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“Hipster” “Christianity”: a “review”

First they came for the Jesus People, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jesus Person.

Then they came for the seeker-sensitive church, and I did not speak out—because I was seeker-insensitive.

Then they came for the emergents…or emerging, or whatever you call them, and I did not speak out—because I was not emergent/ing.

Then they came for the Hipster Christians and I was all “AW HELL NO BEEYATCHS!” in the most ironic tone possible.

________________

SO, it has become impossible to ignore the phenomenon of “Hipster Christianity” that is sweeping through evangelicalism these days (blazing from the cover of my newest Christianity Today).  Or should I say the COMMENTARY on “Hipster Christianity” (I’m going to keep using those ironic quote marks because I think it is such a ridiculous term, I don’t want to give it the pleasure of legitimacy in the realm of English idioms).

The LEAST hip illustration you could use...look up "trucker hat WWJD" for the best.

A while back, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook invite to become a “fan” of a page that “he thought I’d like”:  “Hipster Christianity.”  I was like, wha?  I checked it out.  There was a link therein to a “quiz” that would tell you if you were a “Christian Hipster.”  I clicked on said link, visited linked website which included these photo shoots of types of “Christian Hipsters” and questions about which kind of books or films I liked, then saw that this was all a quasi-interactive marketing scheme for a book called “Hipster Christianity” and I got THE HELL out of there.

What kind of queer (in the classical sense, my dear gay friends) Christian publishing house marketing person came up with this idea?  “See if you’re ‘hip’—ironically laugh at the stereotypes—ponder the connection between faith and culture in your own disaffected and detached way—now go buy the effing book you little shit.”  If anyone had the slightest inclination to consider themselves “hip” wouldn’t they know that aligning yourself with something that identifies you as such (using a word that has scarcely BEEN “hip” since 1965) is the first sign that you have lost all possibility of truly being that very thing?  So basically they are trying to appeal to people who are either poseurs or those who cannot stand “Christian hipsters”?  I can only assume it was the former…(Which, of course, is not the reason which I MYSELF left the website—I simply cannot stand Christian marketing…of anything.)

So I did not become a fan of aforementioned FB page or aforereferenced book.  My reasoning was that I thought the book was playing to the movement of those who would want to become known as “Christian Hipsters.”  However, I later came across the book & decided to scan over the beginning, just to see how ridiculous it was.  Turns out, the book is kind of a CRITIQUE of this movement (is it really a movement?  Maybe a style, a flavor, an expression of some part of a movement?).  Anywho, a central question in the “introduction” (lower case “i” in the book) was “whether or not Christianity can be, should be, or is, in fact, cool.”  The author claims that his book is “not an advertisement or rallying cry for ‘hip Christianity’ (my quotes, not his), nor is it an outright chastisement.  It’s a critical analysis.  It’s about the contradictions inherent in the phenomenon of Christian cool and the questions Christians should be asking of themselves if they find themselves within this milieu.”

Before I rip a hole in this idea of “contradictions” between “Christian” and “cool,” we need to zero in on one little word, not central to his claim, but which undoes any credibility to his forthcoming argument:  “milieu.”  WHO USES THIS WORD outside of a grad-school thesis?  I mean, I read that and I’m thinking “Ahem, is the milieu you mention au courant vis-a-vis the locus of a bête-noire or an enfant terrible?”  Oops, I missed one pretentious term, but he picks it up a few lines later:  “it’s en vogue for Christians to hate on Christianity in all of its mainstream forms.”  (I’m sorry, is it outre to hate on the use of ostentatious language?)  Maybe that’s the way he talks, maybe it just popped out from Thesaurus.com the day he was writing (at “a table,” he somberly notes, “in the dining room of the Kilns—the home of C.S. Lewis.”  This is relevant…apropos of what?).  I’m sorry, but all of this is adding up to a sorry picture of our tour guide through the world of “Hipster Christianity.”  And this “authorial tone” is part of the thing that cuts the legs off of the central argument I see here against Christians who are “cool” (though I must say I AM glad he is not advocating the sense I first got from his book’s website).

He says that this whole phenomenon “boils down to one simple desire: the desire to make Christianity cool.”  But his definition of “cool” seems to reveal more about his own social experience of cool than what anyone else may take the term to mean:  he writes, “Cool = an attractive attribute that embodies the existential strains to be independent, enviable, one-of-a-kind, and trailblazing.”  Hmm, except for the words “attractive” and “enviable” this definition could fit the Unabomber.  These two words then reveal that it’s all about what other people think.  The whole enterprise of “Hipster Christianity,” from this book’s perspective, feels like it’s about those who are trying to “one up” other people, to be in on something before anyone else is, to have people notice you, etc. and making their faith “cool” is part of this process.  Bro, these are SCENESTERS!  They’re followers of whatever is elusive (wearing a t-shirt that says, “I’m so indie, I’m into music even I haven’t heard of yet.”).  He even comes out and says that “cool is basically a perception of others—it can’t exist as anything intrinsic or detached from public perception.”  SAYS YOU!

I would argue that coolness is something like a combination of good taste, non-conformity and self-possession—it doesn’t matter if people think you have good taste or not (do YOU know why you like it?), or whether you are not-conforming to something which the majority of people reject or approve (you’re simply not willing to follow a trend just because others are—you think for yourself), and you don’t get flustered by others judgments or assessments of you (e.g. “I still like Coldplay…I don’t care if you think they’re corporate label Radiohead rip-offs”).  Was Jesus cool in this sense?  Absolutely.  Can Christians be cool?  Yeppers.  So can atheists, Sufi Muslims, Trekkies, sportos and motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads.

The metaphors for “cool” this book uses feel so off to me as to be referencing the opposite of what it claims–those who are so caught up in TRYING to be cool that there’s no way they could actually BE COOL:  “ahead of the pack,” “the road less travelled,” “survival of the hippest,” “the pursuit of individuality,” “affirmation through attention.”  In the author’s mind (and perhaps, experience), cool is a social phenomenon.  You’re not cool unless other people think you are cool and you have to struggle somehow to maintain cool or you could possibly become uncool.  And this is one of his central objections to “Hipster Christianity,” that somehow Christians are going to try so hard to be cool that they are going to eventually align Christianity with the pursuit of cool or get stuck in some old “trend” (“HIP” PASTOR:  “Hey micro-brewery night on Sunday!” POST-“HIPSTER CHRISTIAN”: “Micro-brews are so 2 months ago, I’m bailing on this whole Christianity thing”).

