Saturday, May 17, 2008

Alaynzer's The Theologian's Fallacy

A few modifications can help tailor this interesting blog entry to the specific case mentioned.

A variation on question 3:

Is it possible that you could be mistaken about your Trump, concerning its status as a source of absolute and infallible Truth?

The variation that I think is pertinent is "Is it possible that your Trump does not solve the problem you want it to solve simply by you invoking it?"

Christians can invoke the inerrancy of Scripture to solve a problem Scripture was not provided to solve. While Christians can surmise that abortion is bad and that rape is bad these are not so unequivocally spelled out in Scripture that Christians can use the Bible as a trump card on that point. The way stories of rape are presented in Scripture shows us that it's wrong but if we literally followed some of the legal parameters prescribed for rape in the Torah, for instance, we'd inevitably let rapists go free, and the Bible simply doesn't speak to child abuse at all, except to Western modern minds providing the rather grim assessment that if you beat your child he will not die and you will drive the evil from his heart!

Question 3 gets to an important point, which is "Why do you feel obliged to pull your Trump card here on this issue?" Why is it important to end discussion with your trump card right now?

For some people the Trump isn't going to be Scripture and its inerrancy, it might be some variation of interpretative tradition. I would submit that both have some significant problems in as much as we can verify simply from Augustine and Jude alone that in the earliest and most critical stages Christian tradition was still a bit malleable. We don't all subscribe to what Driscoll once dismissively called the "seed of Chucky" interpretation of Genesis 6.

Of course this gets to Driscoll's personal variation of the trump card, his interpretation of a biblical passage from the pulpit or public setting, which basically amounts to "This is what the text says so you can't argue with it." It's not that the biblical text really indisputably says that because here have been centuries of discussion and interpretation, but Driscoll has been able to read books and books by Wayne Grudem on spiritual gifts and still come down on the side of cessationism from the pulpit for reasons that (six years later I hasten to add) I still don't understand. Sometimes the trump card is not Scripture itself but what we are able to do with Scripture or what attitude we take toward it.

Other people read Scripture all their lives but ignore basic things like exegesis. If they feel that Scripture says that this or that will come to pass for them in their lives personally then that's exactly what Scripture is there for. That there is an element of sympathetic magic in treating Scripture like the world's best fortune cookie doesn't spring easily to mind for folks. It's something I've been tempted to do myself, to be honest, because it's one of those negative legacies from a Pentecostal background. Even Augustine himself had one or two moments where he did this so I suppose I should say that it's not ADVISABLE but God can providentially use it. :)

The essential gist of the Theologians Fallacy is that theologians of any stripe invoke their trump card to avoid having to squirm, which is precisely what God probably wants them to do. Invoking the Trump so you don't have to squirm in the face of an unpleasant reality God permits in His universe might mean that you want to trust in something besides God, whether it's traditions or words or evidences that aren't Him. Of course it's by faith that we trust that God even exists anyway, but we want more assurance than faith that our lives aren't meaningless. Hope does not disappoint, unless we've so downgraded our understanding of hope that it's more like a lucky guess.

Job's comforters invoked their trump card throughout the whole book, that Job had to be wrong, and God said that what they said about Him was not right. The whole book of Job seems to have been written to warn us that there are times when we are tempted to use the Trump card and discover that we're invoking our Trump, and not really the Lord.

Friday, May 16, 2008

a short story

One day a husband and wife were having an argument. They were arguing about whether to stay in the house they lived in or move to a new one. Their three children were waiting in the stairway with baited breath, wondering what was going on. One of the children finally stood up and said, "Dad, Mom, why are you fighting?"

Dad said, "We're having a discussion, son. It's not important for you to know all the details. Go upstairs and play."

So the three kids went upstairs but they didn't play, they simply listened from the upper floor. There was not much they could make out except that the argument was continuing.

Then the children heard their father say to their mother, "You're fired. You're my wife and their mother until the end of the month and then you have to go."

The wife packed up her things and left. The children came down when they heard their father's words and asked what was going on. The father said that when mom and dad have an argument the children don't need to know all the details and that Mom just got fired and they'd be getting a new, better mom.

One of the children objected, got up, and ran out the door after his mother. The other two children sat down with their father, who thanked them for their loyalty, asked them never to associate with their mother again, and thanked them for the checks they wrote him to support his work as their father and asked them to be more generous so that by an increase in his allowance he could buy them a better house and find a new mother for them who would be a better mother than their mother had been. This the remaining two children cheerfully agreed to.

The first mother had long since gone outside and was lamenting her fate. Was she fired because she said what she thought, the thing that she thought had made her ex-husband want to marry her to begin with? Some neighboring kids had seen her leave and one said to the other, "Look, the guy fired his wife. What an asshole. We never liked either of them anyway so that's just what they deserve."

But the kids were nothing more than strangers who simply saw what had happened and did not understand its meaning. Who could understand how a dad who lived off the money of his children would fire their mother and offer a minimal explanation? The children could simply not give money or recognize that a father who could fire his wife could fire his children, too. But since they had not renewed their contracts as children yet it remained to be seen if this lack of renewal was construed as being children until further notice or not being children at all until the contract was renewed. This gave the children some cause for bewilderment. It is a bit strange to imagine a father who has children as his on a contractual basis but stranger things have been known to exist.

