Review: Faith for this Moment

If you have access to this review, you know we live in a highly polarized culture. One the one hand, our political polarization has been on display during the past week as a miscreant from Florida sent mail bombs to leading Democrats, as an evil doer from Kentucky decided to go kill black people for no reason other than their race, and as a murderous thug killed almost a dozen Jews in Pittsburgh. We didn’t even have time to mourn before the tribal recriminations began.

Our churches are not only in this polarized culture, but are in many ways of it. My own United Methodist Church is in the final throes of a battle that’s been raging pretty much since the denomination began in 1968. The denomination’s official position on issues in the bounds of sexuality are mostly in line with traditional Christian positions, and thus at increasing odds with broader American culture. As American United Methodists, we have, as always, taken up positions defined and defended in our culture as not just American, but also as Christian.

FaithForThisMomentRick McKinley, in his recent book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as People of God takes these cultural issues head on. McKinley frames the Christian approach to this conflict in terms of the Old Testament experience of Exile. The nation of Israel was God’s chosen people. They had experienced awesome moments of God’s blessing. But then in the 6th century BC, they were defeated by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity. In the prophetic literature, Israel is challenged to respond to their Exile in a way that maintains their faith in God and their calling to be his people.

McKinley, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, has experienced the marginalization of the church first hand. Portland is on the leading edge of secularization in America, so how could he plant and grow a church there, where the culture seemed as such deep odds with traditional (American) Christian culture?

Faced with what to do with its host culture – while in “exile” – McKinley sees three common responses. When we are confronted with culture we either baptize it, accepting it as indistinguishable from our faith, burn it, see if it as entirely in conflict with our faith and thus worthy of total warfare, or bless it, recognizing its people are our neighbors. Settling on Jeremiah 29 as a primary text, McKinley opts for the “bless” it option.

The greatest weakness of the book is the failure to confront the specifically Christian contribution to current American culture. For most of our history, Christians have been in charge. It’s not that some foreign culture has invaded and imposed its values on us. What we have is evolution within a formerly Christian-molded culture. And that Christian-molded culture was profoundly broken in multiple ways. We need look no farther than the Christian voices that built and defended slavery and the oppression of African Americans even after slavery. The hypocrisy of Christian culture is a large part of what got us where we are.

The greatest strength of the book comes in the last chapters where McKinley discusses “practices” that enable the people of God to “bless” their host culture. The chapter on Generosity is particularly good.

 

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.

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Review: 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith

Gregg R. Allison’s 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith is a helpful survey of basic 9780801019128Christian theological teachings. Though Allison is a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, he writes for a broad evangelical audience.

The first thing I like about the book is it’s structure. Each chapter deals with a single doctrine and is divided up into multiple sections:

  • Summary
  • Main Themes
  • Key Scripture
  • Understanding the Doctrine (further subdivided into Major Affirmations, Biblical Support, and Major Errors)
  • Enacting the Doctrine
  • Teaching the Doctrine
  • Perennial Questions and Problematic Issues
  • Teaching Outline
  • Resources (a bibliography)

This structure makes it very easy for non-experts to grasp the material and use it in teaching sessions.

A second thing I like is Allison’s labor to speak to an audience broader than his own baptist tradition. This has the dual blessing of making the book useful in multiple churches and of including multiple viewpoints. As a Wesleyan, it’s been common in my experience for evangelical writers to present adherence to Calvinism as necessary to being an evangelical, therefore leaving all Wesleyans on the sidelines. Allison is clearly more Reformed than Arminian, but he is fairly generous.

If you’re not a conservative evangelical, this book is probably not for you. Though Allison allows for some breadth of teaching, the limits are not really very broad. One way to see this is the assumption of a foundationalist epistemology, exemplified by the building of doctrine an inerrant scripture.

I also appreciate Allison’s inclusion of a section on “Enacting the Doctrine.” For too long Christians have acted like doctrine is only something to be believed – a sort of “mental furniture.” Allison is correct that doctrine has consequences for the way we live as Christians and as the people of God.

One of the limitations of this book comes from covering 50 doctrines in a single volume. Not only would one wish some doctrines received greater coverage, but important dimensions of theological teaching are left unconsidered altogether. There is little or no attention, for example, given to scientific and philosophical consideration. Allison might argue that these disciplines have no place in a truly scriptural theology, but by not considering them (except as contributing to theological errors), the theologian becomes blind to ways culture and other schools of thought have crept into our ways of thinking.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from Baker Book Bloggers on condition of writing a review.]

