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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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Mainline Resurrection Can’t Do Without…the Resurrection

In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered.  His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left.  Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:

My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.

The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.

These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.

The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.”  The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.

What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality.  Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake).  But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.

Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ.  Modern and postmodern theologies  too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor.  Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly.  Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure.  But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.

St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)

As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end.  A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course.  However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities.  Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.

In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation.  With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”

I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:

If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.

I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.

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The Nicene Creed as the Pledge of Allegiance

An Icon of the Nicene Symbol

In the Christian view of life, our primary allegiance is never to any nation, state, or tribe, but to the Body of Christ.  The Church is not merely a subset of society or a private organization through which Christians pursue their private spiritual lives, it is the “royal priesthood” (using 1 Peter’s language) of God’s people called out of the world for the sake of the world. Rodney Clapp describes this eloquently in his book on country music and Christian identity in America:

In Christian profession, Gentiles are called into covenantal relation with the God of Israel, the true and living God, through and by Jesus of Nazareth, himself a Jew and indeed the long-awaited Messiah. Drawing and adopting Gentiles into the commonwealth of Israel, Jesus Christ creates “one new humanity in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). So for the baptized, nothing can be more basic or more significant than their baptism. In baptism, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). Just as immigrants or “aliens” from another country may be “naturalized” and become citizens of a new country, baptism “naturalizes” the Gentile, incorporates him or her into the body of the Jew Jesus Christ, and grants him or her citizenship in the “commonwealth of Israel.” In the granting of this citizenship, baptism entails nothing less profound than entrance into a new creation, the assumption of a new humanity, a dying to the old self and its identity and a regeneration to a new self and identity (2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 6:4). Nothing can more basically or comprehensively define the Christian than baptism. Membership in the worldwide body of Christ constitutes the Christian’s highest loyalty, his or her central allegiance.

Clapp goes on to describe how, a few months after September 11, a couple visited his parish for a number of weeks. Upon visiting with the priest, they only exhibited one major concern.  American identity, the said, was somewhat lacking in the church’s services.  Why not affirm the virtues of citizenship, sing patriotic hymns, or share the Pledge of Allegiance during worship? The pastor mentioned that each Sunday they do indeed pray for the country and its leaders, and then concluded, “And we do say the pledge of allegiance – the church’s pledge of allegiance. It’s called the Nicene Creed.” (122-123)

We’ve explored previously why the Nicene Creed is the ancient, ecumenical confession of common apostolic faith of choice for Christians across time and space.  But I quite like this image of the Nicene(-Constantinopolitan) Creed as not merely the most unifying and basic statement of Christian faith, but as the pledge of allegiance for the Church herself.

Does your church use the Nicene Creed or other statements of faith? Would another choice be better for our “pledge of allegiance?” Leave a  comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe by entering your email address to the right!

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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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The Real Jesus is Not on TV

by Drew 4 Comments

During the lead up to Christmas and Easter each year, there is a spat of programming around biblical and theological themes – specifically about the life of Jesus.  (As I write this during Holy Week 2017, CNN and PBS are running especially grotesque examples of this genre.)  This is a pop culture equivalent of the fascination that many scholars and pseudo-scholars have shared throughout the centuries, from the earliest gnostics to the 20th century Jesus Seminar.  Unfortunately, most of these are attempts to reconstruct a “real” Jesus more adaptable and interesting to the popular culture of whatever time and place, rather than diving more deeply into the Biblical and patristic record.

From the first, the church has endorsed a variety of views on Jesus.  We have four gospels in the New Testament, when we might have had one.  Of course, many so-called gospels have been rejected by the church as well (these rejected gospels provide the grist for the mill of the biannual “NEW SECRETS OF JESUS” programming we continually endure).  In this morass of various Jesus’ on offer, how do we determine true from false savior?

The esteemed Emory professor Luke Timothy Johnson, recently retired, provides a helpful sieve in his polemic work The Real Jesus, which took ruthless aim at the specious scholarship of the Jesus Seminar.  According to Johnson, the real Jesus of the gospels and the tradition has a story with very clear lines:

When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath the surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community….the one who through the Spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension-filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.

