WEEK IN REVIEW–WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED

Review of critical facts is often the most important aspect of learning, and learning is what separates competent people from the incompetent.  With that in mind, here are two important facts we’ve learned this week.

1.  We learned that we should never take nude pictures of ourselves on our smartphone.

These pictures will inevitably end up published by thieves and criminals.  We all agree, I think, that these thieves and criminals should be punished to the furthest extent of the law.  I actually would go one step further.  People who view these images on the internet are, in comparison, the same as people who knowingly buy stolen parts for their car at a chop shop.  So, some level of prosecution should go out to these people.  If the feds will go after teenagers who download illegal music, why not go after people who go search out illegally obtained pictures.  These photos are stolen goods, and should be treated accordingly.

However, once the damage is done, once people have seen your southern zones, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.

Jennifer Lawrence has a right to privacy.
Jennifer Lawrence has a right to privacy.

If you must take naked pictures of yourself (which I strongly recommend against) use an old fashioned Polaroid and hide them in your sock drawer.  Greenbean promises that you’ll never find nude pictures of him on the internet.  Never.

 

2.  We learned that Joel and Victoria Osteen are not theologians.

This really is not news.  However, Victoria highlighted that fact a bit when a video surfaced of her saying this:

When we obey God, we’re not doing it for God…we’re doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. Do good ’cause God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself because that’s what makes God happy.

Okay, give me a moment to take off the cool Panama Jack hat I’m wearing right now and replace it with the theologian hat.  Good, now I can think straight.  Let’s analyze what is wrong with her statement.  First, she implies that somehow our behavior makes God happy.  The reverse of this would be that our behavior can make God sad.  This kind of talk about the Lord borders on tribal religion where the key task is to determine if the Almighty Reese’s Pieces God is happy today or if we need to appease his unhappiness with libations of milk and offerings of peanut butter.   Is God happy today or sad today?  Let’s find out?  Who brought the holy coconut?

Proper Christian theology teaches us that the Lord exists in perfect trinitarian community:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Scriptures teach us that the Lord becomes angry at some actions and delights in others, however it is never implied that he is sitting around in Heaven waiting for us to make him happy, as if his happiness depended upon us.

If God is waiting for us to make him happy, then his existence is likely the saddest in all of creation.

The second mistake she makes is that she puts human beings at the center of the worship expression.  That is beyond wrong.  However, it would be difficult to argue that most American Christians practice anything other than a worship experience that ‘makes me happy.’  So, though wrong, Osteen has plenty of company in her idolatrous doctrine of human-centric worship.

Now, here is the twist to what we learned this week.  Osteen, for all her failings, is actually tip-toeing up to something important.  Our lives are happier, better, more enriched when when we follow the Lord and live according to his ways.  I have argued for years that even if there were no such thing as the supernatural, no eternal life, and no spiritual joy, I would still preach that the Jesus way of life is the best way of life because it is.

That doesn’t minimize the supernatural or argue against the power of God or eternity, but it speaks to the power of the ethics and pathos in the life of a Christ-follower.  It would have been better if Osteen had said it that way, because that might have been what she kind of intended.  However, she didn’t, because, neither she nor her husband have taken the time to learn from people smarter than them about actual theology.  They’ve been too busy making an empire and playing a role–the role of superstar celebrity.

 

 

image from cinemablend.com

TOP THREE BOOKS: THEOLOGY

Where to start?  Half my library could be shelved as theology, for crying out loud.

How about I start with disclaimers.  First, I am only dealing here with Christian theology books, although I’d like to give a shout out to The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran.  That book is . . . how can one say . . . interesting.  Second, I’m lumping prayer, devotional, biblical studies, and books about church into this category.  That might not be fair, but I have no intention of dragging this out to that level of precision.  I didn’t do it for fiction and I’m not going to do it here.  Third, I recognize that not many people read theology (at least not as many who read fiction or biographies) but since it is an important part of my reading background, I want to include it in this series.  After all, these are my top three books.

