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Making the Switch

We need your help, dear readers, for a future issue of Modern Reformation magazine.

Have you made the switch from a broadly evangelical megachurch to a church in one of the Reformation traditions that does ministry…shall we say, slightly differently?

We’re particularly interested in hearing from people who were on staff at church A and now are working in some form or fashion at church B. We want to ask some questions about the differences, the similarities, and the challenges with making the switch.

Even if you weren’t on staff at the megachurch, but have recently made the switch yourself from megachurch to a Reformational church, we’d like to hear about your experience, too. What led to the switch, how have you adjusted, what do you miss, what have you gained?

Feel free to leave a comment or send us an email at editor@modernreformation.org.

Thanks!

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Secularization In ‘Christian’ America (Part 2)

(This is the second half of the abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization”  from Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R Publishing).  To read Part 1, click this.)

RepublocratSecularization, Subtle and Speciously Orthodox

Yet there are other ways that secular values creep in to orthodox churches. This point has been made again and again by David Wells, the retired professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary, starting with No Place for Truth (1993) and finishing with The Courage to be Protestant (1998). In this latter book, in many ways a summary of his thesis as a whole, David points towards the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of ‘values’ for morals, and the rise of a me-first individual rights culture has come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. On his account, both megachurches and Emergent churches represent not so much counter-cultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. The former is the church’s equivalent of the big box store with its careful managerial techniques and pragmatic, market-driven, pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap mentality; while the Emergent churches (representing a reaction to such crass consumerism) have actually imbibed the slippery epistemologies and eclecticism of postmodernism, which is itself arguably connected to consumerism.

David Wells’ indictment is damning: what he argues is that many churches are as secular in their ambitions and methods as any straightforwardly secular organization. The difference, we might perhaps say, is that the latter are just a whole lot more honest about what they are doing. But, while David’s criticisms are primarily focused on megachurches in the church growth/ Willow Creek tradition and on what we might, for want of a better term, call the evangelical left, is there a case to be made for saying that secular values also pervade the churches which at least think of themselves as traditionally Protestant in the way that David favors?

I believe so, and in a number of significant ways. First, take the ‘rights’ culture which is so typical of the wider world in which we live, where litigation and lobby groups seem to proliferate. Certainly, we can all express dismay at the people who are so inept that they do not realize coffee is hot and, to their great surprise, burn themselves when they spill it and then proceed to sue the vendor for not telling them about the temperature of the steaming liquid in their cups. We have all no doubt rolled our eyes at the latest innocuous action of some employer which has been deemed offensive – and therefore oppressive – to whatever the minority of the month is. There is a clear silliness going here; after all, if I took offense and felt oppressed and psychologically damaged every time an American comedian made a joke about British dentistry, I would never have the emotional energy to lift myself out of bed in the morning.

But rights culture is no monopoly of the Left in either politics or the church. The Left may have their rights to a completely secular public space, to abortion, to gay marriage, but the Right too has its litany of rights as well: to carrying firearms, to cheap gas, to minimal taxation. Now, let me be clear: I am not here drawing any moral equivalence between any one of the rights and any other; what I am pointing out is the way in which the language of Left and Right is typically couched in that of individual rights, whatever the specific issues involved might be.

This plays itself out in the church. What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?

The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger then me and my own agenda; and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.

There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of mutual commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.

That is surely the reason why this is the vow that strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow which has been most weakened by that thing which lies at the very heart of the American dream: the automobile.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church; and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, with its radical individualism as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.

A nation which has a profound sense of the Frontier, of the need for each person to look after themselves, and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of America government which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all of its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core; hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be very suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over in to the church; and, when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of  ‘I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture’ mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and rive to the next church where I can better preserve my anonymity.

The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond

Another area where a secular mentality impacts the church is the identification of the nation of America with God’s special people. Again, I need to be clear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that those Christians who want a place in the public square for the Christian voice are guilty of a secular mindset; many of such simply want their faith to shape the way they think politically, and that is a perfectly legitimate notion. Nor am I concerned with those Christians who are also strongly patriotic; patriotism, love for one’s homeland, is a generally a good thing as long as it does not morph into an uncritical nationalism or racism. What concerns me is the so-called extreme wing of the ‘Christian America’ type movements, where the boundary between church, state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred. An extreme example is provided by the editors of the Patriot’s Bible, an edition of God’s word which is sold on the basis of its connection to the founding of the USA. Even if we set aside the problem of connecting the American Revolution to Paul’s teaching on civil obedience in Rom. 13, the promotional video for the Bible is stunning. A series of images and captions make the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington – first families; Moses and Lincoln – freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress – Founding Fathers. In case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the statement, `Sometimes history does repeat itself.’ Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the United States or any other nation, for that matter. To claim such is puerile, blasphemous nonsense, as bad, if not worse, as anything Osteen might say in a sermon; and it represents nothing other than the secularization of the gospel message to an idolatrous degree.