Within the New Testament, no other pattern joins the story of Jesus and that of his followers. Discipleship does not consist in a countercultural critique of society. Discipleship does not consist in working overwhelming miracles. These elements of the Jesus tradition are not made normative in the way that the pattern of obedient suffering and loving service is.

In other words, the real Jesus cannot be known apart from the clear arc of his story in the New Testament: sacrificial service, radical love, death and resurrection.  Any other Jesus is a reconstruction – and, as Schweitzer noted almost a century ago – most likely a self-aggrandizing fiction.  This takes away the edge, the beauty, and the heart of the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I’ll let Johnson have the last word:

For our present age, in which the “wisdom of the world” is expressed in individualism, narcissism, preoccupation with private rights, and competition, the “wisdom of the cross” is the most profoundly countercultural message of all.  Instead of an effort to rectify the distorting effect of the Gospel narratives, the effort to reconstruct Jesus according to some other pattern appears increasingly as an attempt to flee the scandal of the gospel. (p. 166)

Do you agree with Johnson’s portrait of “the real Jesus?” Why are we continually attracted to visions of Jesus that outside of the earliest witnesses? Leave a comment below!

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Ashes-to-Go For One: Rethinking Liturgical Individualism

She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship.  “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m.  It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.

It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter.  I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.

Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her.  She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.

Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.”  Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them.  An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go.  My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.

I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.

I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night.  She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake.  I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services.  She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.

Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually.  Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.

Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well.  In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival.  This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.

The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake.  Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite.  Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community.  That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing.  Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central.  It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.

I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience.  I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.

Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.

What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!

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A Wesleyan Searches the Solas: A Review of Biblical Authority After Babel

Much like Leithart’s The End of Protestantism, I leave Kevin Vanhoozer’s new work Biblical Authority After Babel wondering if Methodists make bad Protestants.  Vanhoozer’s tome is well written, meticulously researched, but it will ultimately be most convincing to those already enamored with Luther and Calvin.  Like Leithart’s Reformed Catholicism (I prefer “Roman Calvinism”), Vanhoozer invents a “Mere Protestant” species in which I, as an orthodox United Methodist with Anglican leanings who was never taught to be enamored with the solas, cannot see myself.  That said, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work is still worth a read.

In many ways, this book is a work of Protestant apologetics; that is, it is not defending Christian faith in general, but rather Protestantism (in the form of the 5 classic solas) against Catholic (but, sadly, not Orthodox) broadsides.  Vanhoozer is sensitive to claims (many of which, he rightly notes, are overblown) that Luther and Calvin opened a Pandora’s Box that ultimately made something like small-c catholic consensus impossible.  He names the driving questions thus: “Should the church repent or retrieve this dangerous Protestant idea? Can the Protestant principle sola scriptura ever produce consensus, or is the result always chaos?[…]Did the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world, and, if so, should Christians everywhere file a class-action suit?” (9)  To help answer these questions and defend “Mere Protestantism,” he offers “the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church.” (33)

While I remain unconvinced of Vanhoozer’s overall argument, there is a lot of meat on these bones that is worth pondering, even if one has doubts about his thesis.  This description of the Bible, for instance, is just pure gold: “Scripture is essentially a narrative account of God’s gracious self-communicative activity in the histories of Israel and Jesus Christ whereby the Father adopts a people by uniting them to his Son through his Spirit.” (62)  I also appreciate his definition of systematic theology: “simply the requirement to think biblical things through and to make sure that what one thinks about different biblical themes coheres.” (125)

There are times that Vanhoozer lapses into more Romish sentiments than he would wish.  Thus, in the chapter on “faith alone,” he asks how this “compensate[s] for the loss of external authority (the church magisterium) in biblical interpretation?” (72)  But surely the very solas which form the spine of his entire argument function as a kind of (Mere) Protestant magisterium? His defenders might claim that the solas are merely natural extrapolations of Scripture – but then, Catholics would say the same about the papacy or transubstantiation.