Man, if we need a book called “Hipster Christianity” then we also need some social analysis and critique of “Dork Christianity” or “Lemming Christianity” or “Sentimental Christianity” or any other number of phenomena that you can see in the church today.  Turning the microscope on guys with lumberjack beards isn’t really that insightful if they are just cut from the same old imitative cloth that every other era of Christianity has had—just write about people who have no internal sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  But it’s making my boy Elijah and I and people whom we truly consider “cool” look bad cause we DO like Sufjan and N.T. Wright and Wes Anderson and all of the things associated with these trend-stalking scenesters.  To be honest, I want to make a t-shirt that says, “If you have to write a book, you wouldn’t understand.”

All this to say, I suppose, that while this author’s critique may fit some bills, I’d prefer if he didn’t label my friends and I according to his little scheme, photo shoots & quizzes.

One last thing:  I remembered seeing an association of “hipster” with “Christian” in the liner notes of a Belle & Sebastian album from 2000 (a tell-tale sign of my “hipness”)…I reproduce it here as a more positive association of these terms:

Update:

"Awesome Christianity"

Another update:  My friend, Matt Barber, pointed me to a review of “Hipster Christianity” by philosopher James K.A. Smith that is along the lines of what I’ve pointed out above, except that it is a well-formed argument, written by a prolific published author, and doesn’t sound quite as bitchy.

The Onion on the [slightly close to] Ground Zero ‘Mosque’

Though this piece lacks some of the sublime subtlety that the Onion has evidenced in the past, I do love the counter-karmic force their “article” on the average American’s opinion regarding the NYC ‘mosque’ controversy may produce.  For instance, the “We’ve Got to Stop the Mosque at Ground Zero” video is just beyond evil…(Joseph Goebbels is cracking a little smile in whatever worm-ridden corner of hell he’s rotting in).  Here’s the beginning of the Onion piece (full article here):

Man Already Knows Everything He Needs To Know About Muslims

SALINA, KS—Local man Scott Gentries told reporters Wednesday that his deliberately limited grasp of Islamic history and culture was still more than sufficient to shape his views of the entire Muslim world.

Gentries, 48, said he had absolutely no interest in exposing himself to further knowledge of Islamic civilization or putting his sweeping opinions into a broader context of any kind, and confirmed he was “perfectly happy” to make a handful of emotionally charged words the basis of his mistrust toward all members of the world’s second-largest religion.

“I learned all that really matters about the Muslim faith on 9/11,” Gentries said in reference to the terrorist attacks on the United States undertaken by 19 of Islam’s approximately 1.6 billion practitioners. “What more do I need to know to stigmatize Muslims everywhere as inherently violent radicals?”

“And now they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero,” continued Gentries, eliminating any distinction between the 9/11 hijackers and Muslims in general. “No, I won’t examine the accuracy of that statement, but yes, I will allow myself to be outraged by it and use it as evidence of these people’s universal callousness toward Americans who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers fell.”

“Even though I am not one of those people,” he added.

When told that the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” is actually a community center two blocks north of the site that would include, in addition to a public prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, a restaurant, and athletic facilities, Gentries shook his head and said, “I know all I’m going to let myself know.”

Counter-point (to my own post):

Would everyone be cool with an “International Center for Political Cartoonists Who Depict Mohammed” going up next door to the mosque?  What’s good for the goose, eh?

‘Fundamentalism’ & ‘new liberal theology’

An article by the Rev Dr Ian Bradley published in The Times today calls upon liberal theology to take back popular Christianity from the Fundamentalists.  The article ran full-circle for me: Bradley, who happens to be associate minister at the church I am a member of, makes mention of the 1910 launch of The Fundamentals, a series of pamphlets published by the founders of my alma mater, Biola University (called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at the time).

Bradley writes of what would become the Fundamentalist position:

… advocating the literal authority and inerrancy of the Bible, creationism as against evolution and penal substitutionary atonement – the idea that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to satisfy God.

Bradley urges the Church to ‘escape from the shackles of this modern fundamentalism’.  In trinitarian terms he advocates what he calls ‘a new reclaimed liberal theology’ based upon an acronym central to his thinking (and the title of his new book): GOOD = Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity.  By grace Bradley means ‘overflowing  mercy, love and forgiveness’, which he attributes particularly to God the Father.  Order is particularly attributed to God the Son, ‘represented in classic Christian theology as the personification of Logos or reason.’  To God the Spirit he attributes openness, ‘often envisaged as breath or wind blowing away staleness and constantly revealing new truths and insights.’  Among these three distinct persons of the single Godhead Bradley finds room for his concept of diversity.  It’s all well-rehearsed and his article says very little about the whole topic because it is essentially functioning as an advertisement for his new book, but there certainly is enough substance to start a new conversation.

Bradley characterises—and I would say rightly characterises—the narrow conservatism of the Fundamentalist view by ‘innovation and departure from tradition’, a sort of pseudo-conservatism, as the early Church was more characterised by ‘a broad liberal outlook.’

Like the early writings of Karl Barth reacting in absolute rejection of nineteenth-century liberal theology, Bradley writes off Fundamentalism ‘as the great twentieth-century heresy and aberration‘ without much consideration for why the founders of the movement believed it necessary to fight for.  (I am basing this exclusively on today’s article as I have not yet read his book.)

Anyone who knows me well or reads what I write on this blog probably knows that I am no big fan of Fundamentalism, nor of Evangelicalism for that matter.  But it seems to me that if I am to be a responsible student of Christianity and a true adherent to the Ecumenicism I supposedly aim for I must be open to discover God’s Spirit in many Christian traditions.  (I sometimes find myself far more open to non-religious ideas than those put forth by the Evangelical tradition.)  We cannot ‘wipe out the long shadow of fundamentalism’ as Bradley insists we must.  Instead, we must be as gracious and generous as the progressive and transformative programme we profess to adhere to.  The modern development of ‘Evangelical tradition’, flawed as it may be, has at the very least this merit: a foundational desire to faithfully and fervently seek after the things of God.  It is unfortunate that the Evangelical tradition has reduced the ‘things of God’ to a very narrow and very recent set of ‘fundamentals’, but to say as Bradley does, that ‘God’s goodness is a very liberal theme and one that tends to be downplayed in conservative circles’ and that ‘conservative preachers speak a lot about God’s holiness, awesomeness and judgment but not much about God’s goodness’ is perhaps quite unfair.

