time. And I agree. And I’m angry too. But you know what? Being angry is not a frick’n argument. I’m angry that Washington has drowned the country in debt. I’m angry that Obama has been a failure. I’m also angry that broccoli doesn’t taste like chicken and that Fox canceled Firefly. Being angry is probably a necessary condition for fixing a lot of problems, but it isn’t sufficient to the task. And it isn’t a particularly powerful defense of Donald Trump.

So why do we collectively demand outsider candidates to be the Chief Executive?

The flight from “establishment” candidates is just another example of our modern disdain for institutions.  Whereas my grandparents’ generation loved and supported institutions – denominations, political parties, Masonic lodges, women’s circles – Western culture today eschews them.  We now have a bias against “established” anything – that is, anything with a significant past – in part, perhaps, because new media and consumerism have effectively made all of us neophiliacs.  We are conditioned to look out for what is new and what is next.  Anything written in stone – hell, anything not Snapchatted or Instagrammed from the latest Apple product – is already antique.

Bias against the establishment has become our baseline, a shared cultural assumption.  Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water, anti-establishment zeal is simply the air we breathe.  In 21st century America, it is the norm.

Did you catch the irony?

Welcome to the anti-establishment establishment.

114 views

A New Kind of Devotional Reading

by Drew 2 Comments

A confession: I find much that passes for “Christian inspiration” cloying and vacuous. C.s.lewis3

On the other hand, I quite like what many of my colleagues found utterly painful in seminary: real theology.

Hey, I can’t help it. As Saint Gaga says, “I was born this way.”  But, it turns out, I am not alone.  In his marvelous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, C.S. Lewis commends theological writing as devotional reading:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

A couple of things stand out here: Lewis noted decades ago that the “devotional” books were not necessarily aids in growing our devotion to Christ.  How many popular devotional books are little more than nuggets of popular wisdom with a dollop of Scripture?  That describes vast majority I’ve encountered, at least.

Also, this helps us understand why a layman without any formal theological training turned out to be such an excellent theologian: he read extensively in the primary sources – like On the Incarnation of the Word – rather than getting trickle-down doctrine from lowest-common-denominator books designed for consumer ease rather than depth and truth.

Lewis’ experience resonates with my own.  What about you? Have you tried theology as devotional reading?  What makes your heart “sing unbidden?  If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with Lewis’ corpus, his work – such as Mere Christianity, or Screwtape Letters – would be a wonderful place to start.  You just might find them more devotional – drawing you closer to the heart of God – than those page-a-day readers that the publishers push on us year after year.

155 views

Hillsong London Just Ruined Christmas

by Drew 10 Comments
No it isn't, Hillsong. Not even close.

No it isn’t, Hillsong. Not even close.

Yesterday, I saw The Force Awakens. It put me in the Christmas spirit.  I know, not a Christmas film.  But the themes of family, joy, the light waging war against the darkness, all just put me in a good holiday mood.

But then I saw this monstrosity from Hillsong London, and Christmas is ruined:

A couple of days ago, I saw this SNL sketch making fun of Christmas Mass.  So before I go all Rambo on Hillsong London, let me just say that there is a lot of truth in the SNL sketch. Traditional Christmas worship can be done quite badly, and we’ve all had worship experiences like the boring, overwrought mess that Pastor Pat is leading here.

But holy hell, that was fiction.  Hillsong London actually turned Silent Night into a 1920’s Vegas showtune.  I don’t even know the words.  I thought Star Wars church was madness.  This is just insane and inane and all kinds of words I shouldn’t use if I want to stay employed by the church.

There is a deeper lesson here as well.  Form and content are not so easily separated as we often suppose. jesus crying The content of Silent Night – SILENT IS IN THE NAME – speaks of a peaceful, holy scene.  Is it a bit sentimental? Perhaps.  Does it whitewash the stench and filth into which our Lord was born? Somewhat.

But Silent Night ripped out of a Scorcese Vegas flick? This is ever so much worse.

As I said recently, I don’t care how “successful” something like this is.

It’s a monstrosity.

Vegas Christmas might draw a crowd.  But this isn’t worship.  It’s a show. And it’s not even a good show.

Thanks for ruining Christmas, Hillsong London.

I look forward to your upcoming burlesque Good Friday service.

 

4,300 views

Star Wars Church is the Dark Side: “No Reward is Worth This”

by Drew 1 Comment

lack faith

When does engaging popular culture become apostasy?

