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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 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.

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The Blindness of Rejecting Tradition

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Notice the use of a creed here?

Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world.   Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:

“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”

As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy.  What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus?   Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3)  Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to

“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition.  After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)

There really is no escaping tradition.  Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful.  So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.

My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself.  Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.

Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it.  As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.”  (p. 60)

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John Wesley’s Case Against Phyllis Tickle

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“What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Psuedo-history is a dangerous thing.  By psuedo-history, we far too easily create a world designed to make “our side” look righteous, correct, and hip.  Like Scripture, history is too easily re-narrated to fit our own worldviews and prejudices.  Such is the case with Phyllis Tickle’s “cycles of history.”  As Andrew Thompson ably points out, this kind of
self-aggrandizing revisionism sells books, but it is not ultimately history as such.

Thompson points out* several problems with Tickle’s approach: 1) The obsession with numerology is a practice as ancient as it is misleading; 2) Tickle’s theory betrays an inescapably modern, progressive view of history – each sea change every 500 years is seen, as is the current “Emergence” – as on balance being for the better; this telling of the Christian past is not just hopelessly Protestant it is also Eurocentric in the extreme; 3) The “arbitrary” factor: Tickle has chosen events that fit her thesis but ignored major events of the Christian past that do not fit into the 500 year schema.  This is my jumping off point for something I’d like to add to the conversation.

In essence, my thesis is this: insofar as John Wesley can be identified with the theology, aims, and methods of what is named as “Emergence” Christianity, Tickle’s 500 year theory is all the more thoroughly undone.

Of course, trying to define Emergence Christianity is like trying to nail Jell-O floating in a pool of mercury.  In Emergence Christianity, Tickle lays down two goal-posts at opposite ends of the liturgical and theological spectrum: the declaration of Papal infallibility at Vatican 1 and the the reaffirmation of Scriptural inerrancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the essence of and motivating force behind “fundamentalism”).  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that, according to her description, everything that A) falls between these goal posts – absolute declarations of authority for either Church or Scripture – and B) is not part of Mainline Protestant establishment is, in some way, a precursor to and later an example of Emergence Christianity.  Thus, everything from the Azusa Street Revival and ensuing Pentecostal movement, to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, along with Taize and Iona and similar communities, form the womb of what would later grow into full-blown Emergence Christianity. (See Chapter 4)

Fast forward to today, and all manner of quasi- or anti-institutional expressions of church – almost all of them politically progressive while theologically and liturgically eclectic – are claimed by the Emergent/ing/ce (???) crowd. House church? You’re in. Neo-Monastic (which is to actual monasticism what the Episcopal Church is to Roman Catholicism) communities are emergent.  So are the hyphens: the Metho-Costals and the Angli-Charismatics and such.  The missional church is also included, for good measure.  As I read it, therefore, Emergence Christianity is in many ways a clearing-house for all expressions of Church that are united in their desire to different than that perennial boogeyman known as “The Institutional Church.”

How does Wesley figure in to the picture? Because Wesley was doing most of these “Emergence-y” things in the middle of the 18th century – smack dab between those magical 500 year cycles.  His was a movement connected to the institutional church but also subversive of it.  The early Methodists took the gospel to the people before Rauschenbusch ever told the rest of Protestantism to do so.  John and Charles Wesley explicitly held together much of what the Christians of their day separated: Scripture and tradition, justification and sanctification, personal and social holiness, “knowledge and vital piety.” (I owe this line of thought to Randy Maddox.)  Wesley was fascinated by the science of his day before doing so made you interesting.  Methodists emphasized the work of the Spirit like few others besides the Quakers, and re-emphasized the Eucharist at a time when it was not hip among his own Anglican church (the Wesley brothers also embraced mystery when it came to their Eucharistic theology, a move that was much more counter-cultural in its day than it is in our own postmodern context).  They insisted that faith was lived in community before community was a buzz word.  Wesley couldn’t get a church and so he proclaimed the world his parish.  He was both a rebel and a loyal Anglican until the day he died.  In short, John Wesley was doing most of what Emergence Christianity touts at a time when Phyllis Tickle’s theory says it shouldn’t have happened.