All in all, it is a mysterious situation.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

evolving backwards has always been an option

I suppose Stephen Jay Gould couldn't have asked for a better example that evolution has no inherent direction ... or it may be that the function is preserved despite the direction of evolving in "reverse".

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

why the Church is not really based on capitalism. :)

"Warning: If you treat your church like a business, you will treat other churches like your competition."

Nothing more to elaborate on this particular point, really.

Rapture Ready ... I might just have to pick this book up with such interesting reviews

As Slavoj Žižek has observed, the logic of late capitalism presses towards the commodification of a niche identity for its own sake; the Christian merchandise I buy is not itself the desired commodity, but it is merely an ephemeral signifier of the real commodity, which is my identity as a particular sort of Christian. In this case, the product I am really purchasing is radically non-material, wholly spiritual; I am purchasing religious meaning and belonging, religious “community” (since the merchandise allows me to participate in a specific market niche). Here, any neat separation between my “faith” and my “consumer culture” is simply fictitious. To change the latter simply is to change the former.

This is the part where, though I'm not really a Marxist, any variation of potentially Marxist critique fits because I think Marx correctly diagnosed the social and economic problem of his era. Reformed people buy Reformed stuff, Orthodox people buy Orthodox stuff, Pentecostal people by Pentecostal stuff, Catholics buy Catholic stuff. The wallet speaks to one's identity just as much as one's identity speaks to one's wallet. What plays out as "I must buy an American car" becomes "I must buy things that show that I am this or that kind of Christian, a real Christian rather than a fake one."

This is the sort of thing that I don't struggle with at all any more .... that I know of! If I enjoy South Park I watch South Park with the proviso that I don't watch it at all with Christians whom I know are uncomfortable with the show. But like other people (I guess) I struggled with the feeling that my wallet was at some level supposed to reflect that the stuff I liked was sufficiently "Christian". Nah, more to the point, I got flack from parents (one in particular) for a few years telling me I should stop reading "trashy novels" and start reading "good, Christian literature". Somewhere Fyodor Dostoevsky, I hope, had a good belly-laugh for that kind of response. Somewhere, I imagine, Kafka might have another rueful smirk. Takahashi probably has no idea any of this is going on and is the better for it. I don't quite know what Austen would think.

The thing that seems most apparent from someone like Frank Schaeffer is a sense of betrayal of principles. There is a sense in which he could have been said to have appropriated Christ to transform culture and his own father, at least by Frank's way of thinking. I still think Frank is living in a dream world if he imagines his father could have somehow been a hero to the Religious Left. That involves a Bizzaro world of almost inconceivable proportions but that world MUST exist in Imagination Land somewhere!

I grew up in a basically Christian family where national and spiritual identity blurred, a lot. As my own walk with the Lord the idea that I saw myself as a Christian first and as an American citizen second (or possibly third) did not always settle well with the parents, not least when I said that some aspects of Marxist thought were not actually crazy ... just Marxist APPLICATION (which totally is crazy). But even conceding that a critique of late capitalism, say, could apply to Christian identity to all Christians in the West is not something I'd run by my parents as a point for conversation because they've taken me to a Benny Hinn crusade or commended Frank Perretti's books. It's encouraging to read that Perretti has more or less moved on from that stage of writing. It's also interesting to read about how one of the stars of that period confessed to having written the book out of a lot of anger.

A lot of Christians in the United States who aligned evangelical were angry in the 1990s. The Republicans had lost the highest office in the country and Clinton was being described as possibly the Antichrist, ready to institute martial law on behalf of the United Nations possibly any day now. There was a level of paranoia that permeated this subculture that soured me on that whole approach more than a decade ago. To have actually said so would have gotten me in more trouble with my family who still had that approach than I (or my brother) wanted to bother with. Holding to scriptural infallibility rather than inerrancy was not to be spoken of.

Someone could say to me that this was a sign of suppressing my real identity as a Christian on the basis of going along to get along. Yeah, you could say that, but I took it more as a sign of being loving and not being an idiot. I didn't want to upset the apple cart of a family member's faith by suggesting that there are textual variants or manuscript issues on minor points of doctrine when those family members had hitched their wagon to word-for-word inerrancy (and some of whom still do). My brother and I have found ourselves in the interesting situation of having some family members come ar0und to some ideas that we have held for more than a decade that we didn't talk about because we didn't feel like getting scolded for not being orthodox enough. In light of recent family developments I'd like to think that some of the potential scuffles won't even have to happen now, though I also hope that my choosing to remain a Protestant doesn't become an issue for conflict.

Ever since my college days I have figured that if a person acknowledges Christ alone as Lord, Scripture as the most reliable and necessary pointer to Christ, and acknowledges that Christ can save anyone who believes, then confessional delineations of the sort Americans often care about on any side of any divide should be mooted. This is the type of minimalist Christianity advocates all around dislike. I have sometimes heard the rather rare but memorable complaint that the Gospel is not enough, one need's culture. One already has whatever culture God provides so that always struck me as an absurd desire but it makes sense to want to see how being a Christian actually looks where you live.

Still, it's not as though Jesus didn't cover that one, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you. It's just a matter of trusting that Jesus said that and that He spoke the truth. Not easy to understand or implement, but also beyond any point for negotiation or doubt in terms of one's individual walk as a disciple of Christ. If I follow after Christ and need a culture I'll get that.

