Friday, September 05, 2008

Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, reflections on theological bottom-lining and problems in application

Now HERE is a short but fascinating book I've come across. I often don't agree with Wilson on a few cultural trends (I seriously doubt he will ever endorse the music of Messiaen or Hindemith but we would probably agree on a few blues singers being quite good), but it was perusing Doug Wilson's blog Blog and Magog that I first came across this book. My boss at my day job once said that there were some good people and good arguments on both sides of the Civil War and that a lot of people don't like to recognize that.

Noll seems to be starting his book noting that his premise that it was a theological crisis that is unusual in the annals of Western Christendom "seems" to agree on this idea. What is fascinating so far (a few chapters in) is that he lays out that within evangelical Protestantism in America was an equation of American religious and political thought to such a degree that it couldn't be untangled to really address the crisis of the time. In other words, American Christianity tended to combine a belief that a common sense, plain reading of biblical texts ought to get you where you need to be theologically, yet that epistlemology and hermeneutic blew up disastrously because both sides were of a mind that said, "I just open up the Bible here and it says I'm right and if you disagree you're evil." Noll notes that at this stage in American history and evangelical Protestant thought therein Catholicism was not considered an alternative stream of thought within the broader category of Christendom, but as an enemy of all true manifestations of the faith. And you know what that means, right? That the older traditions to which Protestants theoretically could ALSO assess the key social, economic, political, and finally military crisis of their time was not exactly there.

Catholics might be able to say (and probably did) that the shortcoming of sola scriptura was that at a social level it didn't stop Protestants in the United States from killing each other by the thousands over things that Scripture did not clearly address. After all, Scripture did not prohibit slavery but even within the South people thought that that slavery described in the Bible was not the same as the slavery endorsed in the South.

This intrigues me for many reasons, reasons I don't feel like elaborating on in great detail on a simple blog. I will say, rather broadly, that I have come to be more skeptical not of the traditions of thought within Protestantism as such, but peculiarly pernicious manifestations of Protestant thought within American culture and history. The twin impulses of revivalism and attempting to get the "real" church have led to some weird political hijinks. More to the point, what happens when men who all say the Bible is true and the highest and final authority for all aspects of life suddenly discover that their application and interpretation of that differs so drastically? What the Civil War reveals happening in America is just that, civil war, in which brute force replaces any theological or historical insight and the victor retroactively presumes the hand of providence to side with them. This is the sort of thing that would not only apply to religious politics at the level of the nation but also to politics within religious communities as small as a local church.

Yes, for those of you who actually know me in person the above is as unsubtle an observation as could possibly be made. It is not for nothing I consider it intriguing that Protestants on either side of the Civil War could not work things out despite agreeing that Scripture is true and infallible and that anyone who just opens the Bible ought to be able to reasonably draw out the plain meaning of the text and should just go with it. Noll makes a brief, elusive, but fascinating observation that a prominent Arminian and a prominent Calvinist theologian had both by this time separately argued that rationality is limited by the flaws in the character of man. This meant that liberty had bounds and that one's capacity to fully comprehend Scripture and its application in any given setting would require some study, study that Americans were not always interested in. The urge to be anti-elitist and the like was so strong that if an argument on a theological issue required a huge amount of learning and exegesis you would lose both the battle and the war on theological grounds simply for making the argument at a level that required a huge amount of education.

Anyway, I find this book exciting to read and look forward to being able to blog about it some more in the future. It has some intriguing relevance to some local church politics issues that have transpired in the last year, particularly on the issue of presuming God's providence justifies actions whether or not the actions are actually justified by either side in a given conflict. Not very subtle, I know, but those of you who know me in person probably already know all the details. It's fascinating to read a book that explores ambivalence within Protestant thought in America bursting out into bloodshed. If Noll makes the case that the theological issue never got resolved I would agree. I think it may be a macrocosm of which a certain issue may be a contemporary manifestation of the microcosm.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Please don't write me an anthem

I write this with some reservations because I know that many things in music have, as people want to say all the time, a subjective element.

I don't tend to go for anthems. An anthem, we note for the sake of not underestimating the obvious, is a simple, moralizing song that is in essence a musical vow of fealty or loyalty. The national anthem, then, is obviously the song in which a person more or less praises the greatness of one's nation. Anthems in a liturgical context taken on the purpose of conveying this or that moral message about God and His people. If a husband and wife can say that this or that song has personal significance, "This is our story, this is our song" then an anthem more or less says the same thing and one famous anthem literally says "This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long."

And you know what? I actually still kinda like that song when I remember it. That's an anthem that bottom-lines things in the best possible way. It may not be ideal on several theological points but it gets a few important ones right, I'll put it that way. When measuring a work of art you need to assess what the goal of that work of art is and not get distracted by beating it up for not doing something it never set out to do.

But what makes the subjective element work in that aforementioned Crosby hymn, getting back off the tangent, is that it is anchored in Christ. There is no mistaking that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are named in the anthem. While the Father is not named specifically His presence is implied in the text simply by mentioning the other two persons in the Trinity.

Now if we're going to bother with an anthem we might as well be Trinitarian about it, to use the cliche.

But at a musical and social level I would say that the thing that is so often annoying about anthems is that they are foisted upon an uninterested or unpleasantly surprised listener from the top down. I could stroll in to church one day and have an anthem thrust at me that was written with great thought and care and is deliberately written so as to be singable to thousands of people. It is that those thousands are expected to sing along and the song is played over and over so as to impress upon the multitude that it is an anthem that I confess to being immensely annoyed by.