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The “Angry, Offended” God

I ran across this quotation on Twitter the other day:

“God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign. Unless we behold God in and through Christ, the only Mediator–the terrors of His Majesty would overwhelm us. Because of our sins–we dare not approach the Father, except in Christ.”

The quote comes from Stephen Charnock, a 17th century English Puritan. As a Wesleyan Christian, this is, in important ways, alien from the theological picture I work from.

Here’s where I can agree with Charnock:

  1. God is sovereign. God is the sole creator of all that is. God is the ultimate authority not just in theory, but in fact. We ought to submit to God in all areas of our lives. God alone is due (and worthy of) our worship and devotion.
  2. Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Other so-called gods are no help to us. Our performance, how ever great we or others judge it, gets us nowhere with God. God is never in our debt; we are always in debt to God. Jesus is the only mediator between us and God.
  3. There is a huge gap between us and God. Morally, we fall short of God’s ideal. From a practical point of view, this is because of our sin. Our sin distorts our perception of God as well as of everything else. We lack accurate understanding of an insight into ourselves because of our sin.
  4. God is not safe. Not only is God “a consuming fire,” but the consistent biblical picture of people who come face to face with God (whatever that means, given our vast ontological difference), are completely overwhelmed. We are never God’s “buddies.”

My great difference with Charnock comes in the first line: “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign.”

  1. Where at least some strands of the Calvinist tradition (as represented in Charnock) view God as primarily “holy wrath,” the Wesleyan tradition views God as primarily “holy love.” Calvinists do not deny God’s love, and Wesleyans (at least when they’re true to Wesley) don’t deny God’s wrath.
  2. Given my experience of United Methodism, the largest denomination in the Wesleyan tradition, I need to say more about God’s wrath. I’ve noticed that many of my contemporary Methodists (who I assume would count themselves as Wesleyans also), don’t like talking about God’s wrath, deferring to the attribute of love alone. The first step in joining the Methodist movement in the 18th century was evidencing a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” This was not the wrath of the French, the Germans, or the Turks: this was the wrath of God. In my experience we never use this Wesleyan phrase any more.
  3. The Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – is eternal. We misunderstand the Trinity when we imagine some eternal GOD, who only later, after the fall, “splits up” or “becomes” Trinitarian. There is thus no such thing as “God, apart from Christ.” The Trinity is always, from all eternity and into all eternity, love.
  4. When we read “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign,” we get the picture of that “angry, offended Sovereign,” sitting on his throne, just waiting to stamp us puny sinners out of existence. But then Christ shows up and convinces God to go against his prior intent and grant us mercy. God’s prior intent is and always is love.

 

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The Gospel in Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Pluralism

I thought Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Christendom  was one of the best books on the EvangelismAfterPluralismintersection of evangelism, theology, culture, and church that I’ve read. When I saw he’d recently come out with Evangelism after Pluralism, I thought I ought to read it too.

In the first chapter he says:

“The good news heralded by the church is that in Christ salvation is now possible in the form of a new way of life. This salvation is not an experience to be passively received or a set of propositions to be assented to. It is a way to be embarked upon, a way we forgive each other’s sins, a way we love and include those who are different from us, a way we welcome the poor, a way we love our enemies, a way we bind up those who are brokenhearted, or have suffered loss, a way we cancel debts, and a way the world’s hierarchies are turned upside down in Christlike patterns of fellowship.”

I have to think about this a bit.

My first thought is that he is exactly right. The gospel (good news) is not merely a set of propositions to which we assent. It’s also not merely an experience of God or the reception of a new destination for eternity.

My second thought is the recollection that too many definitions of “gospel” come down to news about us, about the recipients of the news. For some who talking about “sharing the gospel,” the “gospel” shared is a list of truths about how the recipient of the good news can achieve some good. This good is usually something like “eternal life,” “forgiveness of sins,” or “reconciliation with God.” Each of these phrases – and the notion that God intends them for us – is biblical. But is it the gospel?