Speaking of Catholics, Vanhoozer leaves many of these centuries-old debates underdeveloped.  There is, of course, a rich literature from the Catholic counter-reformation and a long dialogue with Rome down through the years, and yet on the whole the reader does not get the sense that Vanhoozer is not interested in presenting the opposing view in a sympathetic light, but merely restating the oldest of the Reformers’ arguments.  In this vein, he quotes Ramm’s contention that “the Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete,” which uncritically presumes a Protestant hermeneutic – sans magisterium or catechism.  This, additionally, is the inverse of the caricature that Vanhoozer is so committed to fighting.    For surely we might just as easily say “the Bible treated literally” or “the Bible treated independent of other sources” becomes putty in the exegete’s hand?

The chapter I find most lacking explores sola scriptura.  Vanhoozer here sounds like theologians who collapse all of soteriology into justification, or all of the atonement into subsitutionary, in that he seeks to make “sola scriptura” a catch-all category for a nuanced, broad “Mere” Protestant hermeneutic.  He comes dangerous close to spouting alternative facts when he sums up his view: “it is not that Scripture is alone in the sense that it is the sole source of theology”; rather, “Scripture ‘alone’ is the primary or supreme authority in theology.” (111)  I was taught sola fide for a decade by Southern Baptists who revered Luther, and I promise that for them, “alone” meant just that – not primary.  Primary, in fact, is the language that United Methodists use when describing our unique take on the Anglican three-legged stool unfortunately named the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral.  It is simply not possible that Sola Scriptura means Lutheran and Calvinist “Mere” Protestants have the same view of Scripture as Anglicans and Wesleyans, which would have to be true if Vanhoozer’s reading is correct.  Methinks the author has stretched the bounds of this particular definition; I’m not a perfect husband but I know that there is a significant difference in saying I love my wife “alone” and that I love my wife just more than other women.  Sola and prima are simply different concepts, and they get conflated by Vanhoozer (and I am unconvinced by his solo/sola distinction).

This is an important work for a particular tribe of Protestants, but alas, not mine.  As an ecclesial descendant of the Anglican via media, Vanhoozer’s thesis is simply too Protestant for this presbyter.  This would’ve been a stronger argument had it included more attempts to narrate Catholic beliefs from a Catholic position, and if it had referenced the East.  Many of Protestantism’s critiques of Rome are shared by the East, and yet the East comes to vastly different conclusions – and has done so for twice the life span of Protestantism.  Sadly, the East is wholly lacking here, including in places where it would have been quite helpful (for instance, on the nature of catholicity and the role of the Pope).

Vanhoozer even manages to offend my delicate Duke sensibilities, referring  to the Yale School of Frei and Lindbeck rather brusquely to the “postliberal cultural-linguistic bandwagon.”  I’m not sure what mainline seminaries Vanhoozer has been spending time in, but if postliberalism is a bandwagon, we will need to invent new terms for extreme popularity to describe how existentialist, liberation, process, and contextual theologies reign practically unchallenged in most denominational schools of theology.

Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s new work will make you think and is worth the time to read.  Even when less than convincing, there is more than enough solid content to keep you interested along the way – even if you are a Wesleyan, like me, whose Protestantism is almost wholly lacking in this account of Protestantism’s view of Scripture as found in the solas.

A Final Note: This work is riddled with side comments that are intended to be humorous but which this reviewer found tedious and irksome.  For instance, “And the evening and the morning were the first day of the hermeneutics of suspicion,” (88) and, “For those who swim in Fish’s school…” (22), or, “…in the Father’s household there are many Protestant mansions…” (103). Additionally, an editor should have caught his reference to Trinitarian relations as “eternal intercourse.” (52)  This is, to say the least, a highly unfortunate turn of phrase.

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Learning to Speak Christian in Our First Family, the Church

Does it matter how Christians speak?