I do not claim to be an expert on all things Emergy, but I have read a couple of Tickle’s books.  Color me unconvinced.  Rather than being the next big phase in Christianity, Emergence Christianity, to me, appears to be little more than liberal Protestantism that has retraced its steps a bit and recovered important pieces of the Christian past.  This is, of course, a good thing.  I like candles and sacrament as much as the next Christian.  But this is nothing new – regardless of how much one cherry-picks the historical narrative to make it look like the next Wittenberg.

P.S. I may sound a bit triumphalist about Wesley and the early Methodist movement.  I am, of course, a lover of my own tribe, but I do not intend to suggest that Wesley is the end-all and be-all of Christianity.  Rather, I present he and his movement as a kind of test case against the historical narrative that Tickle has created.  While I respect the breadth of her knowledge, and much of the thought and practice of the movement for which she is a figurehead, I find this telling of history to be too self-serving to be taken seriously.  I welcome your feedback about ways in which I have misunderstood Tickle’s argument or Emergence Christianity.

*I have attempted to both summarize Thompson’s points and put them into my own words.  Something may well have been lost in translation and I encourage you to check out his original, thought-provoking post.

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Thoughts On Not Shutting Up

Dr. Steve McSwain over on the Huffington Post Religion Blog asked me to shut up recently.  Actually, he wants all of us who preach to shut up: the title of the piece is, “I Wish Christian Preachers Would Just Shut Up.

To be fair, he says he didn’t mean to be “unkind,” but I’m not sure how asking someone to shut up can ever be done kindly.

Of course, his real beef is not with all preachers, but just those who align themselves with right-leaning politics.  Strangely, he does not seem to have any issue with Christians who align with left-leaning causes.  So while he calls out Billy Graham & Co. for a pseudo-endorsement of Romney, he does not bother to name that the exact same thing happens in the left-leaning churches with their candidates.

He continues by telling us that none of us read the Scriptures as well as he does:

If Christians were to actually study the Scriptures, which of course most of them do not, and so were to develop their own understanding of the sacred text itself, they would discern between truth and the nonsense that is preached from scores of pulpits in Christian communions across this country. Instead, however, many of them get their beliefs more from the spurious notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” or the equally spurious B-grade movies they watch as in the “Left Behind” series.

A couple of issues.  Being a Christian does not mean developing one’s own understanding of the sacred text.  That way is madness.  That way does not recognize Divine revelation for the whole of God’s people, but a blank canvas to be interpreted to one’s own tune.  As part of John Wesley’s posse, I recognize that Scripture does not stand alone, but rather as the primary source for truth alongside tradition, experience, and reason.

Also, how exactly does one know what is preached in “scores” of churches across the theological spectrum each Sunday? This seems presumptuous.  While there is a strong strand of Darbyism/dispensationalism in American Protestantism, it is (despite all the TV exposure) a minority opinion.  Roman Catholics, Orthodox christians, and most Mainliners do not subscribe to it.  Informed evangelicals do not. I have preached against this kind of eschatology myself, and blogged on it here and here.

I actually think the whole notion of the rapture is just as silly as Dr. McSwain does, so perhaps his “shut up” proviso does not apply to me?

On the whole, this entire screed seems really to be little more than a cheap shot at the Grahams.  They have their flaws, Franklin in particular, but there are much more problematic and influential individuals in American Protestantism at present (here’s looking at you, Mark Driscoll and Joel Osteen).  On the whole I like Billy, but to each their own.

For now, perhaps we can encourage Dr. McSwain to offer something more constructive to his theological opponents than “shut up.”  At the very least, don’t apply your disdain for a few to all of us.

Near the conclusion, he writes:

Maybe it’s just me, but many religious leaders today seem contradictory, confused and, well, just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail.

True enough, Dr. McSwain.  I too loathe much of what is said from certain pulpits. But I’m trying hard to be the solution, and I’m not going to ask your permission to continue doing what God has called me to do.

By the by, that thing you said about being “just plain wrong about almost everything over which they wail”?

