What Kind of Thing is Christianity?

I’m about to finish a sermon series on Christianity and other religions. It was a difficult series for a few reasons.

First, it was difficult because I’m not sure the category of religion is all that helpful  – or as clear as we usually assume.

Second, as one with advanced academic training, I know what specialization is – and that when it comes to other religions, I don’t have it.

Third, just the few religions we looked at – Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – are hugely complex, diverse phenomena. Devoting a mere twenty minute sermon to each is barely scratching the surface of that complexity and diversity.

Fourth, I feared that for some the preaching – that was also teaching – would function only as teaching, that is, as a long list of (maybe) interesting facts. Teaching is good, and we Christians need more of it. What preaching adds to preaching is a clear call to the will to do something with that which is taught.

One of the things that keeps coming back to me when I talk about this subject is “What kind of thing is Christianity?’ I worry sometimes that series like the one I’ve just finished encourage people to simply categorize it as a “religion.” Religions, we all (think we) know, are primarily belief systems. So IF Christianity is a religion, it is best understood as a belief system.

There’s certainly something right about that. The act of believing – and believing particular things – is important in Christianity. Without the particular things we believe, that there is one God whom we know in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, that Jesus is the Son of God become human, that this Jesus took our sin and brokenness upon himself, dying on the cross, and rising on the third day to name just a few, there is no Christianity.

But if we think Christianity is only or even primarily a list of true things we believe, we’re not only missing the most important aspects, but we’re also failing to understand faith.

I can believe Jesus is the Son of God and that Sams is a major attraction in Fairfield all on my own. I need never have interaction with Jesus or go to Sams to believe these things. Believing that is important, but it’s a bare starting point. It breaks my heart that so many get no farther.

Real Christianity is a whole life phenomenon. Faith, in addition to the elements of believing that, also includes trusting, obeying, perceiving, and giving allegiance to. I can go to a baseball game, cheer for my team, and afterward proclaim, “We won!” But WE didn’t win. I watched, I didn’t play. Christianity is similar to baseball, in that it is something we inescapably do with other people. I can believe there is such a thing as baseball and even know a great deal about it without ever playing it. I can even don a jersey and go to every game. But baseball is in the playing. Likewise, Christianity is in the playing.  There’s no way around it.

What’s your next step as you “get in the game,” as you “join God in what he’s doing?” What’s your next step as you move toward whole life engagement with Jesus in the company of your fellow disciples?

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Tremper Longman – Confronting Old Testament Controversies

Note: A free copy of this book was sent to me by Baker Book Bloggers for purposes of review.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes with the Old Testament to discover that it comesconfronting ot controversies from a cultural perspective vastly different from our own. This recent book from Tremper Longman addresses major controversies that have come to the fore in the past couple of centuries.

The four controversies Longman deals with are Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence. If one reads the first chapters of Genesis as equivalent to a scientific description of the origins of the cosmos and humans, the theory of evolution – and much of the rest of modern science – conflict is the natural result. When it comes to sexuality, the plain reading of the Old Testament looks not only like marriage is only a man/woman institution and that all non-heterosexual expressions of sexuality are out of bounds, but also like patriarchy is the divine intention for humanity. When we read the stories of conquest – and later some of the warfare scenes of the kingdom era – we see what looks like a genocidal, bloodthirsty god, commanding his people to wipe out all non-Israelites. These three controversies are plain to lay people. The controversy regarding history may be more limited to scholars. This controversy is over the historicity of the stories in the Old Testament – did any of the events depicted there even happen?

Longman writes from the perspective of evangelical biblical scholarship. He has a high view of scripture as inspired and inerrant. If you want a book that deals with these issues and gives you all the “right answers,” this is not the book for you. Longman’s approach, instead, is to examine scholars who have written on the central controversies as they stand today. He considers their arguments in light of what the text says, the cultural background, and how they measure up against others writing in the field. You won’t come away from this book with the tensions between the biblical text and our current cultural and academic values dissolved. You will come away, however, more informed of the options for dealing with these issues.

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Not So Much Unity

Lovett Weems sees more unity than I do when he writes,

What if the General Conference addressed matters of doctrine, mission, and values and gave freedom (such as Central Conferences already have today) in structure and regulations, including clergy standards? Thus, General Conference becomes a time for celebration, worship, and engagement with those elements of United Methodist identity that unite across all boundaries and differences.

We might use the same words in our talk about doctrine, if we consider the Articles of Religion, for example, as expressing “our doctrine.” There are many who still think in terms of the pre-1988 Disciplinary statement on doctrine. Up until 1988 the BOD supported normative doctrinal pluralism; the 1988 BOD turned away from that position.

If we actually had the level of unity he imagines, then it might be possible to “move from structures of control to a culture of trust and grace.” As we stand now, we don’t have that. From what I see, the UMC has never had that level of unity. I pray that in our ecclesial re-alignment we find ways to have that kind of unity in more than just our denominational name.

 

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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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