That’s a big question, but I’ve found at least one example of that line being trampled.  The collection of “Star Wars Church” examples over at Pirate Christian will (read: should) make you laugh, grieve, weep, and lash out at inanimate objects.  In what follows, I present the problem with this trend – uncritically baptizing culture and calling it church – in three classic Star Wars quotes.  I will demonstrate, by the logic of the very narrative that has been appropriated, why this is a false move. (And these quotes are classic because…duh…these are all from the original trilogy before CGI and Jar-Jar killed a beloved franchise.)

This will be “all too easy.”

vader dark side

The logic of making church a mirror of a cultural phenomenon is not a mystery. It goes something like this:

If we can relate the message of the gospel to a beloved story – particularly at a time of international fever over the release of The Force Awakens – we can leverage that pre-existing cultural equity into a connection with the gospel.  A preacher dressed as Hans Solo and a photo opportunity with inter-galactic mass-murdered Darth Vader might not be what those stodgy Episcopalians would do, but that’s just because they aren’t willing to reach people where they are.  If it reaches just one person, isn’t it worth it?

Notice the Vader-like pragmatic logic: if you compromise, you can save your friends.  Perhaps the methods are questionable.  Maybe the aesthetics are troubling.  It doesn’t have the dignity we associate with “traditional” church, but it is damned effective.  And in an era when people are skeptical about all institutions, especially the church, maybe this is exactly the kind of thing we have to do.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

IT'S_A_TRAP

One problem, though: as Admiral Ackbar says, “It’s a trap!”

This is a Devil’s bargain.  There’s a brilliant moment in Episode V when Lando proudly states, “I’ve just made a deal that will keep the Empire out of here forever.”  Of course, it was a trap.  You can’t trust the Empire.  You can’t play with the Dark Side.  “Flee even the appearance of evil,” as we learn in a different canon altogether. (1 Thess. 5:22)

Playing with fire will burn you eventually.  Baptizing popular culture and calling it church is effective.  There’s no doubt about it.

But so is McDonald’s.

So is the Death Star.

I can get my dog to eat his twice-daily pills by coating them in chocolate, but in the long run that is going to create much more serious issues for my dog than the illness that made the pills necessary in the first place.

“Whatever works” is simply not a sufficient metric by which to determine what the church messaging. Why?

no reward

Because the church has other standards of success than those that the market dictates to us.  Growth that is based on kitsch and fluff is neither evangelical nor sustainable.  The church does not make saints by inviting people into a faith community that simply regurgitates culture.  It is easy for children to reach the sugary cereal at eye level at the grocery store, but if you keep letting that child eat the sugary cereal, they may never learn to eat a fine steak or pick out a good head of lettuce.  Cheap grace is easy to sell, but is it really worth any “results” that may come? (Or are the results themselves really just a farce?)

As Han Solo says in Episode IV, “no reward is worth this.”  Turning the church into Comic-Con is fun, Instagram-friendly, and will create headlines.  But God’s people deserve more.  God’s people deserve a church that has something better to do that offer them a photo booth and a Wookie costume.

They don’t need more marketing. The people for whom Christ died don’t need more entertainment.  They will not be moved, much less transformed, by lowest-common-denominator community that makes following Jesus as radical as costume party.  They may show up. But will they leave sanctified?

lightsaber jesus meme

“Take up your lightsaber and follow me” is not something our Lord ever said.

No reward is worth this.  The church, in 1 Peter’s formulation, is “a royal priesthood.” Treat her accordingly. Resist the Dark Side.  Resist baptizing culture and calling it discipleship.  Don’t compromise the beautiful, challenging call to counter-cultural community.

The church is called to offer an alternative to the golden calves and banalities of the world.

Hear me out: I dig Star Wars. I am going to see The Force Awakens opening night.

But I love Jesus Christ and his church more.  The church has her own story to tell, and her own language, culture, and practices.  We don’t need Storm Troopers and X-Wings. We have the incarnation, radical ministry, suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

There is no better story. No matter what rewards the Dark Side promises, remember, they are Siren calls. The cheap rewards of cultural prostitution are merely invitations to shipwreck. (Judges 2:17 speaks to this danger.)

Let us have confidence in the story to which God has entrusted us. The martyrs did not give themselves to the flames so that we could have Lightsaber Church.  Thanks be to God.

253 views

Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine

by Drew 12 Comments
Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine
From a t-shirt available at www.tshirtvortex.net.

Spoiler alert: there is no rapture.

Hopefully you’ve heard this somewhere before.  Astute readers of Scripture or serious theologians will note it is totally absent from both the canon and leading Christian thinkers of this or any age.

And yet, like a cockroach in a slum, this patently false teaching seems determined to pop up in all kinds of places.  Why should you care? Because this is not just a matter of one interpretation versus another; something serious is at stake in this teaching (more on that at the end).