Christian Theology, Millard Erickson
Christian Theology, Millard Erickson
The Green Monster, all 1312 Pages of It

In seminary we called this thing the Green Monster, even though my copy is blue.  One should think of this work as more of a reference piece than a theology book you’d sit down and read in a day or two.  Instead, I think every home should have it on the shelf in order to do a study on the Trinity, soteriology, or the divinity of Jesus.  Erickson’s  work is huge, but the chapters are relatively bite size with precise language yet not overly technical.  I also find that he avoids the problems I have with other theologians, which is to say that he is even handed in treating subjects from differing positions without compromising where he really stands on the subject.

The Reason for God, Tim Keller

Tim Keller may well be the smartest person in North America.  He certainly has gotten everyone’s attention with his amazingly successful church in New York City.  The reason I love this book is because it is intelligent and shrewd in dealing with all of the tough questions and criticisms that those of us who believe are often accosted with–faith and science, the veracity of the Bible, and the idea of judgment just to name a few.  I almost listed C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity here instead of Keller.  Lewis, of course, is much more classical in his approach but Keller does for our age what Lewis did sixty years ago and he does it against the backdrop of contemporary culture.

Plus, he quotes Darth Vader.  How can you not love a theologian who quotes Darth Vader.  In fact, I’m so impressed by Keller he gets a line in my new novel.

Worship is a Verb, Robert Webber

Liturgy.  Silence.  Participation.  Beauty.  Time.  Scripture.  These are all foundational elements to Christian worship that are often missing form most evangelical churches.  Robert Webber teaches us that they are important and tells us how to integrate them without (and this is particularly true of my tribe of Baptists, who are petrified of contemplation and transcendence) frightening everyone.  Most churches get two things wrong:  Worship and spiritual formations which are replaced with a show and programs.  Webber saw all of this coming when he wrote this classic in 1985.  It is a little dated now, but it is still true.

I only have a couple, yea verily, maybe three more of these posts on my top three books left.  But here are three really great theology books that I love and treasure.  I’d like to know what your favorites are.

 

 

ADVICE ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

So I pick up with my “advice” themed blog posts.  I’ve got about four or five more in mind before I move on completely.

What exactly do we call what I am about to give advice on?  Years ago people in my faith tradition would have called it ‘holiness,’ but that whole concept I think was misguided.  Only the Lord is holy, and our holiness flows from him as an act of grace, therefore holiness is not something I can generate or nurture.  It can only be received.  The trendy phrase today is ‘spiritual formations.’  I like that phrase quite a bit but most people sitting in pews don’t understand what it means–it almost sounds like science fiction or maybe Scientology.celtic-cross-high-pictures-1la

So, I’ve decided to call it the spiritual life–the things I think each of us can do to make certain we are growing spiritually and balancing out the growing impact of materialism and power games that have taken over a great deal of what we call ‘church.’  Before you go any further, know that these are Christian spiritual concepts and the beginning and end of all genuine spirituality is Jesus Christ.

1.  Pick a community of faith and stick with it.  The greatest detriment to many people’s spiritual health is that they church hop.  We were made to live in community and we must have that in order to be healthy.  It takes time to do it right and doesn’t always come quickly.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed how hard it is for us to simply ‘spend time’ together as human beings.  We are losing a lot of our social interaction skills, and this is hurting us spiritually.

2.  Submit to spiritual authority.  I am a Baptist and Baptists generally come out of the womb rejecting authority and fighting against leadership.  That is why we have earned such a reputation for ‘church splits.’  This is sinful.  Submission is the expected norm in the spiritual life and those who refuse to do so are stunting their eternal perspective.  There is one caveat to this and that is when the spiritual leader is doing something evil or heretical.  Changing what time the small group starts or the type of music in a worship service is neither evil or heretical.

3.  Make prayer a personal endeavor.  Everyone can pray, and no one doesn’t know how.  Simply set aside time to speak with the Lord.  You were made for this, and Jesus died on the cross for you to experience deeper intimacy with him.  Although there is no bad way to pray, three things will help you as you do pray.