To not take that approach, to assume that I have to build a culture or choose a culture for myself that compensates for what Jesus can't provide me risks the potential of being an idol, which is where things come full circle on the "Rapture Ready" variations in Christianity, whatever their stripe. In the absence of feeling as though I can participate in the culture around me, or perhaps in the absence of feeling as though being a Christian somehow "gives" me a culture, I can pick whichever cultural legacy I want. I could pick my father's culture or my mother's culture but neither have ever appealed to me. Both are so fundamentally corrupted by generations of sin and misery that I don't think either side would have me embrace those cultural legacies and I wouldn't choose to. I don't need to deny that my dad was American Indian, that my Mom comes from Okie stock or that my stepdad's family has Arkansas born Adventist background but I also don't have to just pick one of the above as somehow "the" culture that reflects me or ignore the others out of favoritism for one or the other.

On the other hand, ever since by grace I saw the stream thy flowing wounds supply, redeeming love has been my theme and shall be til I die.

The remedy to this quagmire seems relatively simple, mix and match. I like Rich Mullins songs so I own an album by Rich Mullins. I like Stevie Wonder, so I own Stevie Wonder albums. I like choral music by Arvo Part so I own that. I own music and books by artists and authors who would be considered nominally outside my formal confession of faith. I don't think stuff outside that millieu is "trashy". I'm also at a point in my life where I can relax knowing that everything is a mere vapor. The things we consider culturally important now or timeless now are not timeless. There will come a time when no one knows or cares who Shakespeare is. It's no reason not to appreciate Shakespeare now, of course, but it is a way to ensure that what is "timeless" is seen for what it is, something that will pass away when that which is perfect comes.

It is fascinating how artists and theologians are so eager to issue manifestos, most of which mean very little except to those who issued it. Even one of my long-time heroes wasn't above issuing a Christian manifesto. We can't improve upon the manifest we already have, we could do a better, more consistent job of sticking to it, not least because it has been provided for us and we got to rubber stamp it even though it's not necessarily our own, despite coming about (paradoxically) through our own fallible hands.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

contemplating the semantics and potential application of multi-site vs denomination

Have I been cynical to have suspected that the people running the church I call home are simply sinners who bumble their way through things and are at least as reluctant as I am (and not less) to avoid admitting to a dumb-ass mistake here and there?

When I first came to the church there was some discussion about how it was a people and not a place. Now conversation seems to have implicity shifted toward a place where community happens and not the people from whom that community will (or, just as importantly, potentially won't) ostensibly spring. Getting plugged in means signing up, finding a place to serve, and helping the mission. If the mission is Christ, cool, but I have found out steadily, inexorably over the years that I'm not gifted in the usual "evangelism" methods of Christians in the United States. In fact I'm the kind of Christian you probably won't discover is a Christian until you're already in the church and happen to come across me or happen to come across in some other setting where I don't avoid saying what my confession of faith is but don't seek to beat people over the head with it either. In an older time of my church's history this might have been dubbed lifestyle evangelism. ;) A secularist might say that i'm a Christian who minds his own business and knows a few things about Messiaen and anime along with the Bible.

But is it cynical to suppose that churches will invariably distort or even destroy the Gospel as a message of hope in Christ Jesus? I don't care what the confessional alignment is or what the formally stated doctrines are, it seems as though we are destined to muck it up in presentation. How is it that a holy, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God would be so eager to reveal Himself through such stupid, venal, selfish and self-deluded pieces of living dust? That is something I don't really understand. But I am starting to understand that the people who think they are doing God a favor are as a rule the people He is most angry with. The people who do not invoke Him to prove they are right seem more likely to understand His mercy. "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" is not something I have heard all that clearly from people in His Church, regardless of confessional alignment. So is it cynicism to rest in the rather dreary supposition that "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more" is simply not something I'm going to hear from Christians as a whole, brothers and sisters in Christ?

Whoever has been forgiven much loves much, and whoever has been forgiven little loves little. It feels as though we can be so eager to tell people how much they have sinned so they can understand how much they have been forgiven. Jesus can say that but can we? Jesus doesn't tell the woman how much she sinned, only that she was forgiven. Something about these stories resonates with me, we don't need to come to Christ telling Him how much we've sinned not because we shouldn't confess, but because coming to Christ is the confession, and Christ knows our sin. Do we as Christians think that we have to play the role of Christ or the Spirit to tell people who have offended us how much they are guilty before God? I've found myself tempted to that all the time and I don't speak because I don't feel I can speak from that position, though sometimes out of sheer frustration I wish that I could.

So appropos of no transition, the multi-site church is a microdenomination. There is no practical, meaningful distinction between a multi-site church that has five or six campuses and a denomination. If you have multiple locations with a common doctrinal and liturgical practice, and any kind of executive leadership that makes decisions while the other pastors have the option to vote for or against particular points of doctrine it's not THAT different from a denomination. It's not even THAT different from the Roman Catholic Church since not just any bishop can make a proclamation about this or that doctrine but the pontiff can speak on behalf of all the bishops together. The jibe about Protestants having a pope at every pulpit has a kernel of truth to it. after all.

But why sell this as a multi-site church rather than a denomination? Seems simple enough, the mainline denominations in the United States sold orthodoxy up the river or embraced a strain of fundamentalism and both at their various stages of development waged culture wars to get the society around them to go the way they wanted. The religious left went this route in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the religious right tried to take back the Eisenhower era without paying attention to Francis Schaeffer from the 1980s on out. On either side of the coin the denominations bungled the battle for the culture (which is something both sides deserved, handily).