Isn’t the gospel primarily about Jesus – about who Jesus is and what God has done in his life, death, and resurrection? Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and current lordship over creation are surely integral to those other things we associate with the gospel (on all accounts). But in our talk do we sufficiently guard against taking these fruits of the gospel as the gospel itself?

In his definition of the good news in this passage, Stone doesn’t directly mention the work of Christ; but he does mention it indirectly. When he claims that this salvation is “now” possible, we see the opening for taking salvation as having a temporal dimension. There was a time when this salvation was not possible. Now, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, this salvation has been accomplished for us.

The strength of Stone’s definition is the emphasis on the present reality of the salvation we have in Christ. Salvation is not just something that happens far off in the future, either when we die or in the Eschaton; nor is it just a private internal experience of God. Salvation in Christ is a way of life we enter into, a way we live in. Our living the way of Jesus is visible in the world and has real-world consequences.

I’d like to see greater explicitness on the work (and status) of Christ as the heart of the good news we experience, live, and proclaim. One way this could be done (and this is only p. 9, so Stone may very well take this up later in the book) would be to tie together the way we live in Christ with the Holy Spirit living within us. We’re not just acquiring and operating a spiritual technology, akin to a law or set of noble truths. Through the indwelling Spirit, we are living out the life of God within us.

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Review of Didn’t See It Coming

didntseeI came to Didn’t See It Coming as a regular reader of Carey Nieuwhof’s blog. I’ve listened to his podcast since the beginning. I’ve found his work helpful and insightful for my role as a pastor and Christian leader. Though I reckoned him to be at the top of the game in providing leadership insights and a skilled interviewer, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book aimed at a general audience.

Going by the title alone, I thought of my own “didn’t see it coming” experiences. The first thing that came to mind was the birth of our first child. Sure, births of first children are normal occurrences. But what we’d expected – what we’d “seen coming,” was a certain number of children, general family growth and happiness, eventual college, jobs, and on into the empty nest. We didn’t know what to do when our first child turned out to be disabled, and disabled in a way that meant she would never pass from the need for our care. Her special needs have determined our relationships with our other children, our extended family, friends, jobs/careers, and the whole of our lives. We didn’t see that coming.

That’s not the kind of experience Nieuwhof writes about in this book. I’d hoped that he had – that there would have been a magic solution that we hadn’t thought of after thirty years. But I don’t believe in magic, and neither does Nieuwhof. The challenges he addresses are other kinds of unexpected events common to many of us. None of these have magical solutions. All can be dealt with, but instead of magic, each requires that we change the way we see things, and adopt new practices.

He deals with seven challenges none of us expect in life: cynicism, compromise, disconnection, irrelevance, pride, burnout and emptiness. I’ve dealt with at least four of these myself. Reading the book I found most of his suggested therapies to be at least plausible if not proven strategies. Note well that these are therapies, not solutions. He doesn’t advocate the magical approach – or even the technological approach – that says, “If you do this, results are guaranteed.” When I had my rotator cuff surgeries, I had to take up certain practices to regain my strength and range of motion in my arm. Healing took more than knowledge, more than listening to wise advice. I had to act. I also had to keep acting. There was no “one and done.”

The section I had the most trouble with was the chapters dealing with irrelevance. As a pastor, I deal with issues of change all the time. I’m also part of a denomination that is facing huge cultural change issues that are tearing us apart. Because of my institutional setting, I looked for more that would be useful to me in that domain. The strength of Nieuwhof’s discussion of change was focused on the personal – not surprising since that is the point of the book. If we – my denomination and the churches that compose it – had dealt with personal transformation and issues of cultural discernment over the past few generations, we would be much better situated to deal with the huge cultural changes swamping us today.

Nieuwhof is a pastor by trade. He writes from a distinctly Christian point of view. If the slightest tinge of Christianity annoys you, this book won’t be for you. Most of what he has to say, however, is wisdom that requires no commitment to any faith tradition. For those coming from the other direction who might accuse him of watering down the teaching of the faith into a secularized pabulum, might consider the commonality of the wisdom tradition in the ancient world. Much – though not all – of the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel finds parallels in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. Theologically, we could look to the doctrine of creation as a rationale for thinking our common status as creatures of God living in a particular kind of (and shared) world would make a basic common wisdom likely.

If your life is only going upward, only sweetness and light, you might not get much out of this book. My guess, however, is that even such ease is your reality (not just your dream), this book may help you be on the lookout for what is coming down the road.