I recently had the opportunity to write for my own Western NC Conference blog, and this time I wrote a reflection on language and identity in the church.  My premise is that the church is our first family, and this identity is both established and maintained through language.  Just as a company, culture, or hobby has a particular language, so too does the church have its own distinct habits of speech and modes of thought.  If we give away the language, we give away everything.  To be a Christian is no less than to speak the language of the church.

Along the way, I draw on the work of Wabash theologian William Placher and his dialogue on postliberal theology with James Gustafson in this piece. You can find the full article here.  Thanks to Rev. Dr. Michael Rich in the WNCC Communications Office for the chance to join a great group of bloggers, and thanks to you for reading!

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The 1st Business of the Church After the Inauguration

Oliver O’Donovan

How should the church respond to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

Most of us in the US, assuming you aren’t completely isolated, know people who are:

  • elated
  • terrified
  • indifferent
  • angry

It’s probable that a mix of these reactions will be seen and heard from pulpits, in liturgy, and in music on Sundays across America and the world.  The inauguration looms large on social media and around water coolers across the US. Which approach is right for the church?

A good place to start is this guidance from eminent political theologian Oliver O’Donovan (we’ve looked at his work before), which I’ve borrowed, with an assist from Rev. Dr. Joy Moore, from the good folks over at Mere Orthodoxy thanks to a tweet from Matthew Lee Anderson. From a 2010 interview:

Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.

If O’Donovan is right that the forces of evil want most a kind of “feverish excitement” from God’s people, than evil must be winning.  The devil is an extremist, as Uncle Screwtape noted, and seems to be doing well in this extreme age.  This is why, O’Donovan notes, our “first business” as the church is to deny that adulterated worship.  This leads to his conclusion that, counterintuitively, “the most pointed political criticism” is to focus elsewhere.

For my own take, I don’t think this means completely ignoring momentous events like elections and inaugurations, but it does mean keeping the focus on where it should be – on the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what Stephen Covey calls “keeping the main thing the main thing.”

To let something else – out of elation, or anxiety, or anger – take our eyes off of God is to succumb to the spirit of Antichrist.  It is to give Satan the “feverish excitement” that draws our energies and attention away from the One who alone gives life.

I once heard a quote attributed to Merton that gets at this nicely: “What the devil wants most is attention.”  I’ve wrestled with that for a while, and it came back to me when I read O’Donovan’s reflection above.  A laser is powerful because it is focused. If that focus dissipates even slightly, it is useless. So it is with our worship; in giving the forces of corruption and anxiety our energy, we capitulate our very identity in a fruitless endeavor to fight “feverish excitement” with more of the same.  We condescend to the same level as that which we contend against.

In a similar vein, author Andrew Vachss has left us the following poem:

Warrior, heed this
When you battle with demons
Aim not at their hearts

Don’t aim at their hearts, for it will only be wasted effort.  Don’t fight fire with fire.  As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  The fact is that the greatest truth the Body of Christ has to proclaim is not a word about any thing, issue, cause, or controversy.  The truth we proclaim is a person named Jesus, who reveals the Good News of who God is, what God is doing, and what God will do.  In short, telling the truth about Jesus will always be more radically subversive than the angriest tweet, the most pointed Facebook post, or the signaliest of virtue signaling blog posts.  Likewise, a sermon “about” the election or a liturgy focused on the office of the President – aiming right at the heart of the demons – can only fall flat compared to the one truly subversive claim: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Cor. 5:19)

The first business of the church after the inauguration is no different than it was before the inauguration: to proclaim, in word and deed, hymn and sacrament, voice and silence, liturgy and service that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That is the truth on which our hope is based.  Whether we find ourselves angry, joyful, sad, or indifferent at this moment in our national life, our worship and proclamation should first reflect the gospel, not our own emotional state.  If every knee will bow and every tongue confess at the name of Jesus (Phil. 2:10-11), then our proclamation ought never stray from this, for no matter what the news of the day might be, the good news is greater.   This is the confession on which our very lives are staked.  This – and only this – is the first business of the church, no matter who sits on Caesar’s throne.

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Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

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