Tuesday, February 03, 2009

So why am I blogging so much about a single article?

I've gotten up to six parts ruminating on Matthew Lee Anderson's article about the "new" evangelical scandal and I have been connecting my thoughts about it to my reading of Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and connecting all of that to the last eight or nine years I have spent with Mars Hill in one form or another.

Why?

Because it becomes increasingly apparent that the "new" scandal is just a variation of the old scandal, that there is nothing new under the sun. We are too easily tempted to gain the world at the cost of our own souls even when we think we are standing for what is right and good. I have seen that the people who think they are doing God and the truth a favor can be the people who mean the best and still fail. Every generation sees the need for reforms that don't happen. Israel is delivered out of Egypt but a whole generation dies without ever setting foot in the promised land.

Abraham dies having never seen the fulfillment of God's promise that he would be the father of a great nation and that all the world would be blessed through him. Abraham never gets to see the day when people will wish they were as blessed as he was.

Israel asks for a king and gets Saul. God appoints another king after His own heart who marries many women and sheds innocent blood. And after him comes another child who turns to other gods and makes marriage a means to a social and political end and lays a heavy burden on the people to accomplish what he envisions after he has been turned astray by the desires of his own heart, even though he had been given great wisdom and insight by the Lord.

I'm not old but I am not so young any more. I remember growing up in churches where we would talk about revival, pray for revival, ask that God would revive the land. We would pray that God would reveal Himself in our time and show His power to transform the world for good. We all openly hoped that God would somehow use us to change the world for the better, or at least I hoped for that and I hoped that people around me hoped for that. I hoped that I would see a day when the body of Christ and myself would be reformed and renewed and people would really be blessed by those who are called by the name of Christ.

To be honest, I'm just not seeing it. The people who think and speak as evangelicals ... I struggle to see how the world has been blessed by us. I struggle to see how the world is blessed by people who name the name of Christ. It's not that I don't want to believe or that I can't believe that the Lord uses His people to be a blessing to people ... it's that I don't see it happening right now and maybe that's my fault.

When I first came to Mars Hill I thought it was genuinely going to be different from other churches. I realize now what a painful mistake that was. It is painfully easy for Christians whose walk with Christ is not so solid as they think to fool themselves, tell themselves that this time is going to be different. Scripture is full of men and women like Peter who swear that they will not forsake Christ yet do anyway at the first sign of trouble. Scripture tells us of disciples who argued with each other over who was the greatest and best among the disciples, who deserved to get the biggest pat on the back for being closest to Jesus.

I realize that I do not have much faith and that I have put too much of my faith in God's people when, perhaps, I should not have. They are,after all, just sin-riddled men and women like me.

To be honest in the earliest days when I attended Mars Hill I would sometimes hear this or that person say, "So, what do you think of Mars Hill?" I would be embarrassed, for myself, and for Christ. I never knew for certain that the question was being asked except rhetorically, as though it were the kind of moment when ...

In my late teens I was in college and just getting acquainted with this city I call home. I was invited by someone to attend a Vineyard church service. So I attended. The music was tedious and soporific. I nearly dozed off. The preaching was adequate and something about Job but nothing so striking that I could remember it an hour later and certainly not seventeen years later as I attempt to recall what on earth the preacher was talking about. The woman who took me to the service turned to me afterward on the way home and said, "So, that was pretty different from usual church services, huh?"

No, not really, not for my background.

It was a moment like that, the question was weighted with that kind of expectation that whomever received the question would realize just how special this place and time and people really were. But that is not what makes anything, time, place, or people special. The truth is we take ourselves with utmost seriousness and in so many ways we have every right to. We are all going to die one day and a life so frail and brief as ours is a life that needs to be lived with some seriousness.

