Monthly Archives: February 2010

We are Small, He is Lord

(Note: This is a devotional I gave this morning for the staff of the church where I work; thought I’d post it here too.)

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1Co 3:5-9 ESV)

I grew up in the rural midwest, emphasis on the rural. You could literally go out my back door, walk a block and be in a cornfield. So while I wasn’t a “farm kid” per se, I spent a lot of time around farmers. Now, there are many reasons for this, but farmers on the whole tend to be religious. It’s often just cultural, but as folk wisdom has it, “there ain’t no atheist farmers.” And the reason for this is simple – farmers always have a strong sense of just what they can and can’t do. They understand that the universe is a big, uncontrollable thing on which they are dependent for their livelihood. They can plant and fertilize and spray and irrigate, but if the rain doesn’t come, or too much rain comes, or the price of grain is bad, or disease hits their crops, or any number of other things happen, it won’t matter. There’s a lot about their work that is out of their hands. As this passage kicked around in my head this week, I couldn’t help thinking about farmers, and not just because of the immediate agricultural metaphor. There’s something profoundly instructive about their attitude that we need to learn from. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (4) – It Starts with B and Comes with Lightning

I’m a little short on time tonight, but I wanted to get a post up discussing McLaren’s third question and answer, Is God Violent. This is going to be a machine-gun list of some thoughts about his argument.

First, a word about the idea of the “evolution” in our thinking about God. Once again, I’m left worried we’re smuggling the Enlightenment in the back door, and in a huge way. The whole argument for a progressively-more-sophisticated view of God occuring in Scripture, and from its time to the present, is the very definition of chronological snobbery. Those primitives in the past (and also, might I suggest, other parts of the world which still have this view of God) need advanced, civilized Western thinkers like us, with our Hegel and Bacon (or now our Derrida and Foucalt), to tell them how the world really works. While McLaren doesn’t out-and-out say it, the narrative of progress certainly underlies his argument, and as a good postmodern it should worry him more than it seems to.

Second, does the bible have an “evolving” view of God? Absolutely. Things about God certainly become clearer over time. Abraham didn’t have a tabernacle. The Exodus community didn’t have a king. The Prophets didn’t have Jesus. God’s plan develops and becomes clearer as we read chronologically through the Bible. There is a sort of evolution, like that of a seed growing into a flower. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (3) – Library or Literature?

As McLaren moves from his question about how to read the Bible to his second question about how it is authoritative, I have to offer up an apology. For a number of years, Christian authors have hammered on the idea that a certain sort of postmodern epistemology underlies – and ultimately undermines – his thinking. I’ve argued against this inditement in the past, accusing it of being simplistic and not really getting at the root of the problem.

I was, apparently, quite wrong.

McLaren proceeds to discuss Scripture by making a distinction between reading the bible as a “constitution” – that is, a set of legal statements and sub-statements to be arranged for courtroom argument – and a “library” – a collection of contradictory works arguing around the same topic. Obviously, he sides with the latter. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (2) – Homer, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I’d like to take a brief excursus here and discuss one of McLaren’s arguments in more detail. He hangs a great deal of weight on the idea that the bible is fundamentally a story, a statement which I would agree with. His big beef with how Christians today interface with Scripture is that they have modernistically reduced this story to a set of propositional truth-statements about the world. Again, a generally-true statement, although the devil is in the generality.

The problem I have is with the way McLaren uses “story” to justify what is in actuality a postmodern reader-response take on the Old Testament. I have neither the desire nor the space to discuss reader-response criticism as a whole, but I want to submit that this approach to story is fundamentally different than the one that existed in the ancient world – more on that after the break. Continue reading

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McLaren’s New Kind of Christianity (1) – Stop Hijacking My Vampire Slayer

I have a little time between reading things for school, so I decided to try blogging through a book. For variety, and because I know a lot of people who are interested in it, I picked up Brian McLaren’s recently-released A New Kind of Christianity.

I want to provide a little context first, because there is no question that McLaren is a polarizing figure. I’m not a hater, I’m really not. I resonate with many of the frustrations about Evangelicalism that McLaren and his friends in the emerging church are leveling. I too want a Christianity which is engage redemptively with the world around us. I use the same language to critique some of the problems in the church – it’s dualistic, it’s Platonic, etc. Heck, in moments of indiscretion, you might even hear me call myself “postmodern.” All of this explains why a part of me wants really badly for this to be a great, insightful, redemptive book.

But all I can think about is an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Faith, Buffy’s evil foil, takes over her body. She looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar. She has the same whiny but self-assured voice and posture. She even says the things Buffy would. But there’s something terribly wrong. She’s seducing Buffy’s boyfriend, taking advantage of her friends, and generally making a mess of everything the true heroine believes in.

This is exactly how I feel a third of the way through the book. Brian McLaren hates dualistic, Platonistic Christianity. I do too. But by those words he means he hates the Fall, atonement, salvation through Christ alone, and any claim to final knowledge about truth. I mean something much different.