If you want to transform culture for Christ or use Christ to transform culture (because when your church is led by run-of-the-mill sinners only Jesus Himself knows which is which) and realize that movements in American Christianity have fizzled out by shooting for the moon then you avoid the word most often historically linked with such movements, denomination.

But a key difference DOES exist here. In a denominational hierarchy the leaders have paid their dues at the level of the local campus and moved on to serve as shepherds for the denomination/movement. What they no longer do is have any real day-to-day involvement with people in local churches under their jurisdiction. Someone preached a sermon about this kind of problem a few years ago in Seattle, actually. Anyway, what happens in a denominational structure is that if Pastor A leads the denomination and Pastor B is at church building Q then Pastor B does the preaching at building Q because Pastor B is, well, the pastor there. In the multi-site church Pastor A does all the preaching everywhere whether or not he or she has any meaningful connection to building Q, knows its members, or even attends. For the sake of direction within the denomination the advantage of this is that the denominational leader can speak to the entire network on any given Sunday.

The disadvantage to this is the contextualizing the Gospel to individual congregations has completely vanished. It not only doesn't happen but can't possibly happen. That task could ostensibly be delegated to the various pastors who administrate those campuses but if they are not preaching to their own flock are they pastors in the traditionally understood sense of the word? Veer away from the Protestant praxis a great deal and I could say, yeah, they are. An overseer or a bishop may not necessarily share anything new to his or her flock. But knowing how the teaching of Christ applies in a specific congregant's life evaporates. The pastor of a multi-campus church runs the risk of having no involvement in the actual flock.

Now in a denominational paradigm this is precisely what I would not only expect but encourage since the goal of a denominational/movement leader is to equip OTHER LEADERS, not the flock at each campus. That's a biblically defensible pattern we see in Scripture. The apostle Paul instructs leaders at various churches how to deal with situations they face with their flesh and blood congregations. Paul would visit churches he planted for quite some time and preach and teach there and immerse himself in the lives of that particular group of believers.

The risk of a multi-site church that uses video feed is that what is contextualized may not be Christ but simply the lead pastor, who as a de facto denominational leader may have no idea what is going on in the various flocks he is teaching on Sunday because he's never actually at those locations immersed in the lives of those he ostensibly might shepherd. Practically the solution would seem to be to let the local bishops do their work (i.e. local pastors of whatever monikor we may propose).

Once a multi-site church extends beyond a single city we are firmly outside any biblically viable explication of what the local church looks like. A huge urban area that includes a few adjacent cities could still count but beyond that it's no longer viable to say the Church of Western Washington where before you could have said the church in Olympia or the church in Bothell. The church in Bothell and Aberdeen stops being a single church in terms of biblical precedent and becomes two churches ... unless we're talking the Church in which case we're getting catholic. Or, at a more pragmatic level, a denomination.

And in the denominational network that's what we see happening, treating two different locations as unique expressions of the Church universal and of the denominational network in particular. Pastor Billy and Pastor Bobby at Hazard county live on either sides of the county but they know their congregations and take them through the Word as seems best. Or Bishop Matt and Bishop Mason have the lectionary prescribed by the denominational leadership and they go through that and tailor a short message that adds a personal touch to a liturgical paradigm whose goal is not individual application but universal application by joining churches across time and space in worship of Christ. Most Protestants don't seem to take that approach but some of them do (i.e. Anglicans and Lutherans, if memory serves).

But in a multi-site church something seems potentially out of place. The de facto denominational leader can have his or her sermon piped out to multiple locations and enjoys the privilege of the role that a pastor would have in a denominational network without the corresponding responsibility before both Christ and the denominational leadership to account for how he or she has shepherded the flock of Christ given into his care. It's like you get to kiss your girlfriend but you don't have to marry her is the potential risk involved.

By analogy, the pastor at a multi-site church has the power to speak as though a denominational leader without the responsibility of shepherding any flock at all, a task that can now be conveniently delegated to the pastors at individual churches. And because the organization is a "multi-site church" and not a denomination a figurehead status is retained in which the denominational/multi-site church leader has the role of being the Pope and assembly of cardinals, kinda, while not ever being in a position to administer a sacrament like officiating a wedding or participating in communion with his or her own flock.

Conversely pastors who are tasked with the role of preaching and teaching in other settings (i.e. a denominational network) are essentially put in a position where they have the responsibility of ensuring things run smoothly but have limited opportunities to speak to their congregation. This is not necessarily all that is entailed in being a church leader, though. If being a church leader were just about talking to people from the pulpit anyone with a blog could be a pastor, and almost anyone with a blog seems able to think he or she IS a pastor.

But if the model reveals a risk of having privileges without responsibilities someone else gets the other side of the pancake, having responsibilities without any corresponding privileges, or potentially having privileges that are abdicated by someone else. So, you're married to your husband or wife but you don't get to kiss them, that's what the matchmaker gets to do because the matchmaker set you two together.

So it could potentially be with a pastor at a multi-site church and site pastors. A denominational structure would allow the denominational leader to speak to the local leaders who could then apply the vision of the leadership at a local level while being able to shepherd individual flocks in a way the denominational leader is incapable of accomplishing. In this setting a pastor at an individual church can participate in communion and conduct weddings and funerals, all things that are part of the lifeblood of the local congregation that the denominational leader or primary teaching pastor of a multi-site church simply doesn't participate in anymore.

Other people, naturally, could beg to differ, and do so vehemently. That's cool. That's what the internet is for. If anyone reads this blog at all I would be somewhat amazed. Rather abstract and potentially detached ruminations on the "multi-site church" as a euphemism for what is historically a denomination might not interest anyone else, which may be just as well. But it's a concern of mine because I feel that sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. There have been times in the last year when I've heard "multi-site church" bandied about as though that were somehow magically not a denomination.

Okay, maybe I grant that, but I also propose that denominations have distinct advantages when they are actually set up. For one thing, accountability goes both ways. No one can get to the top of the denomination without jumping through the appropriate hoops, hoops agreed upon by the rest of the leadership at every level of the organization. No one can get to the top without having been at the bottom. More importantly, no one can get to the top from the bottom in a very short order and then rewrite the entire system to suit his or her ends because the denomination transcends him or her. For Eugene Robinson to have been installed as head of the Episcopalian church in the United states the entire denomination had to shift that direction, not just Robinson.

A relatively young church that grows to denominational proportions or quasi-denominational structure doesn't have that opportunity to curb any unwitting or intentional cult of personality issues because organization has been essentially ad hoc and organizational communication has not been consolidated--it has, in a phrase, grown up with the personality around whom the cult has somehow managed to grow. As Franky Schaeffer put it (not that I'm going to go Orthodox because I'm sure the Orthodox have had this problem, too) Protestant churches that grow quickly usually do so because of a charismatic personality more than consistent teaching. Take away the popular preacher and replace it with just going through Scripture and attendence dips dramatically. Having attendence dip dramatically when that occurs might be a sign that people are coming for Preacher John and not Jesus. The people who show up even if Preacher John takes a vacation for a few months? THOSE people are probably there for Jesus.

stealth legalism

The church I have attended for years may have finally abandoned what I have considered one of its most pernicious forms of stealth legalism over the last five years, the evangelical Protestant fad of courtship that seemed to permeate the 00's. If spiritual warfare and recovered memories became fads because Peretti published some dime novels on the subject (and to be fair, I don't blame Peretti at all, just point out that his work is the touchstone in the Christian subcultural ghetto) then I Kissed Dating Goodbye was probably the touchstone for the next fad, courtship.

Now there is nothing wrong, at all, with engaging in spiritual warfare and recognizing that there are principalities and powers. But many books written on the subject of spiritual warfare had no exegetical foundation and promulgated absurd theories about spiritual warfare like cutting soul ties and other things that were really backdoor injections of what might as well be called old-fashioned sympathetic magic. You have to physically cut the soul ties here on earth with your arms and put on the armor of God with you own hands for them to be established in the heavenlies, more or less. I wonder how many divorced men of the cloth ended up writing books about the Jezebel spirit during the 1990s. Perhaps they just assumed the Jezebel spirit was dominating because they were Republicans who didn't like Hillary. I never liked her either but let's face it, the Jezebel spirit doesn't have to become a fad within a fad.

And if the spiritual warfare fad seemed to be a lot of flash and not enough substance where Christ is concerned we at least have scholars within the vale of Christendom like JEffrey Burton Russell or Susan R. Garrett who dug into the actual scholarly background of the topic. Scripture talks about the Enemy so we have something in Christ to talk about.

Then we get to dating and courtship and the blinders went on. That most men and women in the Bible did not go about marriage in exactly the same way we do in the United States seemed to get ignored. Men take wives and women are given in marriage. Okay, so soemone gets a mail order bride for Isaac and he takes her to be his wife. Doesn't sound like the byzantine rituals of courtship I began to hear proposed at my church. In my crankiest moments I simply surmised that this was a giant conscious driven rearguard action in which my pastors were wanting to make sure that the flock didn't sin prior to and in marriage in the ways they had. When one of my pastors said of himself and his wife six years ago "we broke some rules, but God is faithful." I knew he was confessing to fornication, something I could easily discern the second he said that because I know a thing or two about pastoral euphemisms. Other people were astonished, three or four years later, when said pastor broached the topic without euphemism. He said that he was a hypocrite who didn't even practice what he preached about dating and courtship.

So, if that's so, then does that invalidate a person from speaking what Scripture says? No, of course not. BUT (and this is a very big one) if you didn't live by the standard you preach for dating and courtship and it's NOT CLEARLY DEFENSIBLE IN SCRIPTURE then, yeah, you are a hypocrite. More concerning to me about the courtship fad at my church was simply that it focused chiefly on the avoidance of sin and not the following of Christ. Some prominent members of the church had something to gain from the fad, though, in as much as that they had daughters they wanted to protect and the fad of courtship playeed into their personal philosophy and praxis. And it was not, in principle, a bad thing.

The thing is, though, that sinners are sinners, and sometimes there's sin all around. A dad may want control that he can't have because God is sovereign. If his daughter falls in love with a man he doesn't approve of there's no amount of retroactive decision-making he can do to undo that decision. A father isn't just a father and has a life apart from family, so that means that he could be sufficiently immersed in church planting or the day job and not realize that his daughter has become emotionally enmeshed with a young suitor that he didn't approve of or perhaps didn't even realize had become as close to his daughter as previously thought. If there is anything I observed about my parents it's that the temptation to say you saw something coming consoles you retroactively when you've discovered there's nothing you can do about it.