Yet we do not realize most of the time how frail and feeble we are even at our strongest moments. Just a few pounds of pressure in the right place will kill us. A few minutes without air and we are dead beyond saving. It is when I consider how complex the process is and yet how palpably simple the moment is in which I can heard someone's voice, hear their words, and understand them at any level--it is when I can hear the form of a musical work and understand that it means something, that it conveys both the heart and mind of the one who wrote the music ... it is in these moments that I most readily remember that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Yet we are rifts of dust blown away by the mildest breeze in the evening.

So many of us simply live and die and are eventually forgotten. Those of us who are infamous enough to be remembered are able to be remembered in the heat of either love or hatred. Is it really our greatness as men and women that leads to this moment? Are there unusual men born for unusual times that God appoints? You see there are some men who are called by men as though they were prophets and I have wondered what that means.

I come from a background where we believed that it was and is possible for prophets to exist in our time, not prophets who invent books of the Bible but men and women who speak what God puts in them to speak to this age, this epoch. I believe that men like Solzhenitsyn, King, Schaeffer, and others were appointed by the Lord to say things to His people that needed to be said. How easy it has been for us to not listen to them until after their times had passed.

For years I felt Mars Hill was a special place, a place that was different from other rinky dink churches and now, to be honest, I feel like I've made a sucker of myself. It's no different from any other. I have been considering the film Rashomon lately and have been fascinated that the priest objects that if one has such a terrible view of the world and the way things are that one would lose faith in humanity. I find it fascinating that he never really says a word about losing any faith in any god. There is no solution to the conflicting accounts of the crimes and deaths that happened. There is no one whose account of things isn't marred by their own fear, selfishness, resentments, and self-interest. It is a singularly gloomy assessment of humanity and yet a powerful one since it does not consider man, brutal and self-deluding as he is to be entirely beyond compassion or kindness.

These are the moments when I paraphrase a somber line from a favorite comic strip--we are children of the night, travelling from dark to dark, hiding from the glare and gream of an ungracious sun. Quickly, signs of dawn approaching in the east.

Like owls within the boat, rowing madly away from the sunrise--like those shadows in the cave that are preferred to reality ... the truth about ourselves is much uglier and more beautiful yet with a frailer beauty than we are comfortable embracing. Indeed we cannot embrace these things ourselves, we are too weak for it. I am too weak for such a thing as that ... that Christ took upon Himself for me.

The great prophet who foretold the coming of Christ said, "He must become greater and greater while I must become less and less." Even he doubted and sent men to ask, "Are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?" How could someone whose birth itself was a miraculous gift from God, who was destiend to baptist Christ Himself and foretell His coming, who lept within the womb merely being in the presence of the Lord ... how could this man, of all people, send men to ask Jesus if they and he should, in fact, perhaps wait for another?

Jesus said to the men to go tell John that the lame were walking, the blind were given sight, the deaf were able to hear and that he would be blessed who did not take offense at him. A wicked and unbelieving generation asked for a sign ... yet the signs were already given. So was not John the Baptist himself part of that generation? And he was the greatest of all prophets in the words of the Lord Himself.

It is fascinating for me to consider that Israel started turning to idolatry because they had no idea when Moses would return or if he would return. They grew impatient waiting and so asked Aaron to fashion for them an image that would serve for them to represent the God who delivered them out of Egypt. This golden calf would be Yahweh. When God has delivered us and leads us, nonetheless, into the wilderness I want to be able to hold on to something. It is strange to consider that God does not show Himself but gives His name. It is strange to consider that His name is considered enough. We can see what He accomplishes in the cosmos but we are given a name.

When Christ came in the flesh He took up a name. He came and became in flesh and voice the Word, begotten not made, firstborn, preeminent. In the first covenant Yahweh gave His name and in the second covenant He gave Himself and gave His name, too.