If you’d like to dip into or pre-order the book, you can check it out – and read the first chapter! – at www.DidntSeeItComing.com.

(I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.)

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No Exit?

(Previous post in the series) Turning to the difficulty of the exit option with regard to exit voicepolitical entities, Hirschman writes:

“But the economist is by no means alone in having a blindspot, a ‘trained incapacity’ (as Veblen called it) for perceiving the usefulness of one of our two mechanisms [exit]. In fact, in the political realm exit has fared much worse than has voice in the realm of economics. Rather than as merely ineffective or ‘cumbrous,’ exit has often been branded as criminal, for it has been labeled desertion, defection, and treason.”

In the economic/business realm, exit is very easy and of relatively low cost. If you don’t like a particular business, just “exit” that business and go to a competitor (assuming you’re not dealing with a monopoly). Because exit is so easy in this context, some businesses don’t get the feedback (voice) they need to improve.

The situation is the other way around in the political realm. When it comes to our citizenship, especially at the top level of the nation state, exit is very difficult, if it’s even possible. Moving away from one’s home country can, as Hirschman notes, be seen as more than just a personal decision to emigrate. It’s “desertion, defection, [or] treason.”

What about in the church? Unlike our nation state, exit is very easy when it comes to the church in America. In fact, exit is so easy, our relationship to church seems much more like our relationship to a business. Religion is a commodity in a marketplace. If we’re not happy with the services offered by our current provider, we just go to the next one down the street or across town.

If church is a business, an entity that exists to offer services within a religious marketplace, then exit is a sign that the church needs to do a better job serving its members. We need to “meet the felt needs” of people, i.e., offer them the quality and quantity of religious commodities they demand. After all, “the customer is always right.” Burger King leads the way.

But what if church isn’t a business? Contrary to the expectations of some, churches are not there to serve their members. Members are tied to each other through fundamental commitments and covenants. When practicing exit in the face of a declining or deteriorating church, the break in relationship is more like “desertion, defection, [or] treason” – or even divorce. We even have a religious word for this, used when it is a group that is practicing exit together: “Schism.”

Churches are political entities, unlike businesses. We commit to each other when we become members. Members of a church aren’t simply interchangeable like customers of a business. We matter to each other because our relationships are rooted in love. This love bay be inchoate or immature, but it is still love. Breaking the bond of membership through exit hurts. Exit is also materially costly, since the current United Methodist Book of Discipline has congregations holding all property in trust for the denomination. Those who exit leave with nothing to show for years – sometimes generations – of work and sacrifice.

When someone exits, we have some ready-made names to throw their way to assuage our pain: Heretic! Congregationalist! Bigot? Fundamentalist! Calvinist! Baptist! Is it possible to stay in love even when people exit? Can we embrace the pain rather than trying to expel it?

The call for provisions to allow for “gracious exit” may point this direction. Those who seek to add this option to the United Methodist constitution may be wishing to maintain love in the face of the pain of exit. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually the traditionalists who talk about creating this option. On the front side, it looks like this is showing grace and love to those they disagree with, those who in the face of maintaining the traditionalist policies with regard to sexuality may see the current policy as evil. On the other hand, it may be that with the cultural juggernaut of revisionist sexual ethics in America, traditionalists may be trying to open space for their own exit.

Both of the major sides in the current United Methodist conflict think they can win. The traditionalists think they can win because they see the bulk of world Methodism (and the growing edge) taking a traditionalist point of view. The revisionists think they can win if they only outlast the traditionalists, since they are “on the right side of history.” Both sides keep up the voice option. But how long till voice becomes too tiring or painful, and exit becomes the favored option, even if costly?

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Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

exit voiceI believe there are some useful ideas for United Methodists in Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. We know we have decline in the United Methodist Church. We have fewer members in the United States every year. Because we close many more churches than we open, we have fewer congregations each year. If the general population were in decline, this might not be so bad, but as the population increases, we decrease. We also have an aging population, and that mostly aging in place. We’re getting older without adding younger people (younger than our current average age).

But why read Hirschman? He’s an economist, not a theologian. I don’t even know if he was a Christian.

As United Methodists, we confess with other Christians that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We claim with scripture that the church is the body of Christ, united and animated by the Holy Spirit. When we stray from these theological descriptors we damage the church. When we fail to experience the church as so described, we miss out on tremendous blessings.

