Monday, December 31, 2012

Claiming Jesus, Worshipping Self

Because churches often manage to put their worst foot forward, one can easily have sympathy for those that argue for the need for better marketing.  However, the values of Madison Avenue differ greatly from those of the Sermon on the Mount, and those who think that they can harness the former in the service of the latter often underestimate the ways that a marketing mentality can corrupt Christian proclamation.  Preaching the Gospel to every creature is not synonymous with putting butts in seats, and that is a difference that many contemporary American Christians will agree to in theory but violate in practice.

This past weekend, I opened a locker at the fitness center where I regularly attempt to turn back the inevitable, and I found inside a slick, double-sided postcard sized advertisement for the largest megachurch in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  The headline in large letters across the top asked, "What would Jesus say to..." and then listed six names:  Katy Perry, Lance Armstrong, Ellen DeGeneres, LeBron James, Jerry Jones, and Kim Kardashian.  Pictures are important in marketing, and this piece includes a bastardized close up of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, with the six persons just mentioned replacing the disciples closest to Jesus.  On the back of the card, the pastors of the church ask what Jesus would say to these people in a "one-on-one conversation." Assuring us that Jesus cares about the "famous and fortunate, bold and beautiful, eccentric and outspoken, and the shocking and scandalous," the pastors explain to the readers that by knowing what Jesus might say to those people, we can "hear what Jesus has to say to us."  We are invited to learn about this in a "series of talks" given at "weekend experiences" in the coming weeks, those being the terms that this church uses for what some of us refer to, in Luddite fashion, as sermons and worship services.

Where shall we begin?  In this small advertisement, the church engages in questionable theology, pastoral care, ethics, and psychology in a manner that is cheesy at best and sleazy at worst.  In doing so, the ad encapsulates much of what is worst in American evangelicalism.

Because the doctrinal problems are the most critical, let's start there.  According to the post, the minister is going to attempt to tell us "what Jesus would say" in a "one-on-one conversation" with each of these people. Yet, the truth of the matter is that we don't have any idea what Jesus would say to these people, as he never has spoken to them in a "one-on-one conversation."  In addition, we should note that in the Bible, when Jesus did engage individuals in such conversations, he frequently addressed them in ways that we would not expect (he talks to the woman at the well about living water and then tells her to go get her husband, he tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he owns, and he tells Nicodemus that he has to be born a second time, etc.).  Because the pastor does not know what Jesus would say to these people, what he really will tell us is what he, himself, would say to these people, thus putting himself in the place of Jesus.  While I suppose we are supposed to wink and understand this as a clever way of getting people interested in the sermon (excuse me, I mean "talk"), if taken at all seriously, it is a sort of idolatry, because it puts him and his words in the place of Jesus and His Word, making his own thoughts, words, and ideas out to be the words of God.

In addition, putting these celebrities in the positions of the apostles' at the Last Supper is theologically and historically offensive.  This was a unique event in the Passion of Christ that had unique significance, and it should not be vulgarized in this way.

Second, it should also be noted that the motif is pastorally irresponsible, in that it models pastoral malpractice.  While it is possible that the minister may know these people personally, I am guessing that this is not the case -- especially since he appears to be using some of their lives to model what Jesus would say to the "shocking and scandalous."  Most of us don't go out in public to talk in that way about our friends.  Certainly, he could  not have counselled these people, because in that case the sermons might well be violating pastoral confidences.  If these assumptions are true, then he is postulating what Jesus would say to people based solely on their public personnas, without having any knowledge or understanding of their personal lives and stories, much less their need for the gospel.  In reality, the minister is not dealing with them as real people: they are just props.

There are additional ethical issues here.  The church is appropriating both the names and the images of these people in order to market its product, and I suspect that it is doing so without their permission.  The lines are sometimes blurry here, and I am sure that the church would argue that first amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion would protect its right to produce this material, but one can be sure that if McDonald's or any other large company were using the names and faces of these people in a major marketing effort, that such company would be hearing from their attorneys.  While I am not qualified to state whether there are real legal issues involved, I would note that appropriating these people in a marketing program based on noting their vices -- even if the messaging will end up saying that Jesus will have pleasant things to talk to them about, it is obvious to see that the group has been selected because of public vices, real or perceived -- raises significant ethical concerns.