Time and again we have demonstrated to God and to ourselves that a name is not enough to us. We want an image. We want something we can see and touch. We don't need to hear the word but to see the word and are even willing to settle for whatever we say the word is to ourselves and what it looks like. Whoever fashions the image for us, whoever gives us that image we crave of who we want God to be, that man is our hero. He has given us what we want, the image of God as we grow weary of waiting for the words from God delivered by His servant Moses. We don't wait for that servant to come down from the mountain when God sends him. We turn to someone among us and say, "Make for us an image so that we may worship it." And the leader among us obliges and fashions an image from what we give him of our treasures so that we can bow down before what he has made.

Should we blame Aaron for taking our golden rings and fashioning a molten calf for us to worship? He is guilty of doing such a thing for us and incurred guilt before the Lord but it was we who asked of him, "Fashion a god for us" and it was all of us together who took to that calf and said, "Behold, this is the Lord God who delivered you from the land of Egypt."

I find Aaron a fascinating man at this point. The idolatry is of the people and Aaron, though he knows better, goes along with it. He gives the people what they want. When God sees it He becomes angry and Moses becomes angry. Aaron shifts the blame to the people, as Adam did to his wife. This does not exonerate Aaron at all for the idolatry of the people and his part in encouraging it ... but he is not wrong to point out how bad the people of Israel are about insisting on what they want even when that means not following the Lord. So is Aaron responsible? Yes. Are the people responsible? Of course.

As Americans we are so individualistic we tend to see things in terms of individual guilt or innocence. If we see guilt or innocence for groups it tends to be in the abstract as Matthew Lee Anderson's article has it. There are times when people will namenames about someone being a problem or having a problem but it is relatively rare except among watchbloggers who have nothing better to do. Even I have better things to do with my life than be a theologicla watchblogger and I'm not saying I have a life.

Consider this, the people of Israel got their golden calf. Aaron made for them what they wanted and was guilty of spit-checking the wind and going with the flow. The first act of idolatry was not turning to other gods than yahweh, in a way, but casting an image of who they believed Yahweh was, who they believed He was, what He needed to look like. Yahweh gave them His name and they wanted an image. When Yahweh came to them in the flesh they did not want Him. We don't want the real God, we want the God we would like to sya saved us.

Over the years I have grown skeptical about American evangelicalism not because the core and the history behind it is so troubling to me ... if by this we mean what I understand evangelicalism to be ... but because so much of evangelical religion in the last two decades seems like a nostalgia for a sort of civic religion. We pine for an imaginary day when men were men and women were women and everyone knew how to build decent God-fearing families.

The Torah tells us otherwise, that even that God-fearing family had Judah and Tamar.

Why does God use liars and thieves and fools to accomplish His will? Why does He reveal the good news of Himself through such pathetic servants? I have no answer and half the time I am not sure I can even believe the consistency with which God picks the dumbest most venal people to accomplish His purposes and transform them. I'm not even sure where I'm going with this right now.

I suppose what I'm really getting at is that I have seen how in my life and possibly in the lives of hundreds or even thousands of others Mars Hill can be a golden calf, is a golden calf. If it is then it is not Aaron's fault the calf has been fashioned. Aaron may not even be aware in this case he has fashioned the golden calf but he may be aware what pressure there is from the people of Israel that a golden calf has to be made. There may be people outlying the borders o the Israelite camp who no longer like what Aaron is doing and complain about the golden calf even though they have their own golden calves. They still gave Aaron their rings from which to fashion the thing they wanted. Were they upset that he fashioined a calf and not something else?

And if they didn't give their rings over did it matter in the end? God found His people guilty of making a graven image even as they told each other this graven image was the image of God Himself. We are all guilty of making Christ into what we wish Him to be in our hearts. We do not realize the level of self-deception we can bring to what we consider our noblest moments. When we offer our thanks to the golden calf we think we are thankful to Christ but we reveal that we have betrayed Him, abandoned Him, forsaken Him, ignored Him. We have remade Him into whatever we believe has truly delivered us from bondage.