It applies to bloggers as well.

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What if God Gets What God Wants? Thoughts on Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’

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Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting.  I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages.  Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me.  But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.

That said, I liked the book.  I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though).  A few main points:

1) Bell is not saying anything new.  He’s upfront about this.  These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith.  Why is this book so controversial, then?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book.  Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections.  Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life.  Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.

2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication.  He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive.  His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive.  I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored.  As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball.  This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not.  It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original.  He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb.  He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.

3)  This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology.  At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry.  He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina.  If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult.  For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.

A couple of critiques, for good measure:

Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it).  The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.

He doesn’t cite his sources.  There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful.  To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys).  His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention.  But there is a lot that isn’t credited.  At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy.  But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments.  I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.

Read this.  Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels.  I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful.  As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.

If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce.  If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago.  I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.

P.S. I said MAYBE.  Don’t try to burn me at the stake.

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Oliver O’Donovan, Church Discipline, and the Current Catholic Scandals

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Ask a typical Protestant what “church discipline” means, and you will probably get a blank stare.  “Are you talking about keeping the youth in line on a mission trip?” they might ask.  No.  Most Protestants probably will not know the word “excommunication.”  In our age of worshipping the individual conscience, Protestants have (contra the New Testament witness) abandoned any real sense of church discipline.  This is both an overreaction reaching back to Reformation criticisms and a capitulation to modernity.  As Professor O’Donovan narrates it, “the Enlightment swept away church discipline from all but sectarian Protestant communities.”  Unfortunately, the laxity with which Protestants treat church discipline at all levels, but especially at the level of laity, seems to be present in Roman Catholic treatments of scandalous priests.

What was lost?  For O’Donovan, the chief concern ought to be the public integrity of the Church, not first and foremost the well-being of the individual.  “The point,” he argues, “is that discipline does not exist first to serve the penitent; it exists to enable the church to live a public life of integrity.”

Of course, discipline applies not only to lay persons but also to clergy.  Unfortonately, all churches tend to approach disciplining the ordained as if they are walking through molasses.  On one level, this is not surprising: all systems will protect its own, and the closer you are to power within the system, the more likely you are to be protected.  All the various Church communions, on some level, simply protect their own.  This seems to have, in some Catholic dioceses, gotten out of hand.  I think that the whole narrative of “those sexless old white men need to marry so they will stop molesting children” is overplayed and viciously simplistic.  Likewise, I do not think the corruption goes all the way to the top, though it is natural to want “the buck” to stop with the Pope.

O’Donovan, both in Resurrection and Moral Order and in his magisterial Desire of the Nations, has a  vested interest in the public witness of the Church.  In the case of Church discipline, he sees the major turning point as “the fateful exchange of public penance for private.”  Thus, all discipline was rendered a matter of the penitent’s spiritual good, and the need of the community to exhibit an unblemished face was forgotten.  In his schema, it seems, any priests facing church discipline would and should do so publicly, sparing their own private interests for the sake of the Church’s witness.

In his discussion on the consequences of lacking true church discipline, I found O’Donovan quite prescient.  Tell me if you hear the current Catholic scandals described almost exactly:

Although the scandal may arise from private fault, though not inevitably, the function of discipline is to address the public problems that it poses for the church’s common life.  Until this is recognized, our churches will continue to be vexed by the all-too-familiar pattern of misunderstanding in which the people find themselves humiliated by some scandal and demand a firm line of their clergy or  bishops, the bishops think the people harsh and unforgiving, the people think themselves betrayed, and everything is at cross-purposes.  That is the necessary fruit of an attempt to render private and, in and individualistic sense, ‘pastoral’ what are in fact the church’s rites of public justice, namely, the avowal of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness. (Resurrection and Moral Order, 169)

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“Don’t let them take your Jesus…”: Education and Fundamentalism

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…a good illustration of what many fundamentalists think happens to young Christians who go off to “dangerous” non-Christian schools...