Yet even the Patriot’s Bible pales in comparison to a painting entitled ‘One Nation Under God,’ which portrays holding the US Constitution, surrounded by figures from American history, including the noted Deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Now, I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not, and to include them pictorially in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous and, quite frankly, risible. It would be fascinating to know what the artist’s view of the faith is: presumably some form of Unitarianism? Patriotism is a civic virtue, and certainly not in itself sinful; but make no mistake – notions of patriotism, so dear to the American Right, can also stand alongside the most secular and heretical visions of Christianity, and can even co-opt such as part of their agenda.

The Celebrity Syndrome

One final aspect of the secular nature of much conservative Christianity is its increasing preoccupation with superstars. This is important, because so often we identify the secular mindset with content – prosperity doctrine, social gospel, straight-down-the-line anti-supernatural liberalism; sometimes, however, the secular mindset is evident not so much in content but in form, a more slippery and surreptitious thing; and it is in this category that I would place the superstar phenomenon. Confessional superstars might be thoroughly orthodox; they may even not like being superstars; but the people and churches who treat them as such betray the creeping secularism in their own mindsets.

Paul is very clear in his letters to the Corinthians. Corninth was a culture where orators, public speakers, were the rock stars of their day. They prided themselves on their ability to declaim eloquently on any given topic, they attracted disciples and fans, and they carried weight within the wider culture. The problem Paul highlights in the Corinthian church, particularly in his first letter, is that members of the church were using the standards of the secular world in order to judge the quality of their own church leaders. The result was a set of factions, or perhaps even better, fan clubs, within the church, focused on different great preachers; and Paul, being, according to his own account, not a physically or rhetorically impressive man, was being dismissed as a second-rater. We can perhaps summarize the Corinthian problem by saying that the church had developed an essentially secular mentality: the criteria of the non-Christian world that surrounded them had come to control how they thought about the ministry and its representatives.

Cults of personality are very bad things; the role of the preacher is to point to Christ and, in that context, to be as invisible as possible. The preacher who brings attention to himself would seem to be, by Paul’s standards, a failure; more than that, a congregation which focuses on the preacher has failed to understand the power and logic of the cross and has capitulated to a secular mindset. Yet the conservative church in America is, arguably, driven to a large extent by such cults of personality.

There are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards this. First, there is the number of parachurch ministries that have sprung up which are focused on the big personality, and frequently named after said personality. Ironically, the movement popularly known as the Young, Restless and Reformed is in the vanguard of such celebrity dominated ministry.  Then there is the proliferation of big conferences with big name speakers, again a staple of the YRR. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such; but it is clear from even a casual glance at the internet or even conversation after church that these things have fostered a church equivalent of stardom where it is not the gospel or even the church that provides the focal point, but Speaker X or Speaker Y. It has also fed in to a church culture where a few high-profile celebrity pastors and scholars seem to believe that no issue has been properly addressed until they have definitively spoken to it.  Such power plays are profoundly secular.

It is very clear that the Lord has blessed the church of today with some remarkably talented individuals who have been used to do remarkable things. One thinks of Tim Keller in New York or  John Piper in Minneapolis. The danger is that, in focusing on such men, we create unrealistic expectations and distorted notions of what normative ministry should be: the evidence that the church models developed by these men can be transplanted with success elsewhere is highly equivocal; more likely, their success is rooted in God using their own remarkable gifts and contexts – the right men in the right place at the right time for something great, if you like. For most pastors, life is likely to be far more ordinary, church far smaller and poorer and the fruits of ministry far less spectacular.

More importantly, we must recognize the preoccupation with such personalities for what it is: a distraction from the very thing for which these men have themselves worked so hard – a single-minded focus on Jesus Christ. So from whence does the problem come? It comes from imbibing the obsessions of the wider culture with big personalities. The world has Access Hollywood, the church has – well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as the Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.

Conclusion

Secularization is slippery; it hits us where we least expect it; and there is naught here for the comfort of conservative evangelicals.  Arguably, those who call themselves confessional evangelicals and yet who build their ministries around cults of personality and slick conferences are in real danger of merely aping the values of secular culture. What is needed is continual reformation which takes us back to the standards of God’s word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.

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Secularization In ‘Christian’ America (Part 1)

(In honor of our September/October issue, ‘Secularizing Religion’, MR contributor Carl Trueman (Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary) and P&R Publishers have graciously permitted us to post this abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization” from Dr. Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative.  We’ll post the second half tomorrow.)

RepublocratAmerica, the Exception?