I believe that in my life and in the lives of others I have known this is in essence what has happened in Mars Hill. It is not that Christ has not been merciful to me or to us whom He has bought with His own life. Far from it. Instead we have walked out of the land the Red Sea covered and in our impatience to wait upon the Lord pressed Aaron to create something for us we considered suitable for worship. Certainly I would never be able to say this is true of everyone. That would be stupid and only the Lord knows all things. Even so I don't believe it is wrong to say as a general statement about human weakness.

In Scripture we see the guilt is corporate. This is something that is hard to understand and in our day and age is considered unacceptable. Why should other people suffer for another person's sins? Why would Israel have met defeat in Ai because of Achan's sin? Why should Israel have been punished by God having Satan inspire David to take a census? Why was David the instrument through which God appointed the punishment? David realized he sinned against the Lord but by then thousands had their fate sealed. The counsel of Joab was insufficient to prevail against the foolishness of the king, even the king whose heart loved the Lord.

Scripture reveals that no mere mortal is too good to fail. Did Aaron protest? We are not told that he did and if he did he put up so little protest as to make no difference. As I have written much earlier elsewhere, the divided kingom of Israel and Judah both quickly descended into idolatry as a way to consolidate their divisions against each other and solidify internal loyalty. All it proved was that both sides were in sin and turning away from the one true God. My little finger is bigger than my father's penis and where he whipped you with whips I will whip you with scorpions. What have we to do with the house of David? I will not recite all of my earlier reflections on that, I promise.

Those who do not study history, it is so often said, are doomed to repeat it. Scripture reveals something even grimmer to us .. that even those who study history are doomed to repeat it! Did Solomon not know of the history of his father's court? Did not Deutoronomy itself warn of the failure of Israel to obey and of the inevitability of exile? As Jesus said so forcefully to His own countrymen, when they said to themselves "We would have never done that" they testified against themselves as guilty. At the risk of speaking hyperbolically it may be the crimes Christ pardons us for are the ones we confess and those we do not confess are those for which we retain guilt.

If Israel is divided her hope is in Christ, not in the stupidity of Israel and Judah or their competing claims about who is best living out the calling of Yahweh to be a light to the nations since both are idolatrous. If Babel is divided then Babel is divided. The promise of Christ is still available to all who would come to Him. I like countless people before me have wanted an image of God I can turn to and He has given me His name and I have not appreciated the greatness of this gift. Jacob wrestled with God for a night and did not receive that name but a blessing ... and through Christ we receive one day the blessing and now bear the name.

By now, perhaps, it isn't too hard to discern why I have written so much, reflected upon so much. This is all simply a lengthy personal confession too cryptic and absurd to be taken seriously by anyone but it is a confession that seems necessary. What it is does not bear reiteration to this degree, perhaps, but it is not unheard of in Jewish poetry to say the same thing several different ways for emphasis.

If we have plied Aaron to build a golden calf for us he is not more to blame than we were for plying him to make an image of God for us. If we have been Aaron building the golden calf and declaring to the peple that this is who God is and how they were delivered we are not able to blame the people for guilt that is on our hands as well. And even if we are Moses who has come down and destroyed the golden calf and spoken against the people for their sin then if God should say He will destroy His people and build a new nation from us it is emphatically not the measure of righteousness in us to say, "Yes, Lord, destroy the apostate nation of Israel and rebuild it through my lineage."

No, that is not what Moses says or does. He pleads before God to spare the people for the sake of His name so that the Egyptians will not mock them. If Moses had accepted what God said in anger and decided he would be the one through whom Israel would be reconstituted and through whom God's promise to Abraham would be fulfilled then Moses would at that point have not been the Moses we see in Scripture but some other fool like the rest of God's people. Moses was like Christ in that moment and pled for the lives of people he knew would turn away into depravity. He did not seek to escape the fate of God's people even when they were at their worst and he did not distance himself from them even in their failure, though they frustrated him constantly.

That's enough for now.