I keep meeting more and more pastors with the same story.  It goes something like this:

-Narrow, fundamentalist upringing

-Little exposure to the outside world and/or culture(s)

-Strongly defensive of values received from family of origin and/or church community

-Goes off to college or seminary, and gets “the speech”…

Here is “the speech”:

“You gotta watch out.  Don’t go off to school and let these liberal professors question your faith.  They are all just a bunch of atheists, and they’ll try to make you doubt the Lord.  Remember what WE taught you and hold fast.  Don’t let them take your Jesus!” (1)

I think speeches like this precipitate a lot of young people going off to fundamentalist-oriented colleges and seminaries instead of risking exposure to ideas and people different than those with whom they are raised.  Not that I see no value in Christian education.  I am the product of a great deal of such (pricey) education.

For me, the scary thought is being born into, raised, and educated solely within a fundamentalist environment.  I have dear friends – great people – who spent all of their childhood and adolescence within a fundamentalist Baptist milieu and then went off to a college that would do nothing but reinforce all of their stereotypes.  I find this sad.

As for education “taking your Jesus”…well, there is probably an element of truth to that.  I think it is a vastly overblown narrative in evangelical circles, but there is a kernel of real experience there.  Many secular departments of religion are filled with people for whom Christianity is a mere intellectual excercise, a field of study devoid of personal content or value.  Or, even worse, you find people like Bart Ehrman: ex-fundamentalists who seem to relish challenging the fragile worldviews of undergrads who strongly believe in a faith that they do not know is a house of cards.  This is the equivalent of Dan Gable wrestling 8th-graders.

Consider this an extension of my previous piece on picking a seminary: a Christian environment is a good thing, if done well.  By ‘well’, we mean Christian in the CS Lewis sense: “mere” Christianity.  Christianity defined broadly, orthodox and ecumenical, in touch with the deepest streams of the Church tradition and yet interested in living out that tradition in the present.  Such a place will not “take your Jesus,” but it should enliven your faith, deepen it,  and broaden.  Challenge it? Yes, but in the sense of “iron sharpening iron.”  No faith is true unless tested and refined.  ‘

The difference between a Bart Ehrman doing that and a Christian mentor doing so is analogous to the difference between a stabbing and a surgery: one uses a knife, the other a scalpel.  One’s intent is to destroy, the other is to help.  It makes all the difference in the world.  I am continually thankful to my own mentors who guided me, sometimes kicking and screaming, from fundamentalism to Christianity.

1. Adapted from a version of “the speech” that I received from various folks upon learning that I was going to seminary at Duke.  None of them, of course, had the theological acumen to realize the irony of this.  Now I can go back and tell them, proudly, “I am so anti-liberal that I am postliberal!”  Of course, this is funny only to a bookish elite.  Props to George Lindbeck!

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Glenn Beck: Restoring Jack Squat

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I am continuously astounded that many on the far right – which has a large contingent of fundamentalist Christians – have been more than willing to overlook Glenn Beck’s Mormonism because they like his brand of low-brow, popcorn-density “journalism.”  I think that his particular blend of civil religion – one that confuses any reference to “God” to an endorsement of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and cannot distinguish enlightenment Deism from orthodox Christianity – is so vague than many of these Christians on the right honestly can’t tell he’s coming from a different place from them theologically.

A friend of mine pointed me to an article by Dan Webster over at Episcopal Cafe’ that makes some interesting connections between Beck’s Mormon faith and his political program:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, believes Christianity fell into apostasy when the original apostles died. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, believes he was called by God to restore the gospel that Jesus taught but had been radically changed by second generation Christians and those who came after.

So when Beck says America has been “wandering in darkness” and that he is here to help lead the country back to God he is emulating the founder of his religion. He wants to restore America’s greatness just like his church believes it is called to establish the “restored gospel.”

I don’t agree with Webster on all points, but he makes some interesting arguments that I have not seen elsewhere.  Webster also points out that, while Beck is vague on his own theological proclivities, he isn’t shy about attacking the details of others’ faith.