Finally, I want to talk about the psychological issues that are apparent.  It is interesting to note the narcissistic strain that runs throughout this ad, which can in many ways be understood as an appeal to narcissistic personalities.  By this, I am not referring to clinical narcissism -- narcissism can be seen on a spectrum, and many people have narcissistic tendencies or characteristics without having the clinical diagnosis.  Indeed, authorities such as the late Chrisopher Lasch have argued convincingly that our culture as a whole is moving in a more narcissistic direction.  That being the case, it is not surprising that a marketing strategy would attempt to appeal to and validate these unhealthy tendencies, though it is more than a bit suspect that a church would validate them in this way.

Narcissism is not merely selfishness.  Rather, it is a sort of self-centeredness resulting from an inner emptiness.  Lacking inner resources, the narcissist externally projects uber confidence and then demands constant validation from those around him.  Narcissists care neither about the past or the future -- it is only the present that matters.  Because of doubts about their own significance, narcissists also frequently live their lives through the lenses of important celebrities.  They live for new experiences to validate themselves.

It is not hard to see these tendencies in the ad.  Because history doesn't matter, it means nothing to replace the apostles with the figures of Katy Perry, Jerry Jones, and so forth; nor does it matter if we replace what we know about the sayings of Jesus or the Word of God with the clever present musings of the minister.  In addition, we are assured that what Jesus would say to these famous and infamous people is a way of mediating what he wants to say to us.  All of this can be gathered from a "weekend experience," a phrase that is notably self-centered, as opposed to the notion of worship service, which looks outward and upward.

Because this is one of the five largest churches in the country, it is considered a pacesetter.  However, those who care about the cause of Christ need to resist and oppose these approaches.  Paul, when going to pagan Corinth, determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.  In our increasingly pagan culture, similar commitments are required.

For anyone that has read this far, the marketing material I have described can also be found online here.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Backwards Preaching

I don't normally listen to Christian radio or radio preachers, but driving around in a rental car this week, I listened for a while to a particular minister -- a Baptist of some reknown -- and I had a sort of eureka experience of recognizing a theme in much of his preaching that I find quite disturbing. When I say a eureka experience, I mean that I recognized this in preaching I had heard from hi...m before, but I had never identified the trend before this week.
In his descriptions of God, he describes One who is essentially passive. Oh, God wants to bless us, he urges, but He is really waiting on us. God is waiting for us to act or do something, and when we do, God will respond by blessing us. When we fail to act, we are missing out on the opportunities that God would have given us. But, God is mostly waiting for us to react to His principles.

On the other hand, when this minister talks about Satan, as he is prone to do, the pastor describes a creature who is actively engaged in opposing God, thwarting His purposes, and defeating Christians. The devil is busy and active.

God is passive and waiting, in this view; Satan is busy. The view of Satan approaches dualism, except that the view of God is closer to deism than to historic orthodox Christianity.

This is really quite extraordinary. Rather than seeing God as active in history and redemption, working out His purposes for the good of His people and for His own glory, God is pictured as more or less hindered by our willingness, or lack thereof, to work in His behalf. On the other hand, Satan is unfettered, working to accomplish his purposes.

This is horrible preaching, both doctrinally and pastorally, as it results in calling upon people to do more and try harder in the face of superior obstacles, without an emphasis on God's divine initiative or the driving motivations of God's active grace in our behalf. In fact, all of Christian doctrine, as has been said, is grace, and all of Christian behavior is gratitude. We don't earn God's favor; we respond in gratefulness to it. And we don't battle a superior being in hopes of accomplishing God's purposes. God's purposes are certain to be accomplished, and we have the privilege to be participants, the means through which He accomplishes His will.

