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

+++++

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.

+++++

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’.

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part II: The Postconservative Style of Evangelical Theology

So what exactly does “postconservative evangelical (PCE) theology” look like?  Some inclinations were hinted at in the “10 features of conservative evangelical theologians” in Part I of this series and Olson begins in his next chapter to sketch six features that will give a sense of the “mood” of PCE theology (you can see already the desire to elude rigid categorization, can’t you?).

Before he lists these characteristics, he delves into the issue of whether some in the Conservative Evangelical Establishment (CEE–my term, not Olson’s) would question whether PCE theologians are indeed “evangelical.”  Olson answers this by proposing two “controversial theses”:

  1. Evangelical theology is theology done by an evangelical theologian (do you wonder if he was being ironic with the word ‘controversial’?)
  2. An evangelical theologian is someone who claims to be evangelical, is generally regarded as working within the evangelical network, and adheres to five cardinal features of evangelical faith–biblicism, conversionism, cross-centered piety, activism in evangelism and social transformation & respect for the Great Tradition of Christian belief

The second thesis might cause controversy among some in the CEE because they are uncomfortable with the confusion that exists as to who are truly evangelicals, as well as dismayed at the “rampant diversity of interpretation among evangelicals.”  Olson points out a distinction that CE thinkers (such as D.A. Carson in The Gagging of God) would like to draw between “sociological evangelicalism” (those people who participate in evangelical churches, organizations, etc.) and “authentic doctrinal evangelicalism” (detailed theological orthodoxy).

While Olson acknowledges the legitimacy of concerns with doctrinal pluralism and the contemporary “desertion of the cognitive substance of faith” and he also admits that CE theologians are correct that “authentic evangelical faith includes a strong commitment to orthodox doctrine,” he holds that they are wrong “insofar as they elevate doctrinal orthodoxy to incorrigible status where it is functionally infallible and therefore equal with divine revelation itself” (which Olson sees in CE “traditionalism that enshrines [the intellectual content of] Protestant orthodoxy as it was developed in the post-Reformation period by Protestant scholastics and especially by the Old Princeton School theologians in the nineteenth century”).

Olson sees the only way to keep from raising doctrinal formulations to peer status with Scripture is “to leave a door open to doctrinal reconsideration and revision in light of Scripture [by defining] the evangelical attitude toward orthodox doctrine as one of respect and deference but not slavish adherence.”  He proposes that “what makes a theologian evangelical is not strict faithfulness without mental reservation or reconsideration to doctrinal orthodoxy [but rather] that he or she works enthusiastically from within and embodies the ethos or the evangelical movement” (as defined in his 5 cardinal features above).

Olson delves briefly into a section on the two predominant approaches to American evangelical faith, or the “dual inheritance” of the “two strands of Protestantism that flowed together in the Great Awakening,” which reveals a great deal about the tension and turmoil in the contemporary Western evangelical community.  The two approaches are:

  1. Puritanism that was publicly focused, scholastic, and whose outlook on salvation was Reformed or Calvinistic, exemplified in Jonathan Edwards & influencing contemporary Reformed movements such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
  2. Pietism that was more inwardly focused in its experientialism, with a view of salvation that was influenced by synergism and more Arminian (though predating Arminius to Melanchthon and the Anabaptists), exemplified in John Wesley & influential in the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s, the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, as well as the emerging churches network and the house church movement

Olson points out that the “vast bulk of evangelicalism lies somewhere between these expressions, combining aspects of each” and reflecting the two often conflicting impulses of “evoking experience of God” (Pietism) and “inculcating correct beliefs” (Puritanism)  He also suggests that PCE theology is “by and large a derivation of the Pietist side of the evangelical movement” and CE theology (and the fundamentalist movement preceding it) has arisen out of the Puritan ingredient.

Some of these limbs wish they had a saw...

Now we finally move to the six features of the postconservative style of doing theology (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these paragraphs):

  1. PCE theologians consider the main purpose of revelation to be transformation more than information (Note: while CE theologians would agree with the transformational goal, they would see revelation as primarily as the communication of information/facts for the purpose of creating knowledge, while PCEs wonder if knowledge is the only or best means of transforming persons).  PCEs do not reject a propositional, factual, and informational aspect to divine revelation, but stress that revelation is given primarily for the purpose of redemption through personal encounter and relationship, and that nonpropositional aspects of revelation can be useful for theological endeavor.  They see the Bible as not as a “book full of timeless truths” but as a vehicle that contains many types of revelation, all of which support that which is primary in Scripture:  narrative.  PCEs are generally enamored with narrative theology, which emphasizes the power of story to transform people in a way propositions do not, and they worry that CE theology is too caught up in the idea of cognitive Christianity to the neglect of transformation and relationship with God.
  2. They see theology as a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest and hold that the constructive task of theology is ever unfinished–there are no closed, once and for all systems of theology.  A few quotes from the late PCE theologian Clark Pinnock will illustrate this point:  “Why do conservatives assume that the received doctrinal paradigms created by human beings like ourselves are incapable of improvement?” and “How awfully easy it is for people who think themselves in possession of God’s infallible Word to transfer some of that infallibility to themselves.  And how easy for them to respond to anyone who questions any aspect of their fortresslike position with righteous anger and adamant rejection.”  PCE thinkers believe that taking risks in theological endeavor with thought experiments is not a sin and also appreciate the role of imagination in theological work.
  3. They evidence a discomfort and dissatisfaction with the reliance of CE theology on Enlightenment and modern modes of thought.  Alister McGrath points to the covert modern influence on CE theology: “Certain central Enlightenment ideas appear to have been uncritically taken on board by some evangelicals, with the result that part of the movement runs the risk of becoming a secret prisoner of a secular outlook which is now dying before our eyes.”  PCEs are concerned that conservative foundationalism and propositionalism elevate something alien to revelation above revelation as the criterion of truth, reducing Christianity to a philosophy.  They believe that some forms of postmodern thought can help liberate evangelical theology from the Enlightenment.
  4. They view evangelicalism as a centered set category rather than as a set having boundaries.  This means that the question is not who is “in” or “out” of evangelicalism, but who is nearer to the center and who is moving away from it (the center being Jesus Christ and the gospel & reflecting the 5 core elements above).  There is no evangelical magisterium to decide who is in or out of the movement.  The issue of how you can have an identity with a fuzzy boundary is responded to with the following clarification: an organization has boundaries (such as a nation, i.e. Who is an American?  Any US citizen.), but a movement does not (i.e. Who is a “Westerner”?  Not all Europeans or Americans are truly Westerners culturally and many people living in Asia are Westernized!).  So it is with an evangelical–there is no test for determining who is an evangelical and yet we all know that not everyone who claims the label deserves it.  In this, PCEs are more comfortable with possible ambiguity as to who is truly an evangelical.
  5. They have a tendency to view the enduring essence of Christianity, and the core identity of evangelical faith, as spiritual experience rather than as doctrinal belief.  Stanley Grenz argued that evangelicalism is a vision of the Christian faith expressed primarily in a distinctive spirituality, a shared experience of “convertive piety” that manifests itself in a personal, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ and is expressed communally in shared stories/testimonies, hymns, witness, and worship.
  6. They have a tendency to hold relatively lightly to tradition while respecting the Great Tradition of Christian belief, even as they subordinate it to revelation and consider it at most a guide.  Kevin Vanhoozer agrees, noting “Sola Scriptura means at least this: that the church’s proclamation is always subject to potential correction from the canon.”  Two terms that could be used to describe this tendency would be “generous orthodoxy” and “critical orthodoxy.”  While not eschewing doctrine, propositions, or tradition, they believe that all of these ideas are subject to the greater authority of divine revelation in Jesus Christ and in Scripture, which may at any time break forth in new light that corrects what has always been believed and taught by Christians.  The PCE style demands humility, generosity, and openness of spirit in conducting the work of theology and handling the cognitive content of the faith.

These are merely sketches that Olson goes on to fill out in subsequent chapters…any thoughts on these features from our intrepid readers (i.e. those who read through to the end of this post)?

[Part III available here]

The Shame of the Cross

I recently clicked on a link from a blog my friend Andrew contributes to and it took me to post from a Talbot Seminary prof, Joe Hellerman, entitled “Jesus, the Shame-Bearer” about “the public humiliation of Jesus’ death.”  His personal/vocational anecdote about honor-culture is skippable, but the focus on the shame Christ experienced on the cross (particularly in quotes from early church leaders) was powerful.  It lead me to post the following question in his comments section:

“Years ago, I came across a poem by the British writer Stevie Smith about Christianity/ Christ that questioned our faith, including the following lines:

And Sin, how could he take our sins upon Him?  What does it mean?
To take sin upon one is not the same
As to have sin inside one and feel guilty.

It is horrible to feel guilty,
We feel guilty because we are.
Was He horrible? Did he feel guilty?

The lines stuck with me, as an authentic question, but as I meditated on the issue, reading Isaiah 53, I began to wonder if, in some sense, while Jesus did not bear my experiential guilt (though he did take on my legal guilt), he somehow did bear the shame associated with my sin. In response to the poet, we might say, “No, he WAS not horrible–but yes, he FELT horrible as he bore the shame of our sin, experiencing the feeling of being a wrong-doer, though he did no wrong.”

Do you think there is a legitimacy to this? Not that we need to answer this question–I just wonder if, in some sense, this would be an answer…

I know that many Christians struggle with a lingering sense of guilt & shame over past sin. I wonder if contemplating “Jesus, the Shame-bearer” is a way of even adding those feelings of shame as something we recognize Christ bore for us.

I’m not totally sure if this is theologically accurate, though, which is why I ask!”

Hellerman responded that this (our feeling of guilt) wasn’t really what he had been talking about, which I do recognize–I was more using his meditation to launch into a related but distinct point. He was talking about Jesus’ personal sense of shame upon the cross & I was raising a question about our shame/guiltiness and Christ’s work on the cross.

On the note of Christ’s shame, it did make me think of how Christians have many times sanitized the image of Christ on the cross.  With our dread of nudity, we usually drape a little cloth over his genitals or even put him in a robe, yet his shameful FULL nakedness was most likely part of the punishment he endured for us (there are some who hold the view that he was covered with a cloth, but many hold to his complete nudity)!  The only film that I could remember that actually “exposed” the viewer to this aspect of the crucifixion was Martin Scorsese’s heretical and blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ

Like one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised & we esteemed him not

I have been thinking more about this question–did Jesus bear on the cross the shame that should be upon me for my sin, the shame that I deserve before God for violating his good design & purposes?  Or is it more that because of he took on our “legal guilt” that we are able to “draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience” (Hebrews 10.22)?  I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Whatever the specific theological reality, I believe it’s completely appropriate to devotionally consider both what Christ endured on the cross & to know that we are free from the burden of guilt and shame of sin.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

(“Before the Throne of God Above”)

Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I: “Who in the What Now?”

A while back, while outlining my “Reading List,” I promised I would write more about a very important book to me, namely Roger Olson’s 2007 book, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Theology.  I am now making good on that promise; however, rather than writing a short summary praising the book’s merits & interacting with any of its perceived shortcomings, I have decided (to follow Jesus!) to summarize THE ENTIRE BOOK for your consideration, which will require me to divide the posts into a number of parts. 

I’m not sure how many of our dear readers would be inclined to read the book for themselves, but I’d love to interact over the specifics of the approach he outlines in the comments section—I will even try to restrict my own editorial opinion to that location—because it is an approach that I am very seriously considering taking on as my own (to some extent).  To do this without input from my community would be foolhardy, in my highly-relational opinion.  So without further ado, I give you my post:  Reformed and Always Reforming, Part I:  “Who in the What Now?”

Olson’s central thesis in the book is that “it is possible to be more evangelical by being less conservative”—speaking specifically in this book about theology, which he defines as “reflection on divine revelation in order to believe rightly and understand what is rightly believed.”  He distinguishes between theology and doctrine:  “theology is process; doctrine is raw material and product.  Theology examines doctrines (beliefs about God) and produces doctrines, often by reaffirming, restating, or revising older ones.”  The last action of “revising” is central to the postconservative approach (or “mood” as he calls it) Olson will commend.

In the book, Olson sets up what kind of conservative he is “post” by describing his understanding of “conservative evangelical theology.”  The idea of being conservative is clearly connected to “adherence to tradition”—Olson posits that conservative evangelical’s (CE’s) have, perhaps unconsciously, established a “magisterium” that “exercises prior restraint over the critical and constructive tasks of theology” and while he acknowledges that many CE’s would deny this, “their conservatism shows in their tendency to slam down any and every new proposal for revisioning Christian doctrine” by an appeal to received traditional (or evangelical) beliefs.

He sees an example of a CE magisterium in the 1990 volume Evangelical Affirmations edited by Kenneth Kantzer & Carl F.H. Henry.  Olson perceives that this was an attempt to preserve “evangelical integrity [by] identifying who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the evangelical club” through establishing “firm evangelical boundaries.”  Throughout this collection of essays, “appeal is made repeatedly to…an alleged evangelical consensus” which Olson sees as something that would “be used in evangelical institutions in making decisions about hiring and continuing employment.”  In essence, it looks like a power play to consolidate the authority to identify who may call themselves an “evangelical.”  The problem with this is that it functionally places “a set of human statements on the same plane with scripture.”

In providing examples of specific conservative evangelical theologians, he divides them into two main camps:

  • Biblicist evangelicals:  those who “seem concerned to protect the propositional nature of revelation as primary and [who] seem to believe it is relatively easy with training and skill to move from biblical exegisis to establishment of sound doctrine without the aid of other sources and norms such as tradition, philosophy, or culture.”  They “tend to follow the methodology of 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge” and Olson includes Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, Millard Erickson, Norman Geisler, D.A. Carson and David F. Wells in this category.  Their approach contains the “idea that doctrines are to be mined out of the Bible and that evangelical doctrines are simply biblical teachings and not the secondary language of the church,” as well as a “frequent appeal to an evangelical faith once and for all delivered as a negative norm for ruling out new ideas.”
  • Paleo-orthodox traditionalists:  those who explicitly identify an “ancient, ecumenical doctrinal consensus” (sometimes including Reformational teachings, but usually based on the early church fathers) as a “governing authority for evangelical theology.”  These thinkers include Thomas Oden, D.H. Williams, and Robert Webber.

Olson also offers 10 features that he believes are common among conservative evangelical theologians which are a cause for concern to the postconservative approach (I’m not using quotes, but am condensing/editing Olson’s words in these sentences):

  1. A tendency to treat correct doctrine—orthodoxy—as the essence of authentic Christian faith and of evangelical faith, and a response to theological innovations as leading to apostasy.
  2. A tendency to treat revelation as primarily propositional, glossing over the personal and eventful nature of revelations as well as the revelational power of stories, images, and speech acts.
  3. A tendency to elevate some tradition to the status of a magisterium for evangelical theological identity (closing off fresh theological reflection & revisioning of doctrines).
  4. A suspicion of the constructive task of theology, rejecting or neglecting attempts to construct new doctrinal formulations or reconstruct old ones & a tendency to be defensive of their understanding of orthodoxy, patrolling evangelical boundaries.
  5. A view of evangelicalism as a bounded set category—within which it should be easy to tell who is in or out & a sense that they should have the authority to strip others of the evangelical label.
  6. A tendency to regard the “evangelical tent” as relatively smaller than the number of those who call themselves evangelicals.
  7. A high degree of suspicion towards both modernity (even though they may be influenced by it!) and postmodernity, which they see as relativistic and destructive of authentic Christian faith, which consists of absolutes known with a high degree of certainty.
  8. A tendency to think that it is possible to do theology relatively uninfluenced by history and culture (antihistoricist), and a recoiling from the idea that every doctrinal and theological formulation or method is culturally embedded, as they believe in and look for a transcultural expression of the gospel.
  9. A tendency to remain tied to fundamentalist roots (even though they would prefer not to use that term) in use of tactics such as harsh, polemical rhetoric and angry denunciations or ad hominum arguments when writing about fellow evangelicals with whom they disagree.
  10. A tendency to do theology in the grip of fear of liberal theology and insistence on placing every theologian or theological proposal on the spectrum of left to right as defined by attitudes towards modernity, with liberal theology representing maximal accommodation to modernity.

Olson also points to two “mediating evangelical theologians” who don’t totally fit into either camp:

  • Donald Bloesch, whom conservatives are fond of because of his strongly confessional stance and defense of traditional doctrinal formulations, but who can also be considered progressive because he denies biblical inerrancy and leans toward Karl Barth in a form of “evangelical neoorthodoxy.”
  • Alister McGrath, who is also defensive of traditional orthodoxy and reluctant to express support for theological innovation, but critical of the influence of modern rationalism on theology which craves certainty through empirical-historical evidences or logical deduction from a priori truths (rational presuppositions).

Olson ends his introduction by pointing out two groups which are vying for the attention of a new generation of evangelicals:  a fairly aggressive form of Reformed theology with a strongly Puritan flavor, influenced by Packer, R.C. Sproul, John Piper & Carson; and the emerging church network, led by Brian McLaren.

So now what does the postconservative approach look like?  That will have to wait until the next post.  However, since I’ve laid out so many names already, I will add those theologians whom Olson labels “postconservative” who are influenced by the last-generation theologians Bernard Ramm and Lesslie Newbigin, as well as philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, including:

  • Stanley Grenz (deceased)
  • Clark Pinnock (deceased)
  • Kevin Vanhoozer
  • John Sanders
  • John Franke
  • Nancey Murphy
  • James McClendon (deceased)
  • Miroslav Volf
  • Brian McLaren
  • Rodney Clapp
  • Greg Boyd

[Part II available here]

The State I Am In (or, I’m so bored with the C.E.E.)

“And so I gave myself to God; there was a pregnant pause before he said…’Ok.'” — Belle & Sebastian, from ‘The State I Am In’

For a while now, I have been feeling somewhat disconnected from the theological tradition in which I was raised—namely, conservative evangelicalism (or, as I suspiciously call it now, the Conservative Evangelical Establishment).  When I described my religious views on Facebook a while back as “evangelical-esque,” it became even more clear to me that I was uncomfortable aligning myself with a term that most of my community seemed to embrace with no anxiety.

It wasn’t that my conservative evangelical church or my friends were the problem, though occasionally my squeamishness would rear its head in those contexts.  My contention was more with certain types of people who seemed to speak VERY LOUDLY (or at least wear their merchandise) in the public square as representatives of all evangelicals, and even certain leaders within the movement (and I’m not talking about Pat Robertson and the “God Hates Fags” nuts, cause I’m pretty sure they are universally despised).  The types of people I was looking to distance myself from (and I KNOW this is going to be incredibly patronizing, harsh & self-righteous) include, but are not limited to the following:

  • “know-it-all” dogmatic polemicists (usually those who aRE FORMED in a certain theological system—ouch, sorry Calvinist buddies [not because you are this way, but these may include some of your heroes]—but also including a fair share of thinkers of other stripes, who like to think they are God’s gift to orthodox doctrine and love the way the words “heretical” and “heterodox,” if not “compromised Christianity,” roll off the tongue)
  • zealous morality crusaders (whose calling it is to inform non-Christians how they ought to behave as if they were Christians [Yes on Prop. 8 fanatics…and I mean the ones who acted like the world was going to end if it didn’t pass] and to remind loose-living, backsliding “carnal” Christians what a wet blanket, parade-pissing killjoy Jesus wants them to be)
  • Americangelicals (a word I believe I just coined, describing those who believe America is [or should return to being] a Christian nation, flag displayed in the church, patriotic songs sung in a worship service while F-22’s soar behind the projected lyrics, who usually end up acting as useful idiots to the Republican Party—ouch, sorry GOP buddies, of which I have been one my whole life!)
  • sentimentalists (collecting Precious Moments figurine versions of Moses, Jesus, and probably Satan) and other cheesy, tasteless simpletons (unlicensed stickers of Bill Watterson’s Calvin praying on the rear window, NOTW belt buckles, Left Behind novels, Contemporary Christian Music—ouch, sorry 80% of my extended family and acquaintances!)

Obviously these are caricatures of modern conservative evangelicals—however, you’d be surprised at how little scratching at the surface of the seemingly normal Joe Q. Evangelical in the pew next to you it takes to reveal the crazy-eyed & mushy-brained undercover fundy-brother beneath!  (If you doubt me, watch the documentary films Jesus Camp or Hell House, or read the article ‘Jesus Made Me Puke‘ or the book The Unlikely Disciple.  I know some may think I’m a-feared of “the world” thinking that I’m different and ashamed of the gospel, but I’m more scared of my children ever behaving in a manner that anyone with two neurons to rub together can readily see as gross over-simplification and reductionistic pig-headedness!  NOTE:  It has occurred to me that perhaps I am over-simplifying too.)

SO what’s to be done, I ask?  I’m obviously bitter (mainly because these kinds of voices tend to hold the power and the pocketbook in C.E.E. institutions) and disenfranchised to a great extent (this comes as no surprise to those who hear this whole tirade in reply to the question, “How are things going?”).  Where do I go, what do I do?

Do I bail from the C.E.E. and forge into other religious communities (the high church, the paleo-orthodox, the liberal)?  Do I try to work out my issues within the C.E.E. system while experiencing this incredible and often unbearable theological and intellectual, not to mention aesthetic, cultural and moral tension (the whole, “the church is a whore, the church is my mother” high-wire act)?  Do I go into exile from my community for a period and either come back head-in-hands repentant or fire-breathing prophetic?

I’m not sure as of yet.  And I ask all of these questions rhetorically and with only a mild sense of the exasperation that my critical, angry-young-man posture must produce in those who have sat and listened, responded patiently and gently so many, many times in these past years and even read this now.

In the midst of all of my frustration with the evangelical label, I am so grateful for the thoughtful brothers I have who will hear me bark and scowl and rage and who will even then pray for me, even in the midst of their own frustration WITH me, and whom I believe God will use to help me sort this out…my dear Matthew, Ryan, Dan, David, and Wade.  I definitely need to spend some time with Les & Steve in the near future, and am so grateful for my flesh & blood brother Mark, who is sometimes a comrade-in-arms, sometimes a sparring partner.  Finally, I am thankful for the inspiration of my dearly loved Elijah, who is so much younger & so much wiser than I am, sadly thousands of miles away.  I love you all and ask you, along with any dear reader to come across these longing and hurting words, to hope for me in figuring out where I am, where I am headed, and where I am wrong-headed…in the state I am in.

The Reading List (I Get High with a Little Help from My Books)

Somehow, these last few months, I have turned into a complete theology/church book junkie.  I mean, I’ve always picked up a few books every month, but this is different–I feel like a tweaker in a meth lab…cause it’s like I want to read them ALL SIMULTANEOUSLY!  Each one seems so incredibly necessary to think through in my current state of mind (which I’m planning on writing about soon).

Anyhow, some friends had asked for me to let them know what I was reading & so I thought I’d kill two birds single-stonedly by describing/potentially recommending some of the titles here on Lost In the Cloud (for it is a rather theological kind of a cloud we’re lost in here).  If any of you would like to read concurrently with me & discuss in some fashion (coffee house, email, Skype), I’d be happy to have a dialogue partner. Simply comment or email me at greg.stump22 (at) gmail.com…

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (David Dark):  The title alone pretty much sums up the theological state I am in (not at all in a “does God exist” sort of way, but rather a “what exactly do I believe about almost every secondary & tertiary theological issue imaginable” sense) and Dark’s talk of “redemptive skepticism” and critique of “imagined infallibility” will be stimulating for anyone feeling trapped in insular non-conversations in their Christian institutions.  It also doesn’t hurt that he has an extended analysis of an Arcade Fire song & highlights the way that comedy news (Stewart/Colbert) seems more acute and honest (in its satire) than most “real” journalism today.

The Blue Parakeet (Scot McKnight):  A quote on the back is something many of you may have heard me say years ago:  “What if I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative?”  This is a no man’s land that I have often found myself wandering in, feeling alone at first but then bumping into others who’ve strayed from their front lines as well.  In short, McKnight is proposing an alternative to the know-it-all fundamentalist or the weightless, naive liberal in terms of approaching scripture.  It’s probably not as radical as it sounds, but I’m interested.

Embodying Our Faith (Tim Morey):  I took a class with Tim during a Talbot summer session a couple years back called “Disciplemaking in a Postmodern Context” and that is just what this amazing guy does as the pastor of Life Covenant Church in the South Bay area and in his role as a coach to church planters.  His book sees the necessity of faith to be “experiential, communal, and enacted” in the church and I am highly anticipating the kind of rewarding a-ha moments from reading it that I experienced in his course.

Organic Church (Neil Cole):  I’m actually attending the church that meets at Neil’s home on a regular basis, where he graciously gave me a copy of this seminal work on the contemporary disciple/leader/church multiplication movement. He is pretty much dialed in to everyone leading out in the house church/simple church/organic church effort & this book is making a ton of sense to me philosophically.  I went to a conference Neil’s organization put on about “missional movements” where I picked up a book by the other speaker entitled:

Exiles (Michael Frost):  This man inspired me as I’ve not felt in many years.  Brilliant Aussie thinker/seminary prof/missional church practitioner who also co-wrote a foundational book, The Shaping of Things to Come.  I have not read one sentence yet, but if it’s a tenth as good as his talk, I will profoundly benefit.  I’m reading this with the inimitable Andrew Faris.

Deep Church (Jim Belcher):  “A third way (of being the church) beyond emerging and traditional.”  My good friend Pat Saia is reading this for his Doctorate of Ministry program at Fuller, so I’m looking forward to more conversations at the La Mirada Civic Center flame on the ideas in this book.