And I understand a pastoral concern that young Christians not go about sinning so telling people in the Emerald City that they should get permission from the woman's father obviously means the family and woan are treated with respect. That part is totally cool. If you advocate a position like that because you want to retain control, though, how do we know that isn't a basically idolatrous impulse? If you're doing something to protect your children, cool, but even that can be abused as the basis for exerting control over other people even to a point that can't be legitimately defended. I'm not a parent so I don't know how tempting it must be to decide to control the world for the sake of a child. I just know that I've lived just long enough to see that control attempt to get exerted and wondering if it was action done in faith or action done in an attempt to avoid what God has providentially brought about. Sometimes we make decisions with unforeseen consequences, like spending time away from daughters, and then are tempted to take it out on someone who is not really connected to that decision.

Fortunately in the handful of cases I know about the parents and children involved handled things in a pretty good way in the end and things worked out. I'm just not sure about other families. There is a certain amount of humility that is required for this stuff to work and the humility angle of things didn't come across even from the people who ostensibly got their courtship system to work, let alone the people who had never tested it in their own families.

And I can excuse and understand courtship in a context like my friends' because they preached it having actually pulled it off, give or take a few bumps in the road, and considered it a valuable approach across generations. I'll take Eric Clapton's advice on playing blues before I'll take Marie Osmond's advice because Clapton figured out how to do it himself.

Now, as I ramble, the thing that struck me about courtship as a fad at my church is that there was nothing more going on than cherry-picking the pastors' favorite parts of old Mediterrenean courtship rituals and splicing them into the favorite parts of contemporary dating rituals. Courtship rituals proper, are flexible and span millenia, so even the contrast between courtship and dating can be seriously overplayed. Courtship as a method can be abused, too. A daughter can use her father as a way to snub suitors for so long as it is convenient and then pull leverage or jettison the agreement once Mr. Right shows up. In that case the daughter invites and then abuses the confidence of her father for her own ends and becomes a manipulator, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, if a father abdicates any interest in who his daughter spends time with he doesn't have the right to get indignant at his daughter's choice or behavior if he simply gave her a blank check for years. It's a volatile setting in which both parties can refuse to accept responsibility for their own sinful conduct and relational patterns but want to hold the other side accountable for their respective error.

Really, it's a wonder anyone gets married at all. The level of rational judgment that has to be suspended in order to get a marriage to even happen, let alone work over decades, continues to startle me. It seems as though God designed men and women to get horny enough that they suspend rational judgment ... which may just show my own disposition about viewing marriage as a noble but essentially terrifying institution in which lives are bound to lives on the basis of not very rational-appearing emotional bonds.

My church went through this courtship fad with people advising that older single women getting into their fifties could, say, find a married couple to submit to to supervise their relationships. The absurdity of a couple in their early 30s overseeing the possible suitors of a woman in her early 50s should speak for itself but I heard this seriously proposed. I mention these things now only because the fad, it seems, has come and gone.

But it feels emblematic of how churches that profess salvation through Christ alone have myriad ways in which a backdoor works theology gets promoted in practice. When I heard Ruth presented not once but twice as a manual on how to get married rather than a revelation of the kindness of Christ in giving a Moabite partnership in the people of God I felt depressed. Here we had a little book that could point us to Christ being trotted out as a marriage-how-to, with Boaz being held up as the sugar daddy all Christian guys should aspire to be. Where was Christ in all this? Hard to find, that's where. Admitting, practically, at the outset that a whole ministry developed partly to stem the possibility of the flock committing the same sins as the pastors isn't putting the best foot forward. That's how it came across to me.

The thing is that fads are inevitable. The winds of doctrine are not always heresies but closet legalisms and antinomianisms that are not recognized for what they are. My church took such a liberated view of alcohol they didn't respect other Christian organizations that were weaker on that subject and got themselves disinvited from further collaboration. I saw friends and fellow church members rationalize this behavior on the grounds that it should have been made clearer, which was nothing more than justifying their own sin with respect to their hosts. We're not supposed to use our liberty in Christ to sin and that includes sins against brothers and sisters in Christ. If my brother isn't cool with alcohol I won't drink even if I have the liberty to do so.

Conversely, libertinism in one respect may be justified by a compensating legalism, and I feel lately that a libertine view of alcohol was compensated for by a legalistic view of dating and courtship. "Dating is sinful" was practically how it came across, with presentations on how "date" was a euphemism for hiring a prostitute so don't date. But as the years went by more questions came up about what TO do. The reply was that people want rules.

Yeah, precisely, because if for years singles get told what they're NOT supposed to do they start wondering what IS permissable. Not everyone gets that whatever is not forbidden is allowed. Not everyone gets the married/engaged mantra of "it's all much simpler than you're making it out to be." It tended to be the married and engaged people who laid out the most rules! And it all smelled of some kind of retroactive ass-covering approach. If a guy fondled his girlfriend before he got married and felt guilty about it he might suppose the guy bears all responsibility for physical boundaries. If that's advice on exercising self-control it's advice not tested in living and seems like an over-reaction on the basis of one's own guilty conscious. In that case guilt is great before the Lord but not great as a means from which to advise people who may not have that particular struggle. Some guys might need to be told that touching a woman isn't necessarily bad (provided it's not "that" sort of touch, I suspect we all would surmise).