Given the First Amendment, the religious nature of so much political discourse in the States is surprising but does fit in general with what has been seen, at least until recently, as part and parcel of American exceptionalism. This is a wide-ranging thesis which basically argues that the way society has developed in America is exceptional in that it does not follow the pattern of social development that is found elsewhere. Religion is central to this argument: while the development of modern technological societies elsewhere in the world has led to the decline of public, institutional religion, this has not occurred to anything like the same extent in America. The obvious evidence for this is attendance at places of worship, which is still very high in the US but now pitifully low in Europe.

In fact, as the years roll by, it looks increasingly as if it is secular Europe that is the exception, and not America. Religion around the world seems to be on the rise, particularly in places such as Africa. Only in Europe, among the old, indigenous populations, does religion seem to be in any kind of terminal decline; elsewhere, the religious future looks really quite rosy. The rise of modern society does not seem, in general, to be quite as opposed to traditional religion as was once supposed.

I want to ask the question, however, as to whether America was ever that great an exception to secularization, or whether it is rather the case that secularization can take various forms, some of which, ironically, look really rather religious at first glance. Could it be that both Britain and America are really both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such? And could this actually create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume?

The U.S.A: Secularization, Religious-Style

In the USA church attendance, while varying from state to state, is much higher than in Europe. I remember being at a worship service in Grand Rapids in the mid 90s and hearing the pastor lament in a sermon that ‘the tragedy of this town is that only 1 in 2 people will be in church this morning.’ Wow, I thought to myself, that’s a tragedy? Back home we’d call that a revival beyond our wildest dreams. In context, of course, the figures no doubt did represent a decline from earlier generations; and it is also easy to become so used to minuscule church attendance that one can become very jaded about what is really the tragedy of half the population not worshipping on a Sunday; but my point is that, while Grand Rapids may be exceptional even by American standards, this points to the generally very much higher church commitment there than in Europe.

Historians and sociologists will probably debate the reasons for the difference between America and Europe for years to come. Various factors probably play in to the difference: Europe’s twentieth century was one of declining world influence, America’s of increasing, thus helping to foster pessimism and optimism within the respective cultures; Europe saw horrible slaughter and genocide, and significant civilian casualties in a series of major conflicts, while American soil was by and large protected from such, even as she lost large numbers of young men overseas. America also never developed the kind of labour movements found in Europe, had no state church, and contains vast tracts of land where the economy and the lifestyle were rural, agrarian and thus typically conservative and traditional in culture.

The question I want to ask here, however, is: is it actually the case that the church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Secularization might merely have taken a different form in America to that which we find in Europe.

We can start with a soft target: the health, wealth and happiness teaching of men like Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. One listens in vain to their addresses for the kind of talk one finds in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, where not only does he talk of the cross as providing a logic both to God’s saving action in Christ, but also as providing a paradigm for ministry. The suffering that marks his life is essential for his ability to minister to others who suffer, that he might bring them comfort (e.g., 2Cor 1). Instead, Osteen and Hinn, in their different ways, point their listeners towards an allegedly happy life, free of pain, want, and distress, that is just there for the taking if their advice and spiritual guidance is followed.

Somebody asked me recently if Osteen and Hinn were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are here in the US. Why is that? Came the follow up, to which I replied: they simply wouldn’t work in the UK because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language in the way many Americans do; thus, we have self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity.

Prosperity preachers are a soft target, particularly from the perspective of conservative, confessional evangelicals. But the identification of worldly or secular ambitions with the gospel is no monopoly of the positive thinkers and the prosperity Pentecostallers. The vision–or at least the sales pitch–of all politicians, Left and Right, is more prosperity, more comfort, better health etc. etc. We may tut-tut at Osteen as he pushes his message of health, wealth, and happiness; but is it not the case that many Christians who claim to be orthodox actually nurture similar ambitions themselves? I will argue in the next chapter that the connection often made between economic prosperity and Christianity by conservative Christians is but a more sophisticated and rhetorically toned-down version of the Osteen gospel. At a more mundane level, how many of us assume that God’s favor towards us will be typically demonstrated in the categories of health, wealth and happiness? How many of us, if you like, are as guilty of Corinthian style conceptions of what Christianity should look like, as Osteen and company? Maybe the difference is that Osteen is just more open and honest about it.

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(Late) Summer Reading–Esther Lightcap Meek

(Esther L. Meek is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, and Instructor of Apologetics at Redeemer Theological Seminary. Her 2003 Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos) is a book for people considering Christianity who have questions about how we know anything at all. Her 2011 book, Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade), proposes the interpersonal covenantal relationship as the paradigm for all human knowing. A third book is forthcoming.)

Esther Lightcap MeekMy daughter, Starr, names seasons. She names seasons, and her friends and I live into the theme she has designated. This summer is the “Summer of Beauty.” So I took it as all the reason I needed to start through David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite. The book makes me feel as if my whole life has been preparation for this event. And it catches up all of my life in its exuberant toccata on the theme of the Holy Trinity.