(Incidentally, someone might want to explain to him that the ancient world didn’t combine Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, that it was actually the Stoics who were the big philosophical influence on Rome, and that Rome as a whole was much more inclusive and religiously relativistic than it was obsessed with doctrine and creeds. His story about Greco-Roman thought on pp. 37-45 made the historian in me both laugh and convulse at the same time – an uncomfortable experience, I assure you.)

Brian McLaren wants to escape the Enlightenment. So do I. But I certainly don’t mean an escape from “answers” to questions in favor of “responses,” whatever that is supposed to mean.  Nor do I have a desire to lump every Protestant theologian who has ever lived into the category of “children of the era of Sir Isaac Newton, the conquistadors, colonialism…, nationalism, and capitalism.” (8)

Brian McLaren wants a more Jewish understanding of Jesus. Again, I would say the same words. But for McLaren, Jews of the first century are suspiciously light on the judgment and set-apartness and exclusivity that I had (apparently mistakenly) believed to be hallmarks of the way they interpreted the Old Testament and its many passages about, well, judgment and set-apartness and exclusivity.

I realize this sounds harsh, but I’m not out to burn any witches. I’m just astounded by the breathtaking audacity with which McLaren declares a new Christianity built neither on rock nor even sand, but wish-thinking. It’s even harder because he tries so hard to still look like Buffy (which, admittedly, would make a fantastic photo on the book jacket’s About the Author section.) With a little rhetorical flair, he manages to compare himself and his allies in one chapter to Galileo, the founding fathers, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, and (in a good way) Charles Darwin – and still sounds humble doing it! People I love, people I care about, will point to the humility, buy the martyr narrative, and proceed to discount the concerns which others will quite justifiably have with the book’s argument as just another oppressive, hidebound bunch of traditionalists who can’t believe that the earth is round.

But I’m still working on the book. More posts to come. I hope things get better, but I’m sadly not optimistic.

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Gardening and [Censored]

“The very first person who was created to reflect God’s glory to the world was called to be a gardener.”

Or so a wise man I know is fond of pointing out. I’ve reflected several times in the past on the value of vocation, but I find myself ruminating on it again tonight. However, that’s not the topic of this post. Rather, I want to offer some thoughts on a related tangent.

The reason we have such a hard time with the thought that God calls people to do things as earthy and simple as gardening is that we are, for all intents and purposes, material atheists. That is to say, we are deeply disturbed by the thought that God would have to do with the material world – with the dirty stuff of, well, dirt. I was reminded of this recently in an unexpected place. I heard someone present the Bible’s view of sex, highlighting  the deep, covenantal significance of Adam and Eve’s sexual relationship as the first husband and wife. It was as good a theology of sex as I’ve heard, discussing its power and beauty as an enactment of the way people give themselves to each other in marriage.

What got me wasn’t any of that. Instead, it was one person’s response to it. “This is great!” he said. “You’re saying that sex doesn’t just have to be this physical thing, that we can invite God into it and make it something really spiritual and meaningful.”

Now, if you’re wondering, this was absolutely not what had been said. Sex was being held up as meaningful and significant, yes. As a good gift of God and an opportunity to demonstrate your marriage vows to your wife or husband. But none of this was offered as some mystical alternative approach to sex. It wasn’t as if these things became true by saying a prayer or reading some verses. Instead, they already are true. God made it that way. Sexuality, just like every part of our lives, is already spiritual (and physical too!)

Which brings me to my accusation of being “material atheists.” It’s not that we don’t believe in God or anything so crass. We certainly know He’s out there, or perhaps in our hearts… we just don’t think he has anything to do with the stuff of this world. It’s as if it is the bread in a Catholic mass – God doesn’t have anything to do with it until we say the magic words and turn it into something otherworldly (I realize Catholic brothers and sisters won’t appreciate the analogy – I apologize; take it in the spirit intended. Some of you do a much better job of recognizing God’s involvement  in the world around us than most Protestants.) The same becomes true of sex, or work, or food, or conversation. We cannot believe that God is involved with them as they are.

Yet the fact is, eating and drinking and (I’m failing to think of a non-profane and pithy way to say “having sex,” but we’ll just go with that) and gardening are all spiritually-charged activities, one way or the other. We do not have to dedicate a bottle of whiskey or a paycheck to Satan to use it for evil. We simply have to use them in ways that aren’t in keeping with God’s will. In the same way, we don’t have to divorce the ordinary things of this world from their this-worldliness to use them for God’s glory. We simply need to use them as He intends, with thankful worship in our hearts to Him as their creator.

The way to make a flower garden “spiritual” is not to put little crosses between the petunias. It is simply to tend it well, the Holy Spirit in our hearts welling up within us to give praise to the garden’s Lord.

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Who Said It?

Who Said It:

“There is by no means universal agreement even among those who have no lack of zeal for godliness, or piety and moderation in discussing the mysteries of God. God has never so blessed his servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject. It is clear that his purpose in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble, and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellow Christians. Even though it were otherwise highly desirable, we are not to look in the present life for lasting agreement among us on the exposition of passages of scripture.”

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