Let pastoral motivation driven by forces other than the grace of God be done away, cast into hell along with God's enemies. We can rest -- and be energized -- by divine sovereignty and grace.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

On Hope and Change

In a fallen world, it is no wonder that we tend to associate hope with change. Life is too much filled with death and depravity, disappointment and despair. Naturally, we long for things to be different.

In a temporal sense, it may be appropriate to pursue hope by seeking change, whether that be by personal or political means. However, in an ultimate sense -- theologians would say in an eschatological sense -- hope is found in that which does not change. "For I the Lord do not change," we are told by Malachi.

Malachi follows that statement by saying that as a result of God's changelessness, God's covenant people were not consumed. In other words, the God that does not change will therefore keep His promises, and that can be relied upon even when the world around seems to be falling apart. This also means that the day will come when death and depravity, disappointment and despair, will be swallowed up in victory when He fulfills all of His promises and makes all things new. We see these promises expressed in Romans 8, where, after talking about suffering, the Apostle Paul says that we ultimately "know that all things work together for good" for believers. How can we know that? Well, Paul says, those whom God foreknew, he chose, and justified, and glorified. God already gave His Son for us -- that which was most valuable to Him -- so we can be sure He would not withhold anything else. Therefore, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Whatever the current circumstances, we can be confident that God is keeping His covenant.

I read recently the blog of a professional acquaintance who said that he would be "miserable" if his prediction about the outcome of Tuesday's election turns out to be wrong. Certainly, elections are important, and I will be disappointed on Tuesday if the candidate I vote for does not win, even as I find that much about the country disappoints me regardless of the winner on Tuesday. Even so, it is important to remember that the condition of our souls, and the ultimate hope for our future, and for the future of our children, does not depend on temporal change or on the future or solvency of the country, but on the God who does not change, and who keeps His promises.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I should add that this confidence should not engender an escapist mindset, with the result that we would sit on our hands and wait for the end. Rather, it should give us boldness to engage our world with confidence that our efforts, in both word and deed, will benefit our neighbors and be for God's glory. Confident assurance is not the opposite of active engagement, but it is the opposite of cynical indifference engendered by a hopeless fatalism. To the contrary, amidst trouble, we have hope in Christ and the opportunity to share the same with those who see only death and depravity, disappointment and despair. Such is the Christian task in this world.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Courage Required

A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine, the pastor of a small rural southern church, was asked by a church leader what he would do if a black man and a white woman approached him and asked him to perform their wedding ceremony.  My friend, suspecting that he would be asked this, had prepared himself for this question.  He smiled slightly, but met his questioner's eyes, and said firmly, "I would probably be fired."

The questioner, caught by surprise, quickly backed off and assured the pastor of the church's support in such a situation.  But the pastor knew that he was facing an issue that he had to meet head on, and he made his point in the only way he could and retain his integrity.

Recent news from Crystal Springs, Mississippi brought this old story back to mind.  The pastor there justifies his request that a black couple hold their ceremony at another location away from his church by saying that he wanted to avoid controversy, and he evidently was threatened with firing if the wedding occurred in his church.  But the call to ministry is not one for cowards, and while it is appropriate to deal with many types of issues in delicate ways, the New Testament teaching that the people of God are composed of every tongue and nation is foundational to the minister's calling.  While a period of repentance may prepare him for future ministry, with regard to the present, he has betrayed his calling and should resign.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: "Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics," by Ross Douthat

While socially conservative voters lament the lack of religion in the public square, and secular liberals decry the excess of the same, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that both miss the point.  The problem, Mr. Douthat claims, lies not in the quantity of religion in American life, but in the quality.  Over the last half century American religion has gone bad, and both the religious and irreligious should be concerned about the trend.  In Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, he argues that "both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement." 

Mr. Douthat looks at the years following the second world war and finds a golden age of religion that encompassed a broad swath of American Christianity.  The neo-orthodoxy championed by theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr swept the mainline Protestant churches in a direction that was more orthodox than the liberal views that preceded this period, and the churches thrived. Meanwhile, theologians such as Carl F.H. Henry (misidentified, perhaps tellingly, as "Carl F.W. Henry" through the book and in the index) and the evangelist Billy Graham led the movement of evangelicalism out of the fundamentalist ghetto into a more biblically reasonable and culturally mainstream direction.  Catholicism, as seen in the popularity of Bishop Fulton Sheen, also thrived and was generally viewed quite favorably in pop culture.  Finally, the author points to the successes of the Rev. Martin Luther King, who, with other black religious leaders, united an essentially conservative theological base with progressive politics to effectuate the successes of the civil rights movement.

While Bad Religion is not a work of scholarship, it is well researched, and Mr. Douthat shows how each of these sectors of the institutional church lost its way beginning, as so many jeremiads do, in the 1960's.  Given the cultural challenges faced at that time, he argues that the church faced the choices of accomodation -- rejecting orthodox theological and moral foundations in order to find agreement with the emerging intellectual and sexual mores -- or resistance -- identifying Christianity with cultural conservatism.  Both of these roads have led to tragic consequences.

Mr. Douthat identifies four streams of heresy that have resulted from either accomodation or resistence, and for the sake of of clarity he outlines each stream in terms of popular writers that have impacted those with religious or spiritual concerns both within and outside the institutional church.  Thus, the forsaking of the biblical texts, based largely on questionable scholarship, in favor of those later works known collectively as "gnostic gospels" has resulted in the sort of orthodoxy rejecting spirituality associated with those who read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Codes as though it is a work of non-fiction (the discussion of Brown's own religious motivations and the result is excellent).  In the chapter entitled "Pray and Grow Rich," the author describes how the sort of "name it and claim it" theology once associated with the fringes has become more mainstream with ministers such as the schmaltzy Joel Osteen.  The third type of heresy is the self-absorbed narcissistic "god within" teaching that is personified in books such as the popular Eat, Pray, Love.  Finally, Mr. Douthat takes on the religious nationalism increasingly associated with radio and tv personality Glenn Beck, showing Mr. Beck to be the truly disturbing figure (for the future of American Christianity) that he really is.

While this is an important book that deserves a wide reading, it is not without its problems.  While the title of the book indicates that he is concerned about orthodoxy and heresy, Mr. Douthat never quite defines these terms, and at times it seems almost as though orthodoxy is more about cultural hegemony and sexual mores than what is found in, say, the Apostle's Creed.  He also fails to offer a clear definition of evangelicalism.  While that term has always been a bit nebulous, it was easier to define at Mr. Douthat's beginning point in the 1950's than it is now.  While the author is correct in associating fundamentalism with dispensationalism and a belief in inerrancy, he doesn't seem to understand fully what differentiated those who self-identified as fundamentalists and those who did so as evangelicals.  His identification of Kenneth Hagin as an evangelical is anachronistic (Pentecostals such as Hagin sometimes are considered in that camp now, but were not during his hey day).  Mr. Douthat's handling of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in which he expresses surprise at J.I. Packer's nuanced explanations of inerrancy, is clumsy, at best.

The book also suffers from Mr. Douthat's lack of critical evaluation of neo-orthodoxy, which he champions as an ideal.  Certainly, he is correct that neo-orthodoxy is more true to the historic faith than either the liberalism that preceded it or the views that have dominated mainline churches over the last half century, but he glosses over the weaknesses of that theological movement.  Thus, he notes that Mr. Niebuhr could pen hundreds of pages of Christian theology without referencing the resurrection, but he seems to dismiss this as a weakness, rather than seeing it as a fatal flaw to orthodoxy's concerns.  Indeed, while neo-orthodoxy's philosophical return to biblical categories of thinking was welcome in light of what had prevailed in mainline Protestantism prior to World War II, its indifference to the historicity of Christianity's core events virtually assured that it would not stand in the face of its intellectual challengers.

While genuinely concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy, Mr. Douthat largely views these problems through political and sociological lenses, thus somewhat limiting his range of viable solutions.  That being said, this is a book that I would highly recommend as a perceptive take on America's religious landscape.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Meaning of the Millenium: Four Views, edited by Robert G. Clouse: a Brief Review

The popularity of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, a set of fictional accounts of life in "the last days" just before the second coming of Jesus Christ, demonstrates the ongoing interest of many Americans, both Christian and non-Christian, in the subject of Bible prophecy and the end of the world. The view of the end times expressed in those books, which is known to theologians as dispensational premillenialism, has been arguably the most popular one among fundamentalist, evangelical, and Pentecostal Christians over the course of the last century. Indeed, many believers within those camps assume that this approach to eschatology is the only viable option for Bible believing Christians. However, this is not the case. In The Meaning of the Millenium, a volume that was published in the 1970's, four conservative Christian scholars argue differing positions regarding the Bible's teaching on the end of the age. While the work is now over 30 years old, it remains a relevant guide to the various understandings of conservative Christian scholars on the end times.

In the book, each author contributes an article outlining his basic position of the end times. The writers also each respond to the views of each of their colleagues. This format effectively enables the reader to evaluate each position both as advocated and as critiqued by opponents. That all of the authors are able exponents of their particular views makes this a helpful book in sorting out these issues.

The four positions and their advocates are as follows:

  • Historic premillennialism: George Eldon Ladd

  • Dispensational premillenialism: Herman A. Hoyt

  • Postmillenialism: Loraine Boettner

  • Amillenialism: Anthony Hoekema

Based on Revelation 20, which speaks of the binding of Satan and the reign of Christ for 1,000 years, both forms of premillennialism argue that Christ will return and set up a literal reign on earth based in Jerusalem that will last for that precise length of time. In contrast, both postmillenialism and amillenialism contend that the kingdom is spiritual in nature and that the millennium takes place during the church age prior to the return of Christ. The primary distinction between these latter two views is that postmillennialism takes an optimistic view of spiritual and material progress as a result of the successful spread of the gospel, whereas amillenialists see a rise of both Christianity and the forces of evil up to the end of the age.

While the only passage that speaks of a 1,000 year reign is found in Revelation 20, all of the writers emphasize that these views hinge on significantly different hermeneutical approaches to the Scripture. In particular, a- and post millenialists interpret prophetic passages and promises from the Old Testament in light of the first coming of Christ and New Testament teaching, while dispensational premillenialists make the Old Testament their beginning point and re-interpret the New Testament in light of the Old. Interestingly, Ladd, representing the historic premillennial view, largely agrees with Hoekema and Boettner with regard to his understanding of the Old Testament and attempts to distance himself from the weaknesses inherent in the dispensational perspective. Ladd's view is almost entirely driven by his understanding of Revelation 20. Nonetheless, the result of these varying approaches to the Old Testament is that Hoekema and Boettner both view the promises of a Davidic kingdom being fulfilled figuratively during the New Covenant age or during our future eternal state. The premillenial dispensationalists expect those promises to be fulfilled literally on earth. The non-dispensational writers effectively argue that their understanding of the Old Testament coheres with the methodology used by Jesus and the New Testament writers in interpreting the Old Testament as it relates to Christ's first advent and the New Covenant that he inaugurated.

Given the popularity of the dispensational view, it is striking to note how weak, not to mention extreme, it appears when viewed alongside the other viewpoints (I write as one who was raised as a dispensationalist, but who long ago rejected that teaching and now would describe himself as an amillennialist). Indeed, one suspects that dispensational premillennialism only prevails as the dominant viewpoint because most laypeople have not had the opportunity to hear other viewpoints argued. A volume such as this would help remedy that problem. At the very least, it should help disabuse dispensationalists of the notion that those holding differing views are guilty of denying the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

This volume is highly recommended for anyone interested in these issues.