I’ve had a glorious late-afternoon-on-the-deck reading regimen this summer: along with Hart, I have dipped daily into Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (for an upcoming class); John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (a Christmas present); Roger Lundin’s biography of Emily Dickinson, The Art of Belief(for a faculty seminar); Gascoigne and Thornton, Tacit Knowledge (for a book review); Dostoyevsky’s Brothers K (for “pleasure”…(sigh)). But Hart’s Beauty has crowned and caught them up, too.

I half-understand what Hart says! All my years in philosophy have been vindicated in reading this book, even as they prove inadequate. All my years as a Christian believer have just opened out onto splendor, even as Hart has revealed the poverty of my experience hitherto. I have been, shall we say, surfing in high seas, tumbling off regularly, bowled over by mammoth waves, nevertheless happily splashing about. I feel that death would be, not so much “but my entrance into glory,” as Bach writes, so much as a slight adjustment of the frequency on my reality monitor (my radio-repairing dad’s hypothesis): glory is already near—very near.

Exuberance aside, in a short effort at coherence: Hart’s is a work in theological aesthetics, following up the work of Hans Urs von Balthazar. He argues that Christianity, with its unique doctrine of the Holy Trinity, alone espouses a view of ultimate reality that is both infinite and beautiful, where shalom really is the ultimate real. Other philosophies generallyThe Beauty of the Infinite posit chaos or violence as ultimately real, with all human efforts toward logos and order developed in opposition to it. These warring opposites are always about power and totalizing, absolute, control. But the Christian Trinity, with its eternal dance of love and gift, mutuality and particularity, ever creative of new possibilities—all of this externalized in the rhetorical analogy of creation—ensconces and ensures harmony of one and many from all eternity. Shalom need never be wrested, ultimately, from violence or chaos, for it is original. Infinite distance and infinite variety need never be feared (contra Jorge Borges), for it is beauty—God himself. What we must do is resist persistently the totalizing forces of modern (and postmodern) Western thought and culture, and their adverse effects in our lives and theology, with the exuberance of the good news of Jesus Christ, who retells and reinscribes the story of reality. “If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this Heavenly Boy!”—the words of poet Robert Southwell.

If you found that last paragraph half-understandable but tantalizing, I have succeeded in giving you a taste of the book. I have also, hopefully, indicated why Hart’s text itself must be ever-new sentence after ever-new sentence, seemingly to joyous infinity. With the fall semester just around the corner, I don’t have much prospect of finishing the book. But I anticipate with joy another summers of surfing until—well, maybe I’ll just keep rereading it. It probably won’t matter what the season gets named; that theme will prove to have been original with God, too.

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(Late) Summer Reading–John Bombaro

(Rev. John J. Bombaro (Ph.D., King’s College, University of London) is the parish minister at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California and a lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.  He’s a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation.) 

John BombaroWhat book are you reading right now?

I have made a good choice with my present read: Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). Evans has distinguished himself as an internationally recognized expert on New Testament studies and always has something new, something insightful to say about the biblical text. This time he does so through a book that collates salient information from the realm of archeology that has immediate bearing on the historicity of Jesus and the accuracy of the New Testament witness.

Why’d you chose it?

In looking for a reliable author and text that would be accessible and informative to my University of San Diego students taking an introductory level class called “Christianity and Its Practice”, Evans immediately came to mind due to his orthodoxy and devotion to Christ. Jesus and His World will be highly accessible and convincing for neophytes to Christianity and those indoctrinated by pop pessimism about the Bible.

Jesus and His World

What’s the best part about the book so far?

The best parts of the book are (1) when Craig gentlemanly disabuses agendist pseudo-scholarship that casts aspersions on the historical Jesus and (2) his inclusion of thirty-nine photos of major archeological finds that visually substantiate the author’s explanations of their significance.

 

What’s the worst part about the book so far?

Negatively, the back cover says almost nothing about the content of this winning book. It would be easily glossed over in a bookstore. Thankfully, Evans’ name is easily recognizable so that a gem like this isn’t missed.

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(Late) Summer Reading–Anthony Parisi

(Anthony Parisi is an independent filmmaker and online editor-in-chief for Houston Baptist University’s Cinema & New Media Arts.)

Anthony ParisiWhat are you reading right now?

I have been reading several books this summer but the most noteworthy by far has been Matthew Lee Anderson’s new book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. It is a deeply thoughtful and stimulating work about (you guessed it), questioning and the confidence of faith. In the author’s words, the book is “chiefly concerned to explore whether we can question well and what such questioning might look like.” (pg. 12)  What moves us to ask a question? What sort of answer would it take to move us to give up our questions? What happens when we question? Are questioning and doubt the same thing? The End of Our Exploring asks good questions, questions us as readers, and urges everyone to learn the art of questioning well.

 

 

 

“… if the young question most, the wise question best. The art of questioning takes a lifetime to perfect, for the most interesting questions flow from a deep well of insights. The more we understand, the more fine-grained our awareness of the negative spaces will be. The more we learn about the world, the more we will realize how much more there is to know, if we will only remember our ignorance and continue noticing the negative spaces. Those who have learned best and longest will explore hidden nooks and corners that those of us starting out cannot begin to imagine. The wise have seen negative spaces that only well-trained eyes are strong enough to detect. “ (pg. 21)

End of Our Exploring

Why did you pick this particular book?

Matt is a fellow alumnus of Biola University and while I don’t know him personally, his blog Mere Orthodoxyhas been favorite reading of mine for quite some time now. Reading him and other bright graduates of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute should be enough to convince anyone that rumors of evangelicalism’s death may be greatly exaggerated. If you want to find the best and brightest from an evangelical institution you need look no further.  More personally, the subject resonates with me very deeply. As a child of postmodernity and surrounded by our default, cultural cynicism that’s obviously no surprise. But I do feel all of these questions at a gut level. My analytical mind can needlessly torture itself by questioning (badly!) and I’ve come to see how sin in my own life can distort serious thinking. As a young adult, there are also faces and relationships now attached to all these of issues. I have watched childhood friends make shipwreck of the faith and abandon Christ. The subject is a weighty one. A proper reverence and seriousness toward questioning is one of the strongest qualities of this book.

“The man who asks whether God’s mercy allows for justice may be asking a sincere question and faithfully opening himself to the creative destruction of his own false ideas or to a deepened understanding of his true ones. His questioning may be rooted in love and aimed at his growth. Or he may be clinging to the final vestiges of his rebellion, making a final desperate stand against the holiness of God. Or he may be merely playing a game, reducing God to an abstraction for his own intellectual satisfaction. These possibilities and countless others stand beneath every inquiry that we make.  How can we tell if our questions are subverting the healthy confidence that we or others have in God? How do we know if we have deceived ourselves into believing we are “just questioning” rather than expressing our hostility against God, a hostility that may even be hidden from ourselves? That such self-deceived rationalizations of our questions are a possibility should be enough to give us pause. It is a serious thing we undertake, this exploring.  There can be no “merely” or “just” of our questioning. Such qualifiers indicate that we think our inquiries are somehow exempt from sin and temptation. It would be convenient to think that our questions are immune from the fundamental conflict of right and wrong, that they are quarantined from the possibility of confession and repentance. But the first moment of questioning well is the recognition that as a human endeavor, our questioning is fallen and broken, entangled with sin and in need of reformation. We should be wary of affording to ourselves a cheap grace that cordons off a crucial area of our lives from our responsibility before God.” (pg. 35)

 

What’s the best thing about it so far?

As I read through the book I’m impressed at how well Matt explores our cultural climate and responds to it. This book could resonate with anyone. The universality of the subject and his careful nuance should prove thought-provoking for both ardent conservative and progressive skeptic. I’ve had to resist highlighting every line of the perceptive chapter “On Doubt and What Doubt Isn’t.”

Faith is not fundamentalism—nor is doubt the same as questioning. While the tendency is to react to fundamentalism by embracing doubt, I think it is important to not replace one problem with another. What we should pursue is a confident faith that questions and questions well, not the vague instability of doubt that replaces the overweening certainty of fundamentalism. (pg. 50-51)

He argues that “conflating doubt and questioning is one of the chief confusions of our age” and that faith “does not close off questioning—it reforms and orients it. It is not the bunker mentality of fundamentalism, which shuts down inquiry because it is afraid. Faith seeks understanding, and the form of its seeking is the questions that it asks within the life of the practices of the church.” (pg. 51)  Undergirding all of the book is a high view of church authority and Scripture that is crucial to the way Matt articulates the place of questioning in the Christian life. This may be the most counter-cultural feature of the book (even for many professing Christians). It enables him to illustrate a healthy way of questioning and reasoning in the church without resorting to individualism or undermining church structure. Christians in Reformation traditions will especially appreciate a shout-out to the recovery of catechesis as “one of the most hopeful signs for Christians interested in cultivating their ability to question and live into the answers.” (pg. 79)  The book also has a warmth and generous tone that we can all learn from in our questioning and engagement with others. There is a generous spirit of catholicity coupled with winsome conviction. The End of Our Exploring doesn’t just tell us how to question well but truly embodies it. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

What’s the worst thing about it so far?

Nothing is coming to mind, so I suspect this may be a bad question. Here’s a better one: have you bought the book yet?

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(Late) Summer Reading–Nancy Guthrie

(Nancy Guthrie is the author of O Love That Will Not Let Me Go and the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament Bible study series (www.seeingjesusintheoldtestament.com)  In addition to teaching opportunities at her church, Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Nancy speaks regularly at conferences and events around the country.)

Nancy GuthrieWhat are you reading right now?

My stack of books has three categories—the books for my current seminary class, books I’m reading for my current writing project on the prophets, and the manuscripts I’m reading for endorsement requests. I’ve gotten to read several terrific books in the biblical theology category over recent weeks from this endorsement request stack including David Murray’s forthcoming Jesus on Every Page (Thomas Nelson, August release), and Jim Hamilton’s What is Biblical Theology? (Crossway, November release), as well as Name Above All Names by Sinclair Ferguson and Alistair Begg (Crossway).   I have to admit that I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the publishing process when I received the request from the publisher to consider offering an endorsement for Begg and Ferguson’s book. These are two of my most respected mentors-from-afar in regard to handling and communicating the scriptures with a sense of the big story of the Bible. They are also two of my favorite people. So when I received the request my thought was that while they have little to gain from my endorsement, I am quite sure I have plenty to gain from reading this book.  Since this was a book I knew I would want to read as soon as I got my hands on it, I was glad to get to read it in advance. However, I read it quickly in its manuscript stage in the press of other projects. So I’ve been glad to have some time to work through it more slowly and thoughtfully now that the printed book is in my hands.

 

Why’d you pick that book?

I grew up in Sunday School and have studied the Bible most of my life. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to listen to preachers like Ferguson and Begg who present the scriptures with a sense of the Bible as one grand story of God’s redemption of all things through Christ. My own publishing projects over the past five years have been my way of re-orienting the way I read and understand the Old Testament, moving away from using the characters and situations of the Old Testament as moral or faith lessons and instead seeing the beauty of the person and work of Christ throughout. I’ve learned a lot, but I still have plenty to learn—not only about how to understand these things in the scriptures, but also how to communicate them clearly and simply to others, which is just what this book does like few others.

 

What’s the best part of the book so far?Name Above All Names

While the presentation of the person and work of Christ in these short seven chapters is profound and fresh, it is also personal and easy-to-follow. Its chapters trace Jesus as presented in the scriptures as Seed of the Woman, True Prophet, Great High Priest, Conquering King, Son of Man, Suffering Servant, and the Lamb on the Throne. And while the scholarship is sound, it is never technical. This is a book I could give to someone who has never heard of biblical theology and when they finished they would have a sound sense of biblical theology without ever hearing the intimidating term. And while reading the book would cause them to think about the story of the Bible in new ways, mostly it would call them to worship the God of the Bible.  One of many “Aha!” experiences for me came early in the book in the chapter about Jesus Christ as the Seed of the Woman, which says that Adam was created to be the gardener, but that he failed. It then goes to the resurrection of Christ when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and didn’t recognize the resurrected Christ, “supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:15). The book reads: “The gardener? Yes, indeed. He is the Gardener. He is the second Man, the last Adam, who is now beginning to restore the garden.” While certainly I had seen the garden at the beginning and ending of the story of the Bible, I had never before seen Christ as the Gardener, there in the center of the story, beginning his work to restore and renew. But I won’t forget it.

 

What’s the worst part of the book so far?

I have only one beef with the way Begg and Ferguson put the book together. I don’t know for sure which one to credit with this brilliant Gardener insight and so many others throughout the book. They don’t identify themselves as to who is speaking and so refer to people they both knew, and experiences they both had, using phrases such as, ‘in one of our churches” and “one of our children.” Because these two pastors each have so much wit and personality, their own charming humor, and of course their own unique experiences and acquaintances, every time I came across one of these personal references I would have preferred to know who was speaking. But I suppose it helps that even though I don’t know who is speaking, I can hear the same accent in my head. More than that I recognized the same love for Christ and ability to call to me, as the reader, to see Christ in all of his sufficiency and to love him with all of my heart.

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(Late) Summer Reading–James K. A. Smith

(James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview.  He is the author of a number of books including Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition and, most recently, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  He also serves as the editor of Comment magazine.)

James-K_A_-SmithWhat book are you reading right now?

I’ve finally moved James Bratt’s biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013) to the top of the stack.  I’m not sure that Jim ever envisioned this as a “beach read,” but in fact I enjoyed reading it while decamped on the gorgeous sands of Grand Haven, Michigan, our very own “west coast.”  That I eventually dozed off is no commentary on Bratt’s prose, which is far from soporific.

Why’d you choose that particular book?

As a member of the Christian Reformed Church and a Christian scholar at Calvin College, an institution nourished by Kuyper’s legacy, reading this book is pretty much an occupational requirement.  But like the law of love, it is a happy obligation!  Abraham Kuyper was a remarkable individual whose life makes for a compelling story: a convert from bland liberalism, he went on to become an influential pastor, newspaper editor, theologian, and statesman (serving as Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905).  My own thought is deeply indebted to Kuyper and his heirs, but I knew the ideas and not the man.  But my interest is not just antiquarian or a biographical fascination: I’m also intrigued to see how a Christian like Kuyper operated in the public sphere—a public sphere that was increasingly secularized and pluralized, and thus beginning to look more and more like the world we currently inhabit.  I’m intrigued to see if there are lessons to be learned here, including lessons to be learned from Kuyper’s failures.