In the liturgical calendar, followed by all Christian churches, this is the season of Advent (or, for those of the Eastern persuasion, the Nativity Fast).  During Advent, we look back to first coming or “advent” of Christ and also ahead to his glorious return.  But that return has nothing to with a “rapture.”  Everywhere in Scripture God’s people are called to endure suffering and care for all of God’s creation; nowhere are we promised an escape from the travails of this fragile existence while the heathen and all of creation suffer in agony.  It is anti-gospel.  It is a false doctrine.  Here’s why, in 5 easy steps (and a tip of the hat to Talbot Davis for letting me borrow the “Top 5” idea).

  1. Rapture teaching is new.  Rapture teaching mostly originated in the 1800’s with John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren preacher.  He in turn influenced Cyrus Scofield, who edited an infamous, early study Bible named after himself.  It spread across the Atlantic and through folks like Dwight L. Moody and institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary.  Later popularizations included Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (see both parts of my review of this classic dumpster fire here and here) and the best-selling-novels-ever-written-for-adults-at-a-third-grade-reading-level known as the Left Behind series.  The short version: until the 19th century, there was no mass of Christians anywhere who taught that Jesus was going to return (halfway) and give all the living Christians jetpacks to heaven while the world goes to hell.
  2. The rapture is exclusively Protestant and almost exclusively American.  Catholics and Orthodox don’t remotely take dispensationalism seriously, and certainly not the rapture.  Add to that what NT Wright and others have pointed out – that it is pretty much only Americans who care about rapture teaching – and you have a recipe for a suspect doctrine.
  3. Oddly, the rapture requires a two-stage return of Jesus.  The return of Christ and “day of the Lord” traditions in the Bible are always singular events that comprise a variety of occurrences in close succession.  Passages like, “Watch ye, therefore, for you know not when the master approaches,” never posit a multi-stage return. (Mark 13:35)  The Nicene Creed, the most authoritative of the ancient summaries of Christian doctrine, says simply of Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” He does not return, take a few with him, and come back later.  He comes in glory to judge all and establish his kingdom.  That’s it.
  4. The rapture is not remotely biblical.  Not even remotely.  The main passages used to defend a teaching of the rapture, Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, can only do so if taken horrifically out of context and misinterpreted.  In Matthew 24, the language about “one being left behind” is a reference to Noah and the flood, such that any attentive reader can tell the logic of the passage is that one should want to be “left behind” as Noah and his family were.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, the word translated “caught up” (harpazo in Greek) appears elsewhere in the New Testament and means nothing like escaping to heaven.  Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of the dead in Christ rising first, a fact most versions of the rapture overlook completely.  Ben Witherington does an excellent job explaining all this in more detail in a Seedbed video here.
  5. The logic of the rapture is Gnostic, not Christian.  Fleeing a flawed and decaying physical world for the purity and joy of a spiritual realm sounds much like that prolific heresy – perhaps more prominent today than in ancient times – known as Gnosticism.  Gnostics believed that a secret knowledge had been revealed to them (“gnosis” means “knowledge”) and they held a very low view of physicality.  Everything physical was evil and corrupt, while the spiritual was pure and noble.  Gnostics varied greatly, but all versions united in a vision that desired to escape the world of matter to a realm of pure spirit.  Many heretical forms of ancient Christianity were gnostic and gnostic-influenced, and despite the ink spilled by skilled hacks like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, these psuedo-Christianities were quite properly rejected by the church in her wisdom (which is exactly what we should do today with the gnostic eschatology of the rapture).

upset memeYou may be asking yourself, “so what?”

What’s at stake is nothing less than Christian discipleship and ecclesiology (what you believe about the church).  That’s because what we believe about the last chapter of the story impacts how we live out the preceding chapters.  If God’s grand finale involves removing all the Christians while the world goes to hell (as most versions of premillenial dispensationalism espouse), then it is okay for us to let the world go to hell now.  If the destiny of the world is to burn up while Christians escape, then our only job now is to save (disembodied) souls and ignore the work of justice, reconciliation, community, and creation care.

But if, on the other hand, God has promised to renew the whole earth and all of creation, we are given a vocation of care and concern that invites us to share in and witness to God’s kingdom coming “on earth, as it is in heaven” (as Jesus taught us to pray in the Sermon on the Mount).

The bottom line:

  • The rapture invites Christians to be spectators while the world goes to hell.
  • A classic understanding of the kingdom calls Jesus-followers to live into the new shalom that is breaking in even now.

What are other reasons the rapture is a false doctrine? What ways have you found effective in challenging this teaching? Leave a comment below!

4,535 views

Jesus Was a Refugee From Terrorism

by Drew 5 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?

1,513 views

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.

434 views

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!

791 views
%d bloggers like this: