February 24, 2008 Commentary:
I Come to the Garden Alone
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. Citing examples from TV, pop music, and best-selling books an article in Entertainment Weekly noted that pop-culture's going gaga for spirituality. However, the writer tells us, "Seekers of the day are apt to peel away the tough theological stuff and pluck out the most dulcet elements of faith, coming up with a soothing sampler of Judeo-Christian imagery, Eastern mediation, self-help lingo, a vaguely conservative craving for virtue, and a loopy new-age pursuit of peace. This happy free-for-all appealing to Baptists and star-gazers alike comes off more like Forrest Gump's ubiquitous box of chocolates than like any real system of belief, 'You never know what you're gonna get.'"
The search for the sacred has becoming a recurring cover-story for national news magazines for a lot of time now. Not only historians and sociologists but novelists are writing about the Gnostic character of the "soup" we call Christianity in the United States today. In an article in Harpers, "Hot Air Gods", very recently, in fact, December 2007, Curtis White describes our situation pretty well. "When we assert this is my belief," says White "we're invoking our right to have our own private conviction no matter how ridiculous, not only tolerated politically, but respected by others. It says 'I've invested a lot of emotional energy in this belief and in a way I stake the credibility of my life on it. So If you ridicule it you can expect a fight.' In this kind of culture," says White "Yahweh and Baal, my God and yours, stroll arm-in-arm as if to do so were the model of virtue itself." He goes on to say, "what we require of belief is not that it makes sense, but that it be sincere. This is so even for our more secular convictions. Clearly this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy, but it's sort of a workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal box-top and five dollars. And yet in our culture to suggest that such belief isn't deserving of respect makes people anxious, an anxiety that expresses itself in a desperate sincerity with which we deliver life's little lessons. There is an obvious problem with this form of spirituality, it takes place in isolation. Each of us sits at our computer terminal tapping out our convictions. Consequently it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy, it is heresy as orthodoxy.
When the political freedom of religion has been broadened to the dogma that everyone is free to believe whatever she likes," says White "there is no real shared conviction at all and hence no church, certainly no community. Strangely our freedom to believe has achieved the condition that Nietzsche called 'nihilism', but by a root he never imagined. While European Nihilists just denied God, American Nihilism is something different. Our Nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It's all good." White poignantly concludes his essay, "we would prefer to be left alone. Warmed by our beliefs that make no sense, whether they are the quotidian platitudes of ordinary Americans, the magical thinking of Evangelicals, the mystical thinking of New-Age Gnostics, the teary-eyed patriotism of Conservatives, or the perfervid loyalty of the rich to their free-market mammon. We are thus the congregation of the church of the infinitely fractured, splendidly alone together. And apparently that 's how we like it. Our pluralism of belief says both to ourselves and to other s 'keep your distance.' And isn't this all strangely familiar? Aren't these all the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted - the cults of the 'hot air gods?' The gods that couldn't scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgent, and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish here. And yet God is abandoned."
That comes from a non-Christian and the magazine Harpers. So the search for the sacred is really another round of American heresy as orthodoxy. The flight of the lonely Gnostic soul from nowhere to nowhere. We are prisoners of our own subjectivity confined to the lonely cell of our limited experiences expectations, and felt needs. We are going to talk about this as part of the situation in America that we are calling today "Christless Christianity."
February 17, 2008 Commentary:
What Would Moses Do?
Welcome to another broadcast of The White Horse Inn. What would Moses do? We've all heard sermons especially from the Old Testament on the faithfulness of Abraham, David's heart for God, Joshua's leadership, and we were encouraged to "dare to be a Daniel." But the Bible is nothing like Aesop's fables, you know, a story to illustrate a moral point. Abraham was in many ways a moral failure, even his willingness to sacrifice Isaac wasn't an example for us, but was an occasion for God to foreshadow Christ as the ram caught in the thicket so that Isaac and the rest of us could go free. Moses was God's man, but waivered under the burden and was barred from leading God's people into Canaan. Joshua is not a source for leadership principles unless we are planning on leading a campaign of destruction against idolatrous nations in order to establish righteousness in God's Holy Land. Yet read in light of the history of redemption, Joshua and his ministry point forward to Jesus and his person and work. David can only ambiguously be held up as a heroic example because of his failures in fact, God didn't allow him to build the temple but gave this honor to his son Solomon. David's main role in the story was to pre-stage his greater son who assumed the everlasting throne that God promised to David's heir.
Given the moralistic expectations often assumed, it is no wonder that people find the Old Testament boring and much of the New Testament incomprehensible. Contrast this approach, that I've just mentioned, to Luther's interpretation of the story of David and Goliath. "When David overcame the great Goliath there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been stuck down, and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace. And they sang and danced and were glad for it. Thus this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report sounded forth into all the world by the apostles telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil and overcame them and thereby rescued all those who were captivate in sin, afflicted with death and overpowered by the devil."
As Grahame Goldsworthy comments, "the important thing to note is that Luther has made here the link between the saving acts of God through David and the saving acts of God through Christ. Once we see that connection it is impossible to use David as a mere model for Christian living, since his victory was vicarious and the Israelites could only rejoice in what was won for them. In terms of our interpretive principles we see David's victory as a salvation event in that the existence of the people of God in the Promised Land was at stake."
So see instead of drawing a straight line of application from the narrative to us, which typically moralizes or allegorizes these stories, we are taught by Jesus himself to understand these passages in light of their place in the unfolding drama of redemption that leads to Christ. Moralistic preaching, the bane of conservatives and liberals alike, assumes that we're not really not helpless sinners that need to be rescued, but decent folks who just need a few good examples, exhortations, and instructions. However, Goldsworthy continues, "we are not saved by our changed lives, the changed life is the result of being saved and not the basis of it. The basis of salvation is the perfection in the life and death of Christ presented in our place. By reverting to either allegorical interpretation on the one hand or to prophetic literalism on the other some Evangelicals have thrown away the hermeneutical gains of the Reformers in favor of a Medieval approach to the Bible. Evangelicals have had a reputation for taking the Bible seriously," Grahame Goldsworthy concludes, "but even they have traditionally propagated the idea of the short devotional reading from which a blessing from the Lord must be rested." Goldsworthy calls attention to the difference between this message and Reformation Christianity. "The pivotal point of turning in Evangelical thinking which demand close attention is the change that has taken place from the Protestant emphasis upon on the objective facts of the gospel in history to the Medieval emphasis on the inner life. The Evangelical who sees the inward transforming work of the Spirit as the key element of Christianity will soon loose contact with the historic Christian faith and the historic gospel. Inner directed Christianity which reduces the gospel to the level of every other religion of the inner man might well use a text from the Apocrypha to serve as its own epitaph for the Reformers, "there are others who are remembered; they are dead and it is as if they never existed." This is our subject as we take up a very important question: how do we interpret the Old Testament? Do we moralize the Old Testament? Do we read it as the story of Christ, unfolding witness to Jesus Christ in history, or do we use the Old Testament to create examples for us to imitate for our own stories of transformed life?
February 10, 2008 Commentary:
Good Advice vs. Good News
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of The White Horse Inn. "Turning good news into good advice," that is this program as we are continuing our series "Christless Christianity" taking a look in 2008 at some of the ways in which the gospel's being distorted, not just in one particular church or denomination, but really across the whole spectrum; from conservative to liberal, from Catholic to Protestant. And you know it's no wonder that the average person today assumes that all religions basically say the same thing and that singling one out as the only truth is arrogant. After all who doesn't believe in the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?" The moral law that we find in the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments, is quite similar to the codes of other religions and can be found in civilizations that pre-date the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. If religion is basically ethics-- getting people to do the right thing-- then why get uptight over the different historical forms, doctrines, rituals, and practices that distinguish one version of morality from another? Reduce Christianity to good advice and it blends in perfectly well with the culture of "life coaching." Sounding a lot like Dr. Laura, Dr. Phil, Oprah, or Martha Stewart might make it seem relevant, but it's actually lost in the sea of moralistic therapies. When we pitch Christianity as the best method of personal improvement, complete with testimonies about how much better we are since we surrendered all, non-Christians can legitimately demand of us what right do you have to say that yours is the only source of happiness, meaning and exciting experiences or moral betterment? Jesus is clearly not the only effective way to a "better life now," or to "being a better me."
What distinguishes Christianity at its heart is not its moral code, but its story. A story of a Creator who although rejected by those he created in his image stooped to reconcile them to himself through his Son. This isn't a story about the individual's heavenward progress, but the recital of historical events, of God's incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and return and the exploration of their rich significance. At its heart, this story is a gospel, the good news that God has reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. And that's why the gospel has to be proclaimed. News is a particular kind of communication. It comes to us from the outside taking us away from our preoccupations to hear about something that has happened. If Christianity is not centrally "good news", this proclamation of Jesus Christ, then it can be turned into "good advice." You certainly don't need preachers, you certainly don't need witness or testimony to events that have occurred in the past, all you need is a little advice. It's not incidental then that the story of redemption is called "good news. " If it were merely information or a program for self-improvement it would be called something like "good philosophy" or "good enlightenment," but it's "good news" because it is an announcement that something, someone else has already achieved for us. When we are distracted from this commission we begin to think of ourselves not as ambassadors of a great king, and witnesses to that which someone else has accomplished for us, but we become the stars of the show; instead of reporting the news, we become the news. In fact today we hear Christians speak of "living the gospel" and "being the gospel," as if anything we do, and are, or can be is worthy of being considered a supplement to God's victory in Jesus Christ. Instead of ambassadors, heralds, reporters, and witnesses, we can easily become entrepreneurs, managers, coaches, therapists, marketing and communication specialists who are selling the gospel. And we believe at the WHI that a lot this that we are talking about here, a lot of the distortions these days of consumerism, of pop psychology, the therapeutic approach to religion , all of these things ultimately can happen because we confuse the Law with the Gospel. We forget that the gospel is an announcement rather than another piece of advice.
February 3, 2008 Commentary:
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. Well there's no business like show business. And from the look of things, the church in America agrees. I don't even need to recount examples in order to substantiate that claim. If you have been around a fair number of churches these days you are bound to know what I am talking about. I used to think that American Christianity was just accommodating to the general cultural trend that Neil Postman described in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. But after reading a spate of culture histories, have come to realize that the church actually helped create our culture of entertainment. Once upon a time the church was the only show in town, for rich and poor, princes and peasants the spectacle of the Medieval Mass was high drama. In fact the relative difficulty of the Reformation in reaching the lowest classes was probably to some extent at least due to the attachment of the masses to mysterious rituals, processions, morality plays, and similar attractions. Convinced that the Bible should be heard, read, and understood by everybody in their own language the Reformers introduced Europe to wide-scale literacy with an emphasis on an educated ministry for a well instructed laity.
In New England Puritan sermons regularly lasted two hours. By law a tavern was set within walking distance from every church so that the people could refresh themselves in between sermons. The whole day was spent in preaching, teaching, the Lord Supper celebrated weekly, and conversation. Like any regular practice these routines could become rote and burdensome, but there is little evidence that suggests people were as weary of this weekly event as many seem to be of traditional churches these days. In fact this church practice helped shape a literate, thoughtful, and creative culture. Things changed by the 1700s though, responding in part to the decay of genuine heart-felt piety as well as growing religious skepticism Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield proclaimed the gospel of God's free salvation in Christ and the results were pretty staggering,. In fact it has been called the Great Awakening. Hardly a stand-up comic, Edwards was a dud by our standards of public speaking today. Clinching his manuscript that he read in a high-pitch monotone style it was obviously the content that stood out. Whitfield was different. His friend Benjamin Franklin one said he could make you swoon just by just pronouncing the word "Mesopotamia." Although Whitfield's message was shaped by his Calvinistic convictions he was America's first religious celebrity and he used his remarkable gifts of entrepreneurial leadership, personal charisma, and media savvy to woo huge audiences. According to one historian, Whitfield created the newspaper's religion page. The ordinary church with its ordinary ministers seemed well, increasingly ordinary! People now began to look for the next big thing. And it came, it was called the Second Great Awakening.
Only this time the message was radically different. No longer a surprising work of God, Revival was the calculated result of the evangelistic technology. Like the medieval mass, Revival meetings became the biggest show in town, although with a lot less demeanor. According to reports woman' combs flew in the air, men howled like dogs as if treeing a squirrel, and everyone was filled with what they called holy laughter. Evidently, it was a sight to behold. Taking this movement to a new level , Charles G. Finney invented what he called "The New Measures." Rejecting all vestiges of Calvinism Finney said that a Revival is not a miracle or dependent on a miracle in any sense; it is simply the philosophical result of the right use of means like anything else. Therefore, he said we have to find methods sufficient to induce sinners to repentance. Finney reports that he once reduced a room full of factory girls to hysteria-- the Beatles had nothing on Finney. It was from Finney' s revivals that American Evangelicalism inherited the altar call, special music, carefully choreographed meetings where planned outbursts were made to look spontaneous, and the chancel bearing the furniture of the means of grace was turned into a stage.
Following in Finney's wake, evangelists like D. L. Moody made their meetings significant events in cities across the growing nation, in fact, P.T. Barnum of circus fame even built the tents. Baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday thundered his jeremiads against alcohol and education with crowd pleasing imitations of a batter hitting a ball out of the park. Maybe that's why revivalism, especially its Pentecostal variety, has done so well with television and we are on radio! Lutheranism and Calvinism just don't play very well on the screen. Maybe that is just what we will have to live with in exchange for being captive to that word above all earthly powers.
Our subject is "That's Entertainment: Confusing Church and Theater from Finney to the present."