He’s expressed discomfort with Obama’s brand of Christianity (hey, props for calling Obama Christian!) due to its affinities with liberation theology, which he calls “socialist.”  And to an extent, he’s right.  Where he is wrong is finding any expressions of a strong faith in Obama’s policies.  It may be there, to the President, at least.  But Obama’s not really talking about it; whether because it’s not there, or he’s trying to distance himself from Bush, his outspoken evangelical predecessor, is not really possible to know.  Beck has made too much hay out of something he knows little about.

In his piece, Webster argues that Beck is channeling Joseph Smith moreso than Martin Luther King, Jr.  And so far as that comparison goes, he’s spot on.  But Smith wasn’t really a restorationist; he wasn’t restoring an existing church, he was making a new one.  The LDS church is a creation of his own mind, which I think makes him equal parts huckster and genius.

Like Smith, Beck isn’t really trying to restore anything so much as create something that never existed and in the process garner a great deal of attention, wives, money, and power: a pristine, just, and prosperous America that is simultaneously the sole superpower and completely God-fearing (though,significantly, the question ‘whose God?’ is never asked).

I think that makes Glenn Beck more like the Pied Piper of legend.  A man playing a flute, making pleasant noises, leading us away like children…on a journey to nowhere.

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Hal Lindsey on Ecumenism and Antichrist: Suffering through ‘The Late, Great Planet Earth’ Part II

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I don’t know if there are purple hearts in the study of theology, but in helping some of you to avoid this atrocious book, I hope you can see that I am jumping on a grenade on your behalf.  I’ve never read anything that made me want to throw things, weep, and laugh all in such short succession.

Today, for your intellectual abuse stimulation I have a few bits of Lindsey’s wisdom about the ecumenical movement.  These are culled from chapter 10, “Revival of Mystery Babylon,” in which he argues that a renewed interest in the occult across the world, combined with a unified but apostate church, will serve to empower the coming Antichrist (who supposedly is coming from a renewed Roman empire, which Lindsey claims is basically the EU).  Now, be prepared for your laughter to be turned to mourning:

We believe that the joining of churches in the present ecumenical movement, combined with this amazing rejuvenation of star-worship, mind-expansion, and witchcraft, is preparing the world in every way for the establishment of a great religious system, on which will influence the Antichrist. (Lindsey, 104)

There is, in this chapter, an astounding gap: nowhere does Lindsey endeavor to explain what will become off all the other religions of the world and their practitioners.  One can only assume that he either thinks there will be no more Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims at this time, or else he puts all of them in league with the hippie kids dancing in the forest.  At any rate, it is a major flaw in his argument.  Not that the argument itself is strong to begin with, of course.

There is obviously a free-church bent here, insofar as the target is very clearly Mainline Protestantism (that is, all the major denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians).  He also has a very stunted ecclessiology, simply saying that the “true church…includes all believers in Christ.” (116)  I wonder if he would include Mormons in that list? Jehovah’s Witnesses?  If the only criteria is “believing in Jesus,” understood in a purely intellectual and consensual way, then he really has a broader definition of church than he should be comfortable with.  I suppose it was too much to hope, at a minimum, for something like Luther’s definition of true Word and sacraments.

And now for a real gem:

When people move away from Christianity the church will lose its power and influence to a great religious movement, a satanic ecumenical campaign…

Years ago when we first heard about the ecumenical movement, we couldn’t pronounce it(*) but we thought it sounded like a great idea.  It seemed plausible that all the “good guys” (**) in the churches should join together to fight all the evil on the outside.  There are many fallacies in that way of thinking.  When all of the various churches begin to amalgamate in one unwieldy body, soon the doctrinal truths of the true church are watered down, altered, or discarded. (119)

At this point, I can only suggest that you find a bottle of Advil, take two – with water – and perhaps look into some blood pressure medication.  If you’re anything like me, you’re now infuriated. In the unlikely circumstance that you care about Jesus but aren’t infuriated by Lindsey’s sentiments, then go read John 17 and reconsider.

*I take this to mean that they don’t use big words at Dallas Theological Seminary, Lindsey’s alma mater.

**Oh, c’mon.  I don’t need to say anything here, do I? You know why this was stupid.

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