But the church is also a human institution. We experience it as an organization – one of the targets Hirschman has in view. When I read Hirschman, I see application to what I see and experience in the church.

Hirschman’s thesis is that all organizations experience decline and deterioration. People “inside” the organization (the meaning of “inside” varies depending on what type of organization is in view) have limited options when dealing with this decline. They might decide to bail on the organization altogether. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant – poor service or nasty food, for example – I will stop going to that restaurant. Hirschman calls this option “exit.”

Suppose the restaurant belongs to some close friends or plays an important role in my community. I have sufficient connection to the restaurant that I want to stay attached. I would like to see the restaurant be better. In this case I exercise “voice” – I speak up and give my input.

Some kinds of organizations make exit very easy. If I live in an area with many restaurants, it’s easy to drop one and never return. There are plenty of others I can choose. Churches are this way too. Exiting any particular church, whether a specific congregation or a denomination, is easy. If I don’t like something about First Methodist, I can go to Second Methodist. If I don’t like something about Methodists in general, I can go to the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Catholics.

Exit is very difficult when it comes to some other social entities. If I don’t like the local public school, I may or may not have any option. Exiting the school – dropping out – has a huge cost associated with it. Or consider the nation state. In recent election years we hear of rich celebrities declaring that they’ll move to another country if the candidate they despise is elected. Being rich, that might be a live option. For most people, it’s not an option. Exit is too difficult.

Sometimes our role in the organization can make exit more difficult. As a ordained elder in the United Methodist Church I’m deeply committed to the church. I haven’t just declared my allegiance to the institution when I was ordained, but I’ve invested over thirty years of my professional life into the church. As a pastor, I can, through the agency of the Bishop & cabinet, exit one appointment and move to another. Institutionally, that’s an easy and common thing to do. I can’t however, easily move to a church of another denomination. Exit costs me not just relationships but my livelihood.

When exit is difficult or impossible, the importance of voice rises. I find myself in an institution. I’m personally and deeply invested in that institution. I not only care what happens to that institution, and what it does, but to a significant degree, my success or well-being depends on its success and well-being. When I see or experience decline in the organization, I have to speak up. By exercising voice, I aim to shift the trajectory of the institution, to redirect it toward health and/or growth. If exit is difficult or impossible – and I have no voice or feel like I have no voice, I might withdraw into passivity and neglect and depression.

Hirschman’s third word describing a possible relation to an institution is “loyalty.” Loyalty speaks to the degree and quality of our connection to the institution. Sometimes, and our normal relationship to businesses like restaurants, our relation to an institution might be based on what we get out of it. We patronize the restaurant because we like the food, the atmosphere, the people we find there. Choice plays an important role. Churches are different. While some current people were raised in that church and may perceive themselves as lacking a choice, the church “market” is such that many options exist in most places. It is true that some people choose a church based on what they get out of it. They are consumers, and they approach their decision to adhere to a particular church as a consumer of goods and services. For many, however, the connection is much deeper. Many join and adhere to a church out of conviction and love. They understand themselves not as consumers of the church’s goods and services but as part of the church itself. Our nation state represents a third type of relation. Choice plays a much smaller role when it comes to our connection to our nation state. Sure, there are conditions under which we can migrate to another country. The decision is much more momentous, difficult, and costly.

Loyalty can function in each of these kinds of institutional relationship. My loyalty to a restaurant will lead to my regular patronage and my referring others to it. My loyalty to a church entails my dedication to and participation in achieving its mission. I want it to succeed in terms of that mission. My loyalty to my nation can be expressed variously. I obey the laws and encourage their enforcement. I serve when called on – for the country’s defense or on a jury. I cheer for my country in international sporting events.

Loyalty, as Hirschman conceives it is never blind loyalty. True loyalty wants the institution and its constituents to prosper and do well. Loyalty takes the mission and purpose of the institution into account. Loyalty may push voice over exit, but exit can remain as an option of last resort. Institutions that want loyalty from their participants or adherents must keep the possibility open for exercise of voice, lest those who are experiencing decline or deterioration are forced to exit.

In future posts I will interact more with Hirschman’s book and its application to our current United Methodist situation. In those I will go into greater detail as to how I think it might help us. Keep reading.

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