A)  Set aside a specific time when you are alone.
B)  Use both free prayers (what’s on your heart) and written prayers (the Lord’s prayer, for example).
C)  Spend time listening.  Shut your mouth and just listen.  This will take time to develop because most of us have been trained through our church experiences to babble on mindlessly during our prayers.

4.  Read the Bible at least once a day, preferably twice or more, in a translation you comprehend.  One verse doesn’t count.  Read entire chapters or sections (you know, from heading to heading) so that you can get a feel for the context.  When you finish reading it, make certain you understand what you read.  If you don’t read it again.  If that doesn’t help, maybe consult a commentary or talk to a friend or pastor.

5.  Fast.

6.  You need two relationships to spiritually grow.  One relationship is with a mentor–someone who is guiding you into maturity.  The second one is someone you are being a mentor to.  Without both of these, you are spiritually lacking.  These relationships may not happen at the same time, but there will likely be some temporal overlapping.

7.  Accountability is vital to spiritual health.  This is especially true of leadership, but it is generally true for all of us.  There must be someone whom we speak to about the darkness in our heart, the struggles in our soul, and the pain of our longings.  We need these people to speak discipline and forgiveness into our lives.

8.  Learn to ask yourself one question:  What is God teaching me in this situation?  The more often you learn to ask this question and then seek to find an answer the deeper and more meaningful your spiritual life will become.

9.  Confess.  We need the daily ritual of bringing our sins before the Lord in an act of confession.  If you can’t remember your sins, ask him to show you and he will.  As these evil thoughts, mean words, hateful actions and so forth come to your mind and heart, confess them as wrong and ask the Lord’s forgiveness.  Know that he does forgive; and receive the strength that comes from purity.

10.  Take corporate worship seriously.  Embrace the elements of communion, the beauty of baptism, the weight of the spoken and read word as well as the necessity for giving.  Anyone who tries to be a spiritual person without worshiping with other people regularly (weekly) is an arrogant fool engaged in folly.

What I have tried to give you here are some basic pointers.  This is by no means exhaustive.  I will leave you with one final bit, though.  Stay away from mystics.  Mystics may mean well, but usually they only practice an odd form of works righteousness that breeds smugness.  Do not confuse the spiritual life with mysticism.

photo:  www.gaelicmatters.com

BRAIN DRAIN IN CHURCH: PART TWO

This is Part Two of a two-part blog from a guest blogger, Dr. David Caddell.  Click here to begin with Part One.

Evangelical Culture and the Rise of Anti-Intellectualism

The willingness to allow novices in vital positions such as teaching has largely been the result of the anti-intellectual bias which set up household in the church beginning in the 1870’s. The slide toward anti-intellectualism has manifested itself in several ways. First, it has had a detrimental effect on the ability of evangelicals to look clearly and reflectively at the world around us. In fact, it has nearly destroyed the desire of evangelicals to engage in responsible intellectual discussion with the secular world—engaging it on its own terms. This desire appears to have been virtually eradicated among the varied fundamentalist movements within American evangelicalism. All this has evolved to the bewilderment of devout Christian scholars (including Jamie and I) whose commitment to Christian orthodoxy is strong, but find the anti-intellectual modus operandi among conservative evangelicals to be problematic for the health of the church.

This movement is in stark contrast to Paul’s willingness to engage the world on its own terms in the first century, Origen’s engagement with the secular polemics of Celsus in the third century (248 C.E.), and Augustine’s in the fifth century. In fact, Origen wrote eight such books, taking on the pagan philosopher on an intellectually respectable playing field, demonstrating the reasonable nature of faith. In the modern church, many of those who attempt to do this have been relegated to the margins of modern evangelicalism to the point where the most reflective among us keep their mouths closed while being expected to continue writing their tithe checks.