In the end these two things are true: God is certainly good and gracious and we all have many beliefs that are shortsighted and flat-out wrong.  I think his goodness can make up for our shortcomings, but let’s have the humility to acknowledge their inevitable existence.

Imaging the Kingdom IV: The ‘Self’ in the kingdom of God

Let me begin by stressing that this post is by no means an exhaustive or thorough look at this particular issue, but rather a starting point for a conversation and potential implications we can draw out for understanding the our existence in the kingdom of God, thus impacting the way we approach life in the kingdom, as is the case with all Imaging the Kingdom.

The concept of the ‘Self’ is one of great importance in the conversation of modern philosophy and Western society at large.  This can take the form of investigations regarding the composition of the Self, for instance, a Scientologist might argue that the Self is composed of one’s ‘thetan’ (similar to the concept of one’s ‘spirit’).  But what composes the Self in this particular sense (essence) is not the concern of this post.  We will rest upon our holistic assumptions from previous ‘Imaging the Kingdom’ posts: God is the Ruler of the universe that he has created, visible and invisible.  An individual will not be broken down into separate parts, as God is concerned for and invested in both in the Christian tradition.

Many modern philosophers have concerned themselves with the concept of the Self as if we can attain it through our own clever thought processes.  Just as one cannot repair a hammer with said hammer, so one cannot, as a Self, step outside of said Self.  In his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume writes,

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of hear or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

(David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book I, Part IV, Sec. VI)

According to Hume, the concept of the Self can amount to, as Russell put it, ‘nothing but a bundle of perceptions’.  This non-religious observation can actually assist us in our kingdom-oriented task as it can be deduced that the confidence with which, say, I perceive my Self as an individual should be softened.  But the case is not closed there by any means.  Hume’s conclusion does not entirely negate the value of this ‘bundle of perceptions’, but rather redefines it.  As long as we are redefining the Self in light of our inability to look inward in any objective sense, I believe that the principles of the kingdom of God have profound implications for our definition.

In exploring the answer to the question ‘What is man?’ in his essay ‘The Christian Proclamation Here and Now’, Barth states,

Man exist in a free confrontation with his fellow man, in the living relationship between a man and his neighbour, between I and Thou, between man and woman.  An isolated man is as such no man.  ‘I’ without ‘Thou’, man without woman, and woman without man is not human existence.  Human being is being with other humans.  Apart from this relationship we become inhuman.  We are human by being together, by seeing, hearing, speaking with, and by standing by, one another as men, insofar, that is, as we do this gladly and thus do it freely.

(Karl Barth, God Here and Now [London: Routledge, 2003], 7.)

Although Barth is answering the question ‘What is man?’ and not ‘What is the Self?’, we see community as a God-given (and necessary) setting for human existence.

Writing more specifically regarding the Self in the opening pages of The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard describes the ‘Self’ as,

The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.  The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.  A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.  In short a synthesis.  A synthesis is a relation between two terms.  Looked at in this way a human being is not yet a self.

In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation.  If, on the other hand, the relation relates to itself, then this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

(Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death [London: Penguin Books, 2008], 9-10.)

In this way the self is fully understood in the relationship.  This is a relationship with the Self and relationship with the creator of the Self.  Relationship is the basis for any human understanding of anything and no less for a proper understanding of the Self.

In light of Barth and Kierkegaard’s insights, a human is only truly human in community with God and man.  This conclusion very closely resembles the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).  In the kingdom of God an understanding of the Self ought to be similarly characterised by God’s intentions for the Self.

Perhaps the greatest theological tenet in the Christian tradition to attest to the necessary communal aspect of existence can be found in the Trinity.  Two contemporary theologians who have some very helpful insights for this discussion are John Zizioulas and Leonardo Boff.  Zizioulas represents an important bridge between the Eastern and Western traditions (drawing from the work of Vladimir Lossky).  Heavily influenced by the Cappadocian Fathers, Zizioulas derives that communion is an ontological category and that God exists in communion. Therefore, Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen summarises, “there is no true being without communion; nothing exists as an ‘individual’ in itself…Human existence, including the existence of the church communion, thus reflects the communal, relational being of God.”  (Vali-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Trinity: Global Perspectives, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007], 90.)  In this way, without the doctrine of the Trinity there would be no God.

In Trinity and Society, Boff states, “The Trinity is not something thought out to explain human problems.  It is the revelation of God as God is, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” (Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998], 3.)  Boff argues that humanity is given a guide through this specific revelation by which to structure society.

Gathering the tools before us we can develop a picture of what the Self might properly look like in the kingdom of God:

  • From Hume we can argue that an individual cannot objective conceive of the Self, but rather ‘a bundle of perceptions’ that fall short of the Self.
  • From Barth we can argue that it is God’s intention for the individual to find fullest existence in community.
  • From Kierkegaard we can argue that the Self is only properly understood in Hegelian relational terms – the individual, the creator and the witness of that relationship.
  • From Zizioulas we can argue that the communal aspect of God is absolutely essential to his being, that the Trinity is not an appendix to Christian theism, but its heart.
  • From Boff we can argue that human society ought to be structured based upon the community of the Trinity.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the reason for the philosophical dilemma of the Self is the fact that we’ve been taking our cues from the wrong place.  If it is God’s nature to necessarily exist in the communion of the Trinity, perhaps it is no surprise that our being is also of a communal nature.  In the kingdom of God the individual is not called to be alone but in community.  In such a way a fuller understanding of the Self is possible, for instance:

As I relate to myself I experience all that is unique to that experience.  As I relate to, say, Greg, he is able to see and experience something unique to his perspective of me.

As we relate, these things are synthesised and a fuller picture of the Self is possible.  Through the differences that Greg and I encounter in one another God has designed us to act as signposts for one another to himself and his ‘otherness’.