The Courage to Be Protestant (David Wells) & Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Kevin DeYount & Ted Kluck):  In contrast to all these angry-young-Christian, “let’s set fire to the way things are” types, my dear friend (and to be honest, mentor) Matt Rouse purchased these two swimming-against-the-postmodern-Christian-stream books for me to read and dialogue on.  This is exactly the kind of thing a rouge (self-proclaimed) like myself needs to maintain an open ear/mind to in the midst of my tradition-agnosticism.  I love Matt for challenging me and look forward to learning from these authors…while probably also having a hard time swallowing both their ideas and my pride in the process.

The next layer includes:

  • Evangelical Futures (ed. John Stackhouse)
  • The Lost World of Genesis One (John Walton)
  • The Tangible Kingdom (Hugh Halter and Matt Smay)
  • Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts & Interpret Trends (ed. Kevin Vanhoozer)
  • Who Can Be Saved? (Terrance Tiessen)
  • Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (ed. Stanley Gundry and Gary Meadors)

The most important book I am currently reading is Reformed and Always Reforming by one of my theological heroes, Roger Olson (who incidentally looks like a total nerd on his book jacket).  But this book will need a post of it’s own, soon to follow.  Let me know if you’re interested in reading any of these together…cause the first one is always free.

Inglourious Propoganda

I saw the film Inglourious Basterds the other day, upon the recommendation of a number of friends.  I left the theater feeling two simultaneous and somewhat contradictory feelings (in a word: ambivalent).  On the one hand, I “enjoyed” the film:  the tension-building dialogues exploding in a climactic release (apologies for the sexual undertones there), the hip, “anything goes” approach to style (anachronistic soundtrack, insider cameos, visual homage, etc.) and the powerful archetypal film characters (the bad ass soldiers, the avenging victim, the brilliant psychopath, etc.).  It was an incredibly well-made film, but it also gave me exactly what I would want (on one level) from a movie about people taking on the Nazis.  [SPOILER ALERT]  The Nazis get SLAUGHTERED!  The good guys win, and even if some of them died in the process, it was heroically in the act of destroying some of the most evil people in history.

inglourious-basterds-poster

But this is where the contradictory feeling came in.  It felt wrong to enjoy the massacre of Nazis.  (There was some part of me that felt like I was watching Team America: World Police without realizing it was a satire of American military arrogance.)

The scene that came back to me as I was reflecting on the film & realizing my ambivalence was when Hitler, Goebbels & the Nazi elite were watching the film within the film about the young Nazi war hero who killed 300 Allied soldiers from a tower.  Repeatedly, we watch the Nazis applauding scenes of the sniper picking off his attackers (probably Americans) and we scoff at this propagandistic depiction of violence against the enemy, portrayed as inhuman, anonymous targets for the hero to destroy.  Even the young Nazi hero seems to feel disdain for the way this is portrayed…

Though I did not find it ironic at the time, subsequently, we as the audience are treated to the sight of these Nazi filmgoers being burned to death & shot down like fish in a barrel by  Jewish soldiers (along with a highly fetishized moment of actor Eli Roth ripping Hitler’s face apart with a hail (heil?) of bullets).  It seems implicit that we will cheer this on, indeed, the whole film feels like a set-up for a moment that we can hardly believe could end this way (knowing actual history as we do).  Of course, it was an “alternate history” reality we see occurring, but it felt so much more satisfying than what actually happened.  However, I began to wonder how we as the filmgoers were much different from the Nazi movie audience cheering the death of Allied soldiers.

This led me to see the director of IB, Quentin Tarantino, as a sort of Joseph Goebbels figure of American populist cinema (depicting simplistic good/evil characters, giving an audience what it wants, using techniques–such as the score, B-movie conventions, etc.–to tap into the collective audience subconscious and manipulate them to the filmmaker’s ends), which oddly then, would make Harvey Weinstein, a Jew,  the Hitler figure…although I suppose it’s not completely surprising as he has been seen as a bit of a fascist dictator in the filmmaking business.

The film had a number of role reversals of Nazi for Jew (Aldo referring to Nazi’s as “not human”, the brutal beatings/casual executions of German soldiers, all of the Nazi’s being burned to death similar to the crematoriums), which made me feel like I was being set up/propogandized to applaud the same thing for the Nazis which I lamented for the Jews. I may be seeing something that is not there at all, but it seems like to take this film simply as a “revenge fantasy film” for Jews (see reactions from descendants of Holocaust survivors and Rabbis here)  lacks a certain amount of incredulity that a savvy director such as QT would expect.  Am I supposed to resist my enjoyment of this slice of fantasy justice, or give into it and become implicitly akin to the Nazi filmgoers?

Anyhow, regardless of whether I have appropriately interpreted this sequence of scenes, I would recommend anyone else who “enjoyed” watching all of the Nazis get killed as inhuman representations of pure evil to watch a film like Stalingrad where the audience follows young German soldiers, who don’t seem as gung ho about the 3rd Reich as we usually see in films, heading to the Russian front where they are led like sheep to a slaughter.  Anyone associated with the Nazi regime certainly finds themselves on the wrong side of history,  but we may need to be careful to allow ourselves to be duped into seeing ANYONE as less than human…even those who we feel like are the worst people in history.

Suspension of (Dissing) Belief

I came across a quote by the 13th century Persian mystic Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muḥammad Balkhi (whom we commonly refer to as “Rumi”) which began thusly:

Out beyond ideas of
wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

It started me thinking whether or not there was actually some way to sit for a period of time with people whom you think are absolutely wrong & simply be with them, to listen and understand without judging or evaluating (activities which we surely must do at some point, particularly if we find that someone is sexually attracted to underage children!).

I know that if I were a relativist, this would be a (almost said “relatively”) simple exercise, as long as someone did not presume to believe that something was ACTUALLY true!  And though I may belong to the tribe of Moral Absolutists (though qualifying myself as someone who believes in “graded absolutism”), I tend toward the view that while there are certainly absolute truths, I am not someone who has taken hold of all of them correctly and so I have to maintain a degree of humility toward other perspectives.  However, this makes the prospect of “dialogue” a bit more difficult.  People who believe certain things are true seem to want to PERSUADE others to believe the same thing that they do.  However, often in conversation where there is deep disagreement, this seems to lead to an inability to truly listen to and attempt to understand a different perspective, but rather becomes merely an exercise waiting one’s turn and thinking of one’s own argument while the other person is speaking.

For instance, if I were speaking with someone who absolutely did not agree that a child in the womb was a human being in any sense of the word, it would be difficult to listen to their views and ask clarifying questions, without responding with my perspective at all.  Yet there is something in me, the part that was intrigued by the Rumi quote, that wonders if this actually might be a good exercise.  Proverbs 18.13 says that “he who answers before listening–that is his folly and shame.”  James, the brother of Jesus, commanded that we should be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1.19).  Maybe delaying our response and simply sitting with someone would be a way to practice these ideas.  After all, do we really think that we are going to convince another person to believe differently by cutting down their points as they are speaking?  Would they be more willing to listen to our ideas at a later time if they felt like we were truly making the effort to understand where they were coming from, without needing to immediately “correct” them?

This sort of ideological “suspension of belief” reminds me of a film I saw in the early 90’s called “A Midnight Clear.”  Without going into too much detail, it is set during winter in the Ardennes forest during World War II & contains a moment where American and German troops encounter one another, prepared to go to kill one another, but instead end up in a snowball fight and singing “Silent Night” together.  It’s an incredible scene, but makes the tragic ending of the film even more poignant, as the fighting later resumes…

Maybe this is the thing that is so difficult.  Seeing the enemy whom we want to defeat as a person, with deeply held beliefs, passions and feelings just like we do…I want to think more about this, but it’s a start.

ELIJAH ADDS: Great post and I wholeheartedly agree.  I once received advice from a mentor and professor of mine while in college, Ken Berding, which pertained primarily to relationships.  His advice was generally this: that when in a dispute or discussion find an object like a pen or something you could hold in your hand.  One person has the right to speak first–we’ll call him Alfred–and Alfred holds the pen while speaking.  The other person (whom we’ll call Beatriz) may not speak while Alfred has the pen.  When Alfred has made his case he passes the pen to Beatriz.  At this point Beatriz must repeat the case that Alfred has made according to her understanding.  If Alfred does not believe that his expression has been properly heard he may take the pen back and clarify.  When Beatriz finally expresses Alfred’s point(s) to his satisfaction she holds onto the pen and can now articulate her response. If only we entered a debate with such respect and humility.

But in our culture to be changed when faced with a challenge is shameful.  When two people debate in our culture no one wins, for neither party has become enlightened and neither party has been heard.