There is some irony in this process. The push toward anti-intellectualism in many churches has been legitimated largely because American universities (secular universities and even many within the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities) have been branded as “too secular” to be trusted with our young people. The irony lies in the fact that this has only served to perpetuate the secularization of the academy and to make Christian scholars more marginalized. If the academy is off limits to the devout believer, what will become of the academy? What would we expect? The world of academe will continue down the path of secularization if believers are encouraged to abandon the field. Is that what we do? Do we really desire to discourage believers from engaging certain groups of people with the gospel, only to complain later about how secular they are?

All in all, this trend has increased the acrimony between Christianity and the life of the mind and made the conservative evangelical environment less accepting of Christian intellectuals as well. Many academics, including me, have been shouted to the margins of a church culture that rules out reflection, dialogue, and questioning as if they were sure pathways to theological liberalism. Since higher education promotes these habits associated with the life of the mind, to be highly educated is often seen as synonymous with “liberal,” and liberal is viewed as unmitigated evil. The noisy reactions of an anti-intellectual crowd have made it much more difficult to hear the softer, more reasoned voices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer , C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, John Polkinhorne, and Gerd Theissen.

I wonder if even the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, who believed in a great partnership between the Christian faith and the life of the mind, would be welcome in most modern American evangelical congregations.

Would He Be Allowed to Preach in Your Church?
Would He Be Allowed to Preach in Your Church?

As a result, when modern evangelicals are in need of their own intellectual resources to meet the challenges posed by modernity, secularism, postmodernism, or other faith traditions, as Noll says, they find that “the cupboard is nearly bare.” Why is it so bare? This war on expertise has created a church culture in which everyone with common sense is an expert. Well, in a setting where everyone is a so-called “expert,” the worst thing one can be is a true expert.

Back to the Bible Study Class

The several group members who began our discussion suggested that we should rely on a so called common-sense tack (often deceptively referred to as “plain” or “normal”) sought by many anti-intellectual approaches, which suggest that meaning in the scriptures is always readily apparent without disciplined study. The assumption here is that the Bible is written in common sense language, and anyone with a modicum of common sense will be able to comprehend its meaning. However, this “anyone with common sense should know” approach neglects the reality that our current definition of what is common sensical is a twenty-first century (it really began in the nineteenth century), Western definition. Applying this definition to a first century, Mediterranean text will hardly yield meaning which is self-evident. The confusion caused by this has led, even among churches employing a literalist approach to the scriptures, to studies in which various members sit and discuss what a passage means to them. This often results in a meaning that is chimerical at best, having little relation to the author’s intent.

What Should We Do?

1) The church must reclaim its place in Biblical and theological education. There was a time when solid doctrinal education was available at the local church. Those days are now behind us. At one time, Sunday morning Bible study consisted of expository journeys in the scriptures, while Sunday evenings offered training in topically based doctrinal studies. Those have been abandoned in favor of a de-skilled curriculum. The church has all but abandoned Biblical/theological education to the seminaries.

2) The church must re-evaluate the theological nature of its worship. As a result of our decline in Biblical and theological literacy, our worship has devolved into a ritual where we express our affection for God rather than reasoned consideration of God’s character. Thus, worship has focused on emotional catharsis rather than the dependable work of the one true God. Can this be emotional at times? Absolutely. However, our emotional response to God’s work must not take the focus away from the character of God himself. This more theologically sophisticated worship will not occur again until the church reclaims its intention to think about God in a more disciplined way.

3) The church needs intellectually prepared leaders. In order to accomplish the two previous prescriptions, the church must move toward placing leaders in key positions of teaching and worship who possess the intellectual and spiritual preparation to think about these priorities in more nuanced and mature ways. We will never have a church who thinks clearly about the scriptures until we have teachers who have done the thinking beforehand as well. We will never have more theologically informed worship until we have worship leaders who are more intentional regarding the theology behind the worship they lead.

References
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  • C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
  • Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.
  • Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
  • John Polkinghorne, Faith, Science, and Understanding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Gerd Theissen, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, and Gerd Theissen, A Critical Faith: A Case for Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
  • Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
  • Charles Pierce. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

 

Click here to return to the beginning of Dr. David Caddell’s guest blog in Part One.