As we look toward God we discover that Christ has come to redeem the entire world and to give humanity a new paradigm to live out of, including a new method of ‘discovering the Self’.  A member of the kingdom of God has a new identity, one independent of who we once thought we were and who we may still think we are.  As we relate to God we are transformed into his design for the Self.  To consider us as individuals the supreme experts regarding our ‘Self’s outside of God’s intentions as demonstrated in the establishing of his kingdom through the Gospel is to ignore the reign and active investment of God in our lives.  To embrace the concept of the Self that finds its fullest meaning in relating to God and to others in love we will experience the greatest blessing ­– the blessing that flows from active participation in and submission to the kingdom of God.  In this way we ought to take seriously the call to relate to others, for it is antithetical to ‘the Self in the kingdom of God’ when we do not.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

The Serpent and the Woman

This is a narrative reflection I wrote for a class on Genesis, where the assignment was to choose a character from the book of Genesis and outline their thoughts on a particular occasion.  I chose the serpent preparing to tempt the woman in the garden, Eden (Genesis 3:1).  [Note: the use of plural pronouns with singular verbs in what follows is an attempt to convey the serpent/Satan’s awareness of the trinitarian reality of God.]

from Gustave Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost

“The eternal One knows I am here in Their garden, but as yet They has done nothing to acknowledge my presence.  I know that I am neither welcome nor forbidden in this fecund new world, but I had expected my visit to, at the least, elicit some Divine comment.  I did feel the backside of the Breath, at once both cold as the empty heavens and hot as the greater light, move past me when I was hiding in the goat, eavesdropping on Their final act of making:  the pathetic dirtlings.  Hah!  Made in the image of Their holy perfection?  No host will ever ring out in anthem in praise of those lumpy bipeds…I guarantee it, not one single gloria.

But when They knelt next to the inert form of the man, I shuddered with horror at the tenderness with which Their hand cupped the thing’s head and pushed its hair back from its brow—at that moment, I began to stomp and whinny with such disgust that the she-goat at my side snuffed, bared her teeth at me, and wandered off—and then, as I looked back again, They leaned in toward the earth creature, so close as to kiss its face.  And They held Themself there, breathing softly over it for a time.  I had to turn away from the choking revulsion and burning in my eyes, as if a thorn had just scratched my face.  I made to leave the goat, but glanced over, just for an instant, only to see the man staring into Their face.  As much as I hate this creature, and the next one who came out of him, and though I mean to destroy them both, I will acknowledge that there was a glimpse of something like the purity and beauty I remember from the court reflected in its eyes as it gazed into the love of the eternal One.  I could stand the recognition no longer and fled the bewildered and agitated goat.

Now I wait for the woman, in a serpent, near the edge of the gentle river where she wades and dips under the water.  I’ve taken notice that she likes the serpent, as it is slender and smooth in her soft hands and as the man once tickled her tender heel with its flickering tongue.  She feels no intimidation with its size and therefore will sense no coercion when I speak to her about the prohibited tree, one of only two ancient things in this nascent land.  She goes to the center of the garden sometimes to gaze at the tree, with mostly a happy curiosity and yet also a little fear, as she never comes close enough to really look at it with more than a squint.  I mean to escort her right up to its limbs, close enough for her to see a different reflection in the luster of its fruit—her own beautiful face.  I can see her, already, pulling the branch down and yanking off the fruit, sinking her teeth deep into its flesh, juice and seeds dripping down her neck.  Will she feel as I did:  a surge of power and then terror?

But how to get her from here to there…

She shakes her head, like the beasts, to send the water back to its source, which indicates she means to walk to the shore.  And I now I need to find the words to get her to go with me to the tree.  If I command her, she will simply laugh at me and stick out her tongue, saying, “Who are you, serpent, to command me, your queen and keeper?”  If I say I wish to walk alongside her, hoping to subtly lead the way to the center, she will likely want to find the man to accompany us—she is drawn to his presence like rain to the earth—and he lacks any desire to go that way, as he avoids the tree altogether (the prohibition was among the first things They said to him, after all, and he heard it directly from the Voice, unlike the woman).  I could deceive her and tell her the eternal One asked me to bring her to the tree, but then if They was not there, she would call out for Them and all would be for nothing.

But perhaps, and here she comes, perhaps if I asked her a question, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” she will want to take me to the place and correct my ignorance by pointing to the one forbidden thing, telling me this alone is the tree.  And then, when we are close enough, I will tell her what I know, what I have tasted.

And she will want to know as well.

She will want to taste as well.

She stands now before me, unaware of her naked flesh for the last time.

Imaging the Kingdom III: Homosexuality & the kingdom of God

The issue of homosexuality is probably one of the more heated social issues facing the contemporary Church.  Among different denominations (and even within single denominations) the issue divides on a scale from peaceful disagreement to violent hatred.  Perhaps the most visible and widely despised of these positions is illustrated by the antics of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and their signature slogan: ‘God Hates Fags’.

Needless to say, this is a MASSIVE conversation in the Church and society at-large.  Unfortunately the debate within the Church—the topic of this post—frequently results in an ever-divergent hatred for the opposition.  One view (we’ll call it ‘Perspective I’ to avoid confusing, overused and unhelpful ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ labels) essentially believes that the Church and the Scripture attest to the opposition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God.  In this view God has designed sexual relationships to take place in a particular way – in other words, heterosexually.  This is often supported with social and psychological analyses of homosexuality in Western culture.  The ‘slippery slope’ is often appealed to here, concerning the possibility in a culture that grows more accepting of public homosexuality.  An example of how this view sees homosexuality adversely affecting the Church follows: homosexual marriage is made fully legal, churches will lose tax-exempt benefits for teaching portions of Scripture that seem to attest to the prohibition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God and ultimately conservative priests will be prosecuted and imprisoned for merely teaching what the Church has generally held to for nearly two-thousand years.

Another view (which we’ll call ‘Perspective II’) essentially believes that the Church is mistaken and that the Scripture is not explicitly clear regarding homosexuality, oftentimes appealing to socio-historical evidence for the manner in which homosexuality was practised in the Scripture’s first-century-Roman context.  In this view homosexuality is not generally considered a choice, but a specific sexual orientation that defines a significant part of what makes an individual an individual.