This year I heard one of my pastors explain that courtship is A method and not just THE method for marriage to happen. He said that Christian dating was possible and was perhaps not something the church emphasized as much as it could have in the past. No shit! But I have to say at this point that it's unfortunate that the singles were told to relax and not take things so seriously. For years the pastors were scaring the crap out of singles who wanted to avoid sin by laying out what was sinful and now singles get told to not worry so much? Weird, and unfortunate. If parents tell a child he can't have maple bars because sugar is poison and poison will make him sick then how does the kid react when his parents tell him one day that he needed to not be so worried about maple bars? Does he keep trusting the high-flown rhetoric of his parents at that point or does this attitude on the part of his parents betray, at some level, a betrayal of trust, especially when he discovers his parents have had no problem eating maple bars.

The inverse of stealth legalism is a kind of stealth antinomianism, cheapening categories of biblical thought while pretending to uphold them. My pet peeve in this respect is a membership "covenant" that is simply a contract. A covenant is binding for life on the two people who enter into it. It is something established once and for all, not something we are asked to prayerfully consider renewing. From the beginning I have felt my church has utterly cheapened the real significance of covenantal relationships by preferring the word "covenant" to "contract", the latter being the more honest and defensible term.

Do a husband and wife prayerfully talk to each other about how they should consider whether or not they want to renew their covenant this year? Do they ask each other to be in prayer about whether or not they will financially, emotionally, spiritually, or physically support each other? Do they discuss whether they will renew their covenant and take care of their children together? Renewing vows is a symbolic gesture that affirms that the original vow was never broken. Calling a membership contract a covenant bungles the significance of covenantal relationships. To say that the contrast between a contract and a covenant is that one is conditional and mutual and the other isn't misses the point. Functionally a covenant and a contract are not so different. What's different is the invocation of God. A contract can be entered into by two parties and both parties may fail but since neither invokes God both parties can be as good or bad as their word. When God establishes a covenant it doesn't matter how faithful the other party is.

And this is where church membership comes in. I don't think a covenant is a meaningful term to be used in a contract drawn up regarding church membership. If the rights and responsibilities of church membership change at any time to any degree then what I signed is not a covenant but a contract, a contract my church leaders have seen fit to revise. I can happily sign a contract if that is what it is called but if it is called a covenant then does God participate in a covenant whose terms constantly change? That I'm not so sure about. I'm not sure that church leaders calling something a covenant whose terms and conditions to be fulfilled by both parties changes over the last seven years is necessarily really a covenant. This is what I mean by stealth antinomianism. Biblical categories are invoked and then cheapened by how they are used. In the other context, stealth legalism, the absence of what Scripture says on a topic is filled with things that are meant to prevent sin. They don't prevent sin. In the contrasting case the strength of biblical terminology is invoked but cheapened. This member "covenant" that can be renewed cheapens the thing it invokes, and is in some sense a stealth legalism, too.

Legalism invariably cheapens the thing it professes to protect because it is protected not for the sake of those who would truly benefit from it but for the sake of those who feel they have it and want to make sure that all comers who would participate have to jump through hoops, hoops the legalist may not have gone through himself or herself. As Jesus put it, they ask people to lift burdens they themselves would not lift a finger to move.

We all have our own temptations toward legalism or antinomianism. Obviously I am tempted to kill tons of time on the internet, time that is well and truly gone.

I'm glad my church seems to have gotten over the fad of courtship but the thing about membership covenants still concerns me. I'd have no problem signing a contract if I'm told that what I'm signing is a contract because I know that's exactly what it is. But please don't call it a covenant if I have to renew it every year. The covenants God established are one-time deals. They are not up for renewal, they are not up for negotiation or revision. The terms don't change just because we've been around a few years. God doesn't downgrade what He promised us and He can't upgrade beyond the gift of Himself. If a church changes the terms of a "covenant" that doesn't seem to reflect the unchanging nature of God or His covenants. That's why, all things being equal, I prefer the term contract.

I'm gloomy enough about human nature as a whole that I don't suppose anywhere Christians gather will be free of this sort of thing. I have friends and family who aren't part of the church anymore and that's cool, but I also acknowledge somewhat gloomily that the pet legalisms and antinomianisms of my friends and family will not be any different simply having made a change of venue.

If my church no longer embraces the courtship fad there may yet be another fad that has to be contended with. The multi-church site as a euphemism for avoiding the term denomination might be the next wave. Years ago we were told that the church had already become a megachurch after rather high-flown rhetoric about limiting service sizes to just 120 people because a group larger than that becomes impersonal. And yet a few years ago we were apparently cheerfully told that said church was already a megachurch and people could leave if they didn't dig that. A similar cycle of denial and retroactive "well, duh" seems to await us on the issue of being a denomination. It's plain as day to me and has been privately verified by some people whose assessment I trust but publicly the tune is that a denomination is not what we are.

There is nothing new under the sun but each generation seems to revel in its desire to reinvent the wheel. "Look", they say, "we invented the wheel."

Yes I can see that.

"It has spokes!"

Yeah, some wheels have them.

"It looks cooler than anything ever that has come before."

Well, uh, not really.

"What do you mean?"

I've seen some pretty good wheels elsewhere.

"Our wheel is better."

It can't be a better wheel, it's a wheel.

I hope no one cheapens their own marriage by claiming theirs is better than someone else's but I know it happens. I don't get how that works, since I've never been in a relationship, but I just can't see how comparing your marriage to another marriage is anything but either coveting or judging. There must be some middle ground but I would hope the middle ground is not "Thank God I don't have a shitty marriage like THOSE people" but "Thank God for my spouse and may You grant me the grace to love that person in even a dim reflection of Your love."