Abraham-Kuyper

What’s the best part about it so far?

Well, first and foremost, I have to say that Bratt’s prose is lively and engaging, characterized by a verve and wit that he exhibits in person as well.  One of Jim’s best friends, the film scholar Bill Romanowski, recommended that Bratt organize the biography like a screenplay, and I think that’s reflected in the book’s dramatic pace.  Second, Bratt’s mastery of the archival materials is remarkable.  For example, Bratt goes back to early sermons and captures their key themes in ways that bring Kuyper to life beyond his published legacy.  But I also love it that at the same time he draws on Kuyper’s love letters to his fiancée, then wife, Jo.  As Bratt puts it, “Father Abraham” was a romantic in more ways than one.  Finally, so far I have learned the most from Bratt’s ability to locate Kuyper in the social, political, and intellectual context of 19th century Europe.  It is far too easy to read someone like Kuyper anachronistically, reading him as if we were just a contemporary American.  Bratt’s biography is an important antidote to that.

 

What’s the worst part about it so far?

I don’t think I’ve encountered a “worst part” so far.  I would just say this: I can already feel a certain theoretical frame that Bratt brings to the story of which I am a tad suspicious.  I’m just a little worried that the “true” heirs of Kuyper are going to be progressives, whereas “right wingers” (as Bratt puts it, gratingly) are going to turn out to be unenlightened repristinators.  I’m suspending judgment until I’m finished the book, but I’m on the lookout for an interpretive frame that might load the dice just a bit.

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(Late) Summer Reading

The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!

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Art, Atheists, and Altars to Unknown Gods

I remember it like it was yesterday. Seventeen years ago this month, I was appointed Chief Curator of my hometown university art museum after having finished a doctorate in the history of modern art. In the Sunday arts section of our local paper an article had announced my appointment. At church later that morning an elder, sitting in front of me, turned around and congratulated me. And then he said, “now you can take down all the nudes on display in the museum.”

This was just a foretaste of the tensions I would experience in the church as an evangelical working in the art world and writing about modern art. Most of these tensions have come from the church’s desire to use ‘good’ art to shape public policy and teach morality or to show how ‘bad’ art reflects a defective worldview and causes vice. When the church thinks about the role of art, it usually thinks of it as a tool for something else, something more important, something more ‘practical’, more ‘relevant’.

And, let’s face it, the church usually considers art to be the enemy anyway—it just cannot be trusted.  Art possesses the uncanny tendency to break down the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’, undoing the tidy emotional boxes we create to help us filter the pure, lovely and commendable from the slanderous and obscene. However, to spend time with art—to devote the effort to understanding it—usually results in refocusing our attention on our own sinfulness and recovering the dignity of our neighbor’s search for the Unknown God of which St. Paul speaks in Acts 17.

This might be why the church distrusts artists and the work they produce.  And this is why the most insightful and life-giving writing about art comes from outside the church—often a long way from the church. Such is the case with Camille Paglia—she loves art and she wants you to love it, too.

Glttering ImagesThat’s right, the same Camille Paglia who is a founding writer for Salon.com; the self-described “pro-sex, pro-porn, pro-art, pro-beauty, pro-pop” public intellectual and cultural provocateur who infuriates the Right and frustrates the Left.  That Paglia, who holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Yale University and teaches art history and the humanities at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, where she has taught since the mid-1980s.

Paglia’s book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars (Pantheon, 2012) is written for those who like the idea of liking art but have been turned off by the vulgarity, obscenity, and elitism of the art world, Glittering Images is for you.  In an interview with Salon.com about the book, Paglia observed, “As a longtime fan of talk radio, I’m very worried about the low opinion that conservative hosts and callers have of the American artist. Art is portrayed as a scam, a rip-off and snow job pushed by snobbish elites.”

And so she has written a modest book that she conceived as a “devotional” to revive popular interest in art history, which celebrates the creative imagination of human beings through time and place, but has vanished from public education and college curricula. She continues:

I’m providing a handbook to anyone—to people who never took an art history course or who haven’t thought about art since college. I want to do something very inviting, readable and non-threatening, with each chapter as short as possible.

Paglia has selected twenty-nine works of art to make her case, from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari and an icon of St. John Chrysostom to Warhol’s icon of Marilyn Monroe to, surprisingly, a scene from George Lucas’s movie, Revenge of the Sith.

Although it is written for a general audience confused by art, Glittering Images is not pedantic, condescending, or preachy. It is a personal, even vulnerable book. From the idiosyncratic choices of works of art to her distinctive way of interpreting them, Paglia reveals her life-long love of these works, desiring nothing more than to share her passion.