There are numerous positions around and about these two views (including two views based upon the assumption that homosexuality is natural – one view holding that homosexuals are called to celibacy in the kingdom of God while the other holds that homosexuality is natural and should be openly embraced in the kingdom of God) and it is would be impossible to explore them all, but I believe we’ve got a moderate sample of the two major ‘sides’ of this argument within the Church in Perspectives I and II.

One interesting thing I feel the need to point out is the general historical oppression of homosexuals in Western society.  Even today, with the elimination of laws prohibiting homosexual practise in Western countries (though these are still quite present in many nations today), massive stigmas and stereotypes are used to oppress homosexuals.  In my experience I have heard many-a-Christian rants on how homosexuality has ‘infiltrated our culture’ and is being used to ‘pervert our youth’.  I don’t know how fair that assessment is, but I am generally sceptical of such sweeping statements regarding a group of people who by and large don’t even have the legal right to marry in the vast majority of American states.  Homophobia is rampant and this (like other forms of xenophobia) oftentimes leads to very aggressive mistreatment of homosexuals.  Even the recent claim by Cardinal Bertone that homosexuality was to blame for the Catholic abuse scandals ignored the fact that many of the abused were in fact females (and also that the large number of males abused might be a result of the general pairing of girls with nuns and boys with priests) in exchange for trying to oppressively pin the failure of the Church on a whole people group.

My honest opinion is quite open in general, although my tendency is to lean toward Perspective II.  Whilst I hold Church tradition in high esteem, the Church has certainly been wrong in the past with numerous issues and our trusty Nicene Creed makes no mention whatsoever concerning the nature of sexual relationships in the kingdom of God.  For now I merely want to pose two brief lines of questioning to the two main camps on either side of the issue of homosexuality.  These questions are not meant to pull the rug out from either side, but to promote a more compassionate and gracious way of thinking about the debate.  I do not necessarily agree with each one of these questions on either side, but they seem to be valuable things to address.

Perspective I

  • Is it possible that in the Church homosexuality is often treated very differently than other issues that are considered sins (even other sexual sins) in an unfair manner?
  • In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the nature of particular sins can make them more or less cancerous within the Church.  For instance, pride involves sinfully elevating oneself above another.  Is it possible that an egotistical zealot might be more divisive and harmful to the community of a local church than a homosexual couple in a committed relationship?
  • Can the few passages in Scripture that are often associated with anti-homosexual views be interpreted in any other manner?  What are we to make of the lack of teaching regarding homosexual relationships in the teaching of Christ found in the Gospels?  Let me stress that I do not believe that these issues alone make or break Perspective I (the general tradition of the Church might be able to provide some added strength to this view), but I do believe that these possibilities might serve to soften the tone of Perspective I.

Perspective II

  • Is it possible that many of the people who espouse ‘Perspective I’ are not hatemongers, but Christians who genuinely care about the well being of homosexuals, even if possibly misguided?
  • Drawing from what I believe is Christ claiming that marriage will not exist in the Resurrection (the eventual fullness of the kingdom of God) when responding to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, shouldn’t we as Christians place far more emphasis on our identity in the kingdom of God and not with regard to sexual orientation?  I generally believe that we discover the greatest fullness of who we are as individuals as we relate to God and to the community of the kingdom of God.  Is this the process in which one finds his or her identity?
  • Is it possible that God’s will as revealed in Scripture and through the Church might be that homosexual practise is not part of the kingdom of God?  If it became clear that it was God’s will that his people would not practise homosexuality would it be easier to walk away from homosexuality or to walk away from God?

I have many thoughts on these issues, but I’ll cease my questions and open up the discussion.  What I hope and pray for in this conversation is mutual respect and beyond everything else, love and compassion.  Profound love is what ought to characterise the words, thoughts and actions of a member of the kingdom of God who has been profoundly confronted by the immense grace and love of God as demonstrated in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his holy and inviting Church.

There are many good thoughts and perspectives on either side of this debate.  Please share your input, but take care to use gracious language and to neither demonise nor dehumanise the opposing perspective or your comment may be deleted.  I am not demanding that everyone shares my views or that no one holds firmly to his/her own view—I encourage you to share your convictions with a loving and gracious passion.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Read more of Imaging the Kingdom.

An added treat:

[Greg adds: One more?]

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part III: The Essence of Christianity

Sorry to delay the next installment of this series so long (also see part I and part II), but I’ve been busy wrapping up the end of my seven years on staff at Biola University, so now I can TOTALLY come out of the closet as a raging liberal (kidding…kind of?).  On the note of “liberals*,” namely those people of whom many at conservative institutions like Biola would say are not actually Christian (perhaps a little residual “phantom limb” reflex from the amputated Bible-thumping arm of our fundamentalist heritage), Olson explores in the next section the idea of what truly constitutes “authentic Christianity.”

Postconservative evangelicals (PCE) “believe that conservative evangelicals (CE) tend to place too much emphasis and value on facts” and that “authentic Christianity is too often equated with correct grasp of information” and the “propositional nature of revelation and the cognitive aspects of Christian discipleship.”  Olson is quick to point out that PCE thinkers AGREE that there is an important cognitive and propositional content to our faith–it is simply that many CE thinkers have overemphasized and indeed become obsessed with this dimension as THE essence of true Christianity.

My boy MILLARD's classic one-volume systematic...

He cites examples of this from the works of two CE theologians, Millard Erickson & D.A. Carson, whom Olson expresses admiration for even while disagreeing with their elevation of “cognitive knowledge and affirmation of correct doctrines as the hallmarks of authentic evangelical faith.”  Olson points out that the CE view tends to “highlight the didactic side of Scripture and interpret revelation as primarily communication of information about God.”

Olson quickly points out the common ground between CE & PCE thought:  “both believe that there is a gospel supernaturally communicated to human beings by special divine revelation and that apart from this gospel people cannot know God as they should.”  The difference lies, he says, in whether the transcendent source of of authority for believing and living, as well as the Christian identity it creates and preserves, is primarily a content of information or a means of transformation.  (He concludes that it is indeed BOTH, but that the CE view is out of balance in it’s overemphasis on the informational component.)