It's another thing that I've seen in my church over the years, a kind of Pharisaical "Thank God I'm not at X." Even people who have left the church display this spectacularly bothersome trait. If I compare myself to a person then, sure, I can fool myself into thinking, "Well, at least I'm not as bad as that guy." But if I compare myself to Christ I can see that I need to be saved. Honoring Christ doesn't become a matter of being better than someone else but recognizing that there is no one better than Christ and all others are sinners, no matter how good they think they are or how good I may think they are.

The things we invest our time and money in are whisps of dust. It's all meaningless in itself. It doesn't matter how big the churchI call home may grow to be, if it is not about Christ then it is nothing but a sick joke. If I am asked to renew a covenant that should have always been a contract for years I guess I can renew the contract but I suppose it would be nice, to say nothing of ideal, to ask why a covenant seems so flimsy as to have to be prayerfully renewed every year with a giving statement.

If we have gone through the book of Ruth as a marriage instruction manual more than as a description of Christ working to bring into His flock a descendnt of incest who was barred by the Law from participating in God's people we're not seeing how God extends mercy beyond the Law in the Old Covenant. We get a presentation on the rules for how to get married when the marriage was, in some sense, against the rules. The paradox that Christ, as Lord of the Sabbath, can heal on the Sabbath and keep working for our benefit and His glory is something that can be easily missed, especially by the people who think they are doing the most to humbly consider all those details.

Monday, May 12, 2008

TommyMertonHead presents a puzzle

I submit that a possible answer to the "Why?" may be Mark Driscoll.

A little digging around through Driscoll's sermons and books suggests strongly that if Driscoll has made friends with Piper, Mahaney, and Dever in the last few years and has been working hard to distance himself from the emergent church by rhetorically aligning them with the doctrinally errant tendencies of liberal/mainline Protestants that all the pieces more or less fall into place. If Driscoll is one of the possible threads that ties all the points brought up by the Tavernites together then TommyMertonHead may have an explanation for why Together for the Gospel (which he calls Together for Calvinism) are obsessed with the emergent church. Driscoll preached this year about how the emergents are basically advocating stuff that's heresy and how he was friends with people in that movement before they began to move in a direction that was patently not orthodox.

Driscoll is based in Seattle where, when spirituality seems popular with educated leftists with religious backgrounds look for spiritual expression, the most logical options are not Calvinist views that lean politically conservative. This means that of the ostensibly low/"non" liturgical church movements in the Puget Sound area competing to get the kids who grew up and got tired of traditional denominations the biggest competition will be the church that resembles Mars Hill in style but differs in substance. Mars Hill used to be labeled "emergent" or part of the emergent movement. I think that the more dismissive claims that Mars Hill was a fundamentalist Protestant church disguising itself to itself as taking a post-modern approach is probably far more accurate, though this is not necessarily a claim that Mars Hill is thereby terrible. But the label of emergent stuck long enough by association that Driscoll has a compelling reason to work against having that label continue to stick in anyway.

Place him in the historical moment where older Calvinists are reaching for a generation (i.e. 20s to 30s) who do not necessarily come from that theological tradition of Calvinism and the need to get the intellectually curious who might not otherwise by Christians on board has a kind of social capital investment to it (and that's not necessarily bad, either). Church traditions that do not take a systematic, analytical philosophical approach to spirituality (like Pentecostalism, or Orthodoxy, or to some extent mystical trends in Catholicism (as opposed to the Thomistic stream)) may not appeal to American males who may take an instrumental and perhaps even faintly rationalistic approach to shopping for spirituality.

Driscoll has talked about how his main target is to get the young men, to get them for Jesus and that this can transform the culture. One of the main competitors to get younger white males with intellectual tendencies into something resembling a church would be the emergent movement, not least because Driscoll was friends with some of the leaders in that movement. Now that their theologies have been observed to be as obviously different as they are there's a sort of theological shopping equivalent of figuring out who the real Buck Rogers is.

So, in recap by way of specific points by Tavernites, here are the points where Driscoll might be the connecting thread:

Who is friends with Dever, Piper, and Mahaney now?
(per TommyMertonHead's question about T4G)

Who has been distancing himself for years from the emergents and describing them as heretical and embracing the theological failures of the mainline Protestant/liberal denominations and preached a whole sermon about it earlier this year?
(per Adam and Randy's points)

Who has been advocating multi-site churches as a new trend in implicit contrast to old denominational structures which he has been critical of from the pulpit?
(per Spike's comment on the denominational ecosphere).

Who has said from the pulpit that the battle to engage the culture and transform it for Christ will be won by the side that has the most babies in a cultural setting where children are not generally born? (per Spike, again)

Who has said for years his goal is to get the young men? To get them to love Jesus, get jobs, get married, and make babies? Who has also joked that his church is a fertility cult?
(per Jason Blair's point)

Who said last year that by getting Christians "upstream" the culture can be transformed by young men and women who can become culture-shapers for Jesus?
(per Alex Arnold's point)

Obviously even if Driscoll ends up being a common thread through each of these points there are plenty of others but Driscoll has the most personal reasons and the most personal connections to T4G for a group of older white guys to focus on repudiating something that arguably isn't any more important than anything else that isn't Calvinism. If the evidence is circumstantial (and I grant that it is) the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming enough to fool me into thinking there is at least correlation if no causality.