MondrianAnd that passion leaves plenty of room for the reader to form his or her own experiences and opinions. Unlike most writing about art, Paglia’s is expansive, creating space for her reader to join her.  She doesn’t presuppose agreement, only curiosity and openness. Each of her twenty-nine meditations end in an evocative manner that expands rather than restricts the potential for further reflection, such as this conclusion from her meditation on the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930):

His work was a process of discovery where color and form were explored for their own sake…But Mondrian’s floating, weightless images vibrate with an internal drama. Do his black lines define and limit his colors? Or is color, like a divine spark, an autonomous force pushing its way toward life? (131)

For an atheist, Paglia’s writing is surprisingly comfortable with the religious, the transcendent, and the spiritual while actively seeking out the metaphysical, mysterious, and inexplicable. And indeed, Paglia has considerable respect for organized religions, calling them “vast symbol systems containing deep truths about human experience” (xii-xiii). In fact, in an important essay, “Religion and the Arts in America” (Arion 15/1 (2007), Paglia argues that the arts need religion in order to thrive.

de Maria

In another provocative conclusion, Paglia takes one of the strangest, least art-like works made by an American artist, Walter de Maria’s installation in New Mexico, The Lightening Field (1977) and—as if responding to the incredulous reader—“what makes this art?”—she concludes:

When De Maria’s metal poles are nested in green ground cover and spring wildflowers, The Lightning Field seems like one of Emily Dickinson’s haunted landscapes where the dead are frozen witnesses to eternity. The grid is the game, a playful mapping of life’s mysteries, which art accepts but science can never fully explain (170).

Monet

Paglia’s interpretations embody her claim (or is it a confession?) that art “unites the spiritual and material realms” (xiii). Unlike many art critics and art historians, whose atheism or agnosticism spreads to marginalizing the role of religion and spirituality in the work of the artists’ they study, Paglia refuses to dismiss them as unimportant (including their atheism). For example, in her meditation on Claude Monet’s Irises (1900), painted late in the artist’s life from his backyard garden, she writes:

Like Wordsworth, Monet was an atheist wary of ideological systems. There is a luminous pantheism in his landscape paintings. His concentration on the act of seeing reaffirmed the power of the senses. Art was his faith, repairing the broken connection between man and nature (100).

Paglia recognizes that art itself is a confession and an act of faith, which seems to demand the language of religion and spirituality to describe.

It is often said that every work of art is a self-portrait, revealing something hidden about the artist. But when the writer opens herself to an experience with a work of art and digs deep to articulate that experience, what results is also a form of self-portraiture, an autobiography activated in through an experience with the work of art. Art criticism is as much about the critic as it is the work of art that is being interpreted.

In his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908) by Rilke, the narrator is confronted by a work of art that exclaims, “you must change your life.” When we are confronted by a work of art, it makes a claim on us, it provokes our realization that by standing in front of a work of art, we are being addressed, not just by a painting or sculpture, but by God and by our neighbor.

It is thus not much of a stretch to claim that Paglia’s sensitive art writing is also a confession of faith.  That faith is in art certainly, but perhaps in something else as well, something she can only feel in the art she experiences. One might be tempted to add art museums and artist’s studios to foxholes as places not conducive to atheism. To her credit, Paglia knows these risks but she’s willing to take them for the sake of describing her experience with these artifacts to her reader faithfully and truthfully. And with every entry, Paglia’s response to these works of art affirms the goodness of the world that lay just beyond its brokenness and alienation.

Paglia’s meditations on these twenty-nine works thus offer plenty of room for thinking about art from a distinctively Christian perspective, that is, provided we abandon our penchant for instrumental worldview-ish thinking that reduces art merely to the expression of an artist’s religious beliefs or as a tool for something we deem “more important.”

For Luther, our justification by grace through faith frees us to love our neighbor through our work, restoring the dignity of those trades and jobs deemed irrelevant, unimportant, or unworthy of serious Christian involvement. Because God is busy at work in the world, everywhere, all of our work, from cleaning houses and middle management to running for congress or painting pictures are simultaneously irrelevant and of the utmost importance.

For North American evangelicals, culture is useful only insofar as it bears on politics. Because God has chosen to work through the “foolish” and “weak” things of the world (1 Cor. 1: 27), the gospel releases the arts from the burden of relevance and practicality; of what we believe is relevant and practical, how we believe God should be at work in the world (i.e., through the heroic and powerful).  This allows both those that make art and those that devote time to looking at and studying art the dignity of recognizing that God is at work, even in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways—in the artist’s studio and even in the writing of Camille Paglia.

(Dr. Daniel A. Siedell is on staff at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, where he works with LIBERATE, Tullian Tchividjian’s resource ministry.  He is the author of several books, including God in the Gallery (Baker 2008) and is currently at work on a monograph with artist Makoto Fujimura and a book project with theologian William Dyrness on modern art with IVP Academic Press.)

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