Olson continues by digging at the dual roots of contemporary evangelicalism:  Puritan Reformed theology, with its emphasis on confessional preservation of orthodox belief & the Pietistic/Revivalist emphasis on the experience of God’s transforming power.  He describes how a growing awareness of this duality led to the two groups beginning to “snipe at each other and take potshots at each other in print” (pointing specifically to Carson’s The Gagging of God & David F. Wells No Place for Truth).

Olson begins to defend the PCE view, and in particular his friend, the late Stanley Grenz, from the attacks and suspicions of CE thinkers, specifically refuting any “shallow interpretations” that would try to link the PCE movement to liberal theology and the ideas of the first liberal theologian, Friedrich Schliermacher, who emphasized feeling and experience over reason and ideation.  Indeed Olson says PCE’s have “no interest in being liberal” but rather desire to free evangelical theology “from captivity to the Enlightenment culture’s rationalism and obsession with ‘facts’ to the exclusion of truth in experience and personal knowledge.”

While acknowledging the role of information in the Christian life, PCE’s “do not believe that facts constitute the essence of authentic Christianity or true evangelicalism, both of which are primarily expressions of the transforming power of a relationship–the relationship between God in Jesus Christ manifested through the Holy Spirit and the person in community.”  In this perspective, doctrine is the “second-order language of the church that brings to expression this [supernatural] transforming experience.”  Doctrine serves experience, and not vice versa.

A quote from Alister McGrath points in this direction (though McGrath does not go as far as identifying experience as the essence of evangelical faith):

It is a travesty of the biblical idea of ‘truth’ to equate it with the Enlightenment notion of conceptual or propositional correspondence, or the derived view of evangelicalism as the proclamation of the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine (from A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism).

More explicitly, Stanley Grenz pointed toward the concept of “convertive piety,” which is “a certain experience of God that is supernatural, personally transforming, and centered around the cross of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the holy spirit.”  Olson goes on to point out, and this is what makes some squirm, that “a person who has this experience may be a real Christian–and an evangelical–without yet being orthodox doctrinally.”  While “doctrinal systems have their value,” it is “a distinctive spirituality that forms evangelical Christianity’s essence.”  Grenz succinctly stated in his groundbreaking 1993 work, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, that “the truth of the Christian faith must be personally experienced truth.”

Grenz points out that while “doctrinal systems and worldviews inevitably arise within communities and shape individual identity and group knowledge…[they] cannot replace or stand in for spiritual experience [but are] expressions of it.”  In Grenz’s view, “the ultimate authority for developing Christian belief and life is the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures in the context of the community shaped by a common spiritual experience of convertive piety.”

So what about doctrinal correctness?  Olson replies that while it is important, correct doctrine does not trump the experience of a converted believer.  “Apart from the transforming experience, authentic evangelicalism does not exist even where doctrinal correctness is present.  And where right experience and right spirituality are present in Jesus-centered living, authentic Christianity may be present even if doctrinal correctness is not yet fully present-provided that movement in the right direction is clearly discernible.”

The difference between CE and PCE thinking on this point may be hard to detect…Olson lays out a few areas of competing emphasis:

  1. CE proponents “assert that the basis of our Christian beliefs must not be experiential because experience is subjective.”  For them, “the basis of our [faith] must be reason grasping divine revelation [and that] the system of beliefs drawn from [divine revelation] is rationally superior to all competing systems of belief.”
  2. PCE thinkers (and allies such as McGrath) fear that CE theology is “turning evangelical faith into a philosophy and the Bible into a book of facts to be organized into a coherent system.”  (I’ve seen this mentality at work many times in my experience with the CEE.)  PCE thinkers hold narrative up as an alternative to CE overemphasis on the propositional.  “Narrative is meant to transform and does transform; it creates identity in a way factual statements do not…The point of this announcement in story form is to transform people; it is a story about salvation and brings about salvation.”  The cognitive dimension is not dismissed, but is rather relegated to secondary status.

This does allow for more uncertainty and ambiguity as to who is “in or out” of evangelicalism and makes heresy hunting a bit more difficult, but PCE’s are comfortable with this tension without becoming “relativists.”  Rather, Olson says they are “critical realists”:  “Absolute truth is what God knows; our grasp of truth is always from a certain finite perspective and infected with finitude and falleness.”

This emphasis on intellectual humility is one of the aspects of the PCE that appeals so much to me and I find myself willing to live with greater tension and ambiguity as I look at other people who claim to follow Christ.  Do you find, however, that too much is lost in making an experience of “convertive piety” the essence of Christianity rather than assent to a set of doctrinal propositions?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

*[update:  I just finished two classes where we explored in a bit more depth the history, methodology, & theology of classical Christian liberalism and its modern descendants...goodness & mercy, I am no liberal!]

Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Imaging the Kingdom I: Foundations of the kingdom of God

Since I converted to Christianity in my teens I have been continually exploring what it means to be a Christian.  In my experience I have become increasingly convinced that Christianity hinges upon one major theme: the kingdom of God.   It is used throughout the Christian tradition and is referred to throughout the Scriptures many times (oftentimes referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’).   The phrase can be picked apart from many sides, but I believe that its general implications are as follows:

  1. God is the king of the kingdom
  2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible
  3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

In the Christian tradition, these implications, while very basic, are indispensible.  This series, Imaging the Kingdom, is intended to explore the nature of the kingdom of God and its implications in the universe, and therefore in our world and in the lives of all Christians.  It must be noted that this exploration is inevitably non-exhaustive – we will explore why later.  First we will briefly analyse these three implications.

1. God is the king of the kingdom

The kingdom of God is the most important theme in the Christian tradition (and arguably the other two Abrahamic religions: Judaism and Islam).  The natural head of any ‘kingdom’ is the ‘king’.  To say that God is the king of the kingdom of God is to say that God is the ruler of the kingdom, a rightful monarch without equal.  All authority and power in the kingdom of God belongs to God.

2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible

In my experience I have noticed that oftentimes conversations about the kingdom of God (if the kingdom of God is spoken of at all) revolve around the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the kingdom of God.  There are real issues affecting how we experience the presence of the kingdom of God in this age, the Church age.  The orthodox Christian understanding is that throughout history God has been extending his reign over a fallen universe that has rejected his reign.  This extension has taken its most dramatic leap forward in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since (and through) that event, God has established his Church on earth, empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out what it means to be in the kingdom of God, which we will talk more about later.  There is an element (or are elements) of the kingdom of God that is not yet present, something made especially evident in the Christian experience.  The expectation of Christians throughout history is that God will bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God at some future point in the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This is what is meant in the ‘but not yet’, and while the discussion of what is ‘not yet’ is necessary, the primary focus of this study will be that which is ‘already’.  I use the language ‘visible and invisible’ as it is written in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, which I consider the most fundamental and comprehensive ecumenical (general) Church creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible…

Even in this first section of the Creed we see our first two implications (1. God is the king of the kingdom; 2. The kingdom of God is both visible and invisible).  The language of the Creed is helpful because it seeks to paint a very clear and concise picture of the orthodox Christian faith.  The words ‘visible and invisible’ help us to see the overarching nature of the universe and God’s reign of that universe.  Orthodox Christian theology does not paint the universe in a dichotomy of ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’.   Throughout the ages, this dualism has caused countless conflicts that have been deemed heretical.   Indeed, to see humans or the universe as split into ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ conflicts with the way that God has both created the world and redeemed it – holistically.  God is not interested in creating a physical world just to destroy it.  The Incarnation and the life, death and Resurrection of Christ point to a God who created unified, holistic beings, whose nature is fully understood in unified, holistic terms.   As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s bodily Resurrection is “the first fruits” of “those who belong to Christ.”  The kingdom of God is not a disembodied spiritual kingdom, but it is the reign of God over all things that he has created and deemed good, both ‘visible and invisible’.

3. To be a Christian is to be a citizen or member of the kingdom of God

Because of the first two implications of the kingdom of God, that God is the king and that the kingdom is universal, to be a Christian is to be a part of that kingdom.  We cannot understand any part of what it means to be a part of that kingdom without understanding first that God is the king of said kingdom and that this kingdom is universal; all other implications of the kingdom of God hinge upon these principles.

The inevitable imprecision of our talk about God and his kingdom: ‘Imaging’

Since Christians are members of the kingdom of God, subjects as to a monarch even, it serves us well to learn, rehearse and enact what that means for the way we live and think.   Unfortunately we face one significant roadblock: God himself.   I’ve been writing, “God is this” and “God is that”, but as the seminal twentieth-century Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us time and time again, God is entirely ‘other’.  What is meant by this is that God as a being is distinct from his creation and while he has invested into his creation through Christ, the Holy Spirit and the presence of the kingdom of God, in trying to talk about God we will inevitably be imprecise.   This might seem discouraging, but I can’t tell you how pleased I am that I haven’t figured everything out in my early twenties!  The comfort rests in the fact that God is gracious.

God has been gracious to us through giving us his Son, Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrates to us what it is to be fully human (an implication of the kingdom of God we will save for another post) and what it is to live in the kingdom of God, but it is Christ himself who is the revelation of God to us.  It is through an active conversation with God as his Church that we learn more and more what it is to be that very thing: God’s Church.  Because of this inevitable imprecision, I find that looking at the Christian life from the perspective of the orthodox understanding of the Gospel is our most reliable source, as it is concrete enough to transform our lives, while remaining very open to conversation and interpretation.   In such a way we are ‘imaging’ the kingdom of God, developing ways to talk about God and his kingdom that effectively inform the way that we live.  Having this ‘imaging’ perspective also encourages a fruitful conversation between all Christian traditions, helping us to be unified and effective in living out the kingdom of God in this world as one Body, the Church.

As we explore the kingdom of God in this series, addressing issues like culture, politics, theology (yes, our theology should be informed by other theology), etc., I hope that it is intellectually stimulating, but most of all I hope that God uses this conversation to transform our lives via the Holy Spirit in order to love God, other people and the world we live in more and more.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human.   He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead.  His Kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We confess on baptism for the remission of sins.  We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)

Exercise in Love

The present Western culture is largely ‘post-Christian’, fed up with the tired dogmas of the past.  One common mistake made by the Christian community is to try to revamp the relevance of Christianity through massive immersion.  The thought is (in an admittedly crudely-reduced form) that if we flood the world with Bibles and ‘the Gospel message’ the Christian community will finally end up back on top, like the idyllic golden age during which God was the ruler of the world.  Unfortunately the Christian ideal has never been a part of reality.  People may look back at post-war America in the 1950s and conclude, “That was a good time.  People were decent.  It was the 1960s that brought about our current distress.  Abortion, homosexuality and the utter moral corruption of Western society.”

It is not my attempt to provide a thorough analysis of Western society since World War II, but I will point out that the heart of Christianity has never been about this set of morals, morals defined and packaged for Evangelical Christians by the Religious Right in the 1980s.  The principal response of the Christian community seems to be pointing the finger.  In his book, The Post-Christian Mind, Harry Blamires tends to point out that the problems facing the Christian community during this time are not the fault of the Christian community itself.  He writes,

If we are to examine from the inside the machinery of contemporary error, we must step outside of our theological skins.  Everything that gives shape and meaning to our conception of the span of human life derives from a system of beliefs that the post-Christian mind rejects.  The Christian finds the ultimate meaning of things outside time, outside the boundaries of our earthly human career.

(Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind [London: SPCK, 2001], 3.)

I’m afraid that Mr Blamires is mistaken on several counts.  As the rest of his book points out, he generally defines “Everything that gives shape and meaning to our conception of the span of human life” as a set of morals based upon family values.  For instance, he harps on the attack against the sanctity of marriage.  While I agree that the value of marriage has been greatly reduced in Western society, I believe that the Christian community is largely at fault.  By this, I mean that the Christian community has not demonstrated a great apologetic for marriage, giving no standard by which to critique the ‘secular’ tendency to divorce.  My second main issue with Mr Blamires’ words has to do with a general presupposition concerning the utter ‘otherness’ of the Christian life, one in which we find “the ultimate meaning of things outside time, outside the boundaries of our earthly human career.”  While God is most certainly greater than our realm, he is also very present and committed to time and space, which is most fully demonstrated in the Incarnation, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the advent of the Church and the rapid expansion of his universal kingdom.

Still, this tendency toward perceiving ourselves so fully identified with this ‘otherness’ helps the Christian community to embrace a false sense of exile.  In such a way, the Christian can justify societal rejection based upon the life of Christ.  Michael Frost in his book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, writes,

I suspect that the increasing marginalization of the Christian movement in the West is the very thing that will wake us up to the marvellously exciting, dangerous, and confronting message of Jesus.

(Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006], 9.)

This is very close to what I think we need to hear, but the language of ‘exile’ is too heavy-handed.  Frost is very glad to leave what he considers the “Christendom era”.  To set ourselves apart from the Christian tradition and to adopt what we consider to be ‘the message of Christ’ is dangerous.  This is a mistake primarily because ‘the message of Christ’ is convoluted, and if we limit this message solely to the Scripture (as is by-and-large the practice of Protestantism) we undermine the very nature of Scripture.  Scripture was not given to the Christian community as a tool by which we can live without the Church.  That old Lutheran ideal, Sola Scriptura simply does not account for the robustness of the Christian presence throughout history.  We are dealing with a living God and a living Church.

While Christianity is something very contrarian, we cannot accept that we are so holy and counter-cultural that exile is a result of our ‘doing things right’.  The Christian community could do well by listening to the culture in a self-critical way.  Unfortunately, I believe that this can be done wrong.  In fact, I believe that the Christian community is experiencing its present dilemma because it has been taking the things of God, the way we rehearse the Gospel, the way we understand our role in this world, and severely altering it based upon our preconceived notions of how things should be.  For instance, during the time of the Reformation, Calvinists began to wear black, not initially to express modesty, but to align the clergy with academia, showing that the Reformed priests were educated, unlike the Catholic priests who wore colourful vestments based upon the seasons within the Church year.

Changing our faith based upon preconceived notions has had far more adverse effects than the clerical wear of the Reformers, the most tragic of which I believe is the castration of the Gospel.  What I mean by this is that the far-reaching effects of the Gospel have been greatly minimised in order to attend to the desires of Western culture.  The culmination of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection has moved from an incredible cosmic event in which the transformation of the universe was initiated and the Church created and redeemed into a hyper-individualistic ticket to a spiritual heaven paradise.  Was not the God of the Nicene Creed the God who created all things, visible and invisible?

Christianity is not a set of morals, it is not a set of mental suppositions and it is not a social programme – it is God’s transformative initiative in the universe, the Gospel.  The Gospel is therefore the heart of Christianity and the heart of the Gospel is love.  Perhaps the primary reason why Christianity has experienced such a drop in public sentiment is because love, and consequently the Gospel, has been corrupted and void of much of its usefulness.  Now I will neither deny the sincerity of the entirety of the Christian community nor the power of God as demonstrated through even the most meagre of Gospel proclamations.  We are fortunate that God is far more powerful and mysterious than our systems of belief, no matter how informed or refined.

What I am going to propose will not change the fact that God is far more than we comprehend on a daily basis, but I do hope that, as should be the case in any theological endeavour, this exercise will serve to draw us as the Christian community closer to the heart of God and his mission to the world.  His mission is not one of ‘add-ons’.  Being a Christian is not an ‘app’ one can purchase for their iPhone.  Being a Christian is neither a new t-shirt nor a whole new wardrobe.  Being a Christian is a radical transformation and orientation toward the will of God.

Love is the central tenet of the Gospel – God loves the universe he created.  The existence of anything is contingent upon the grace and love of God and for us God demonstrated this love most tangibly through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Throughout the whole of Scripture God demonstrates his love, and Christ, when asked by a Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)

In theory, the Christian community accepts most of these things with open arms, but the magnitude of what ‘love’ means is where the real weakness of the present Gospel takes shape.  Perhaps a more revealing passage is found in the Sermon on the Mount,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matthew 5:43-48)

A pious Christian might call out an “Amen!” without thinking twice about this passage, but I believe a more honest response might be, “Oh shit, we’re doing it wrong.”

Indeed, the love of Christ is not some half-hearted commitment not to hate.  The Christian community has a propensity to take the positive commands of God and turn them into negative commands.  Instead of this radical calling ‘to love everyone’ we turn it into a meagre calling ‘not to hate anyone’.  Even then we must weaken our definition of hate and say, “Well I don’t hate anyone, I simply dislike some people.”  Whether we define our lack of love as ‘hate’ or ‘dislike’, we are still missing the point – we are called to love.

But we must also understand that the love of Christ is a very complex thing.  God does not suspect that we will master his greatest commandment with relative ease.  To love in the way that the Christian community is called to love involves a daily dependence on God’s strength and guidance by way of his Holy Spirit.  We can hardly even begin to imagine what it is to love in the way that God demonstrated through Christ.  Even on the Cross in the midst of his persecutors tradition maintains that Jesus requests of his heavenly Father, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 24:34)  Jesus’ love is a radical love, and it was a love that brought about massive transformation: reconciliation between God and people (‘love your God’), reconciliation between people and other people (‘love your neighbour’; ‘love your enemy’), reconciliation within individuals toward themselves and reconciliation between people and the creation.  The greatest commandments can summarise this grand reconciliation.  If we love God in the freedom granted by the work of Christ we will love the entirety of his creation because he has created, loved and redeemed it.  This holistic reconciliation in the Gospel can be used to counter the neo-Gnostic trajectory of contemporary Christianity.

When considering the implications of these reconciliatory principles, the unfathomable depth of the love God has for us and the love that God has called the Christian community to, I believe that a it is a good exercise to seek to see it all from the perspective of the Cross.

Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516), Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

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When your parents have failed you miserably

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a friend betrays you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a co-worker spreads a rumour about you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a stranger cuts you off on the road

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When you see the homeless person on the street

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When someone succeeds as you fail

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When your significant other does not see your point of view

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When your child disobeys you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When you give into the temptation yet another time

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

In all things

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

Be transformed by Christ’s love on the Cross.

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Exploring and employing the implications of God’s love is an eternal task, but I end this post with these thoughts: To be a Christian is to be a subject in God’s kingdom and to be a subject in God’s kingdom requires one thing: robust obedient love.  This world can only ever benefit from more love.  Nothing in this world ever went bad nor will anything ever go bad because there was ‘just too much love’.

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