I used to attend a church that would often end services with a rather strident, martial anthem that had phrases like "GO OUT INTO THE CITY!" and more or less hammered away at the point that God is sending us out into the city to be a big blessing because of Jesus. I never liked it and I still don't like it because even if an anthem has a particular text I don't entirely object to I may object to the subtext or metatext. Churches that embrace some theme of all the great things to be done in the name of God in this or that city are praising themselves at a subtextual or metatextual level, not Jesus. I could be generous and attempt to say that these sorts of "touch the city" anthems are prayers that God will use us ... but that such anthems are so conscientiously written AS ANTHEMS means that we are in essence being subjected to the Christian's variation of socalist realism. Woo ... hoo.

But I lately heard a song that includes lines that, after a list of things about "You" being the god of the city and various other things has a refrain that set my teeth on edge. "Greater things are still to come, greather things are still to be done in this city." Why? Because of what isn't said that can be filled in by a heart that is deceptive above all things and most assuredly will be.

So, let me spend an inordinate amount of time on that refrain. Greater things are yet to come, greater things are still to be done? By whom? Why? Why is THIS the musical refrain in an anthem that is being performed in a Christian church? Why is the fulcrum of the anthem the THINGS that are yet to be done and still to come in the city? Which city is "this" city? Which God is the "You" in this anthem? Christ, I understand. But why not named more specifically and why not more often? This really bothers me, I admit it. I don't feel comfortable having an anthem shoved at me that can't even rise to the level of subjectivism inherent in a Fanny Crosby hymn like Blessed Assurance. It is not the first time I have heard an aggravating anthem about the corporate people of God at this church. I don't expect anyone else to remember "The Ocean". But I remember it with the gravel of disgust in my heart and a thorough lexicon of apocalyptic and biblical symbolism in mind.

The earlier song had far more obviously dubious theology in terms of appropriating the symbol of the nations and the wicked who oppose God as a metonym for the body of Christ. Now for metonymy to WORK the word that is substituted needs to share an actual relationship to the thing for which the substition is made. So a more effective biblical metonymy would be "I am the ocean, I am the beast" rather than "I am the ocean, I am the church". I lobbied, perhaps ostentatiously, to have "The Ocean" struck out of liturgical use at my church because as if the theology in the song weren't dubious enough the music was just astonishingly annoying to listen to people sing. Of course that meant it was immensely popular and bands liked playing it for that reason and because it was easy to play. It just bugged me how much people got off on "I am the ocean" in a liturgical setting. On the other hand, you can go too far the other way and obsess in songs about how unworthy you are. The best path is to, as the old stand-by put it, forget about yourself and concentrate on Jesus and worship Him. Yes, John Macarthur, Pentecostals can actually get that right even if you don't think they can.

A good, well-written anthem has a great text and a tune that you want to sing, that is easy to sing. A bad anthem is still likely to bore holes in your mind and get stuck there so that you find yourself singing it not because you like the song but because you are at some level making fun of it. I don't mean the Twainian impulse to blaspheme the gods of others, no, an anthem can't be truly annoying at this level I'm talking about unless it feels like an artistic travesty within your OWN confession of faith. Atheists are lucky in this respect, they have no faith from within which to pigeon hole their crappiest music. On the other hand, they've been writing anthems for political parties so it's not like they don't have that problem.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

sometimes "intentionality" seems dubious, and when can the bride not be the bride?

I am in a church setting where people use the word "intentionality" or "intentional". It is invoked to say that we do this or say this with intent, with a purpose, with a certain not-quite-explicated seriousness. To say that one brings intentionality into a relationship might most often be ascribed to a situation in which courtship, dating, or some various other descriptions of seeking the state of matrimony is involved.

But there is an unintended pun in this invocation of intent and intentionality, that the nature of intent and the extent to which the thing that is invoked is muted or precluded by the very intent to have it intended. You can be so busy deciding you're going to make friends you don't really make any or you assess the value of all people on the basis of whether or not they may be friends. At an equally mundane and practical level the man or woman who assesses all unmarried members of the opposite sex has destroyed any opportunity to truly assess whether any of them might be a suitable spouse in the very act of will through which he or she "intends" to seek out that end. Heisenberg, if my memory is remotely accurate, seems to have been the one to propose that you cannot simultaneously establish the velocity/trajectory and location of a particle at one and the same instant.

Perhaps, just to be a smart-ass about this, this principle applies to things like building relationships. If you go out intending to make friends you won't make them. If you go out intending to find a wife you are paradoxically not looking for a wife.

To tie this to a rather ham-fisted summary of a philosophical region I am not that familiar with, the problem with something like intentionality is how messed up it's quasi-Platonic aspect can be. The guy who goes around with intent to be married is intended to obtain something that has no real world, physical correlative. It is a sign seeking a signifier, a symbol seeking a referent, perhaps an Aristotletian ideation mutated into a Platonic ideal. The single man in a church setting sees all of the apparently joyfully married men and women and from that extrapolates "I wish to be married" or perhaps more crudely, "I wish to get laid" and from these twin impulses ideates the notion that because this is a goal to be pursued not least because his pastors insist that the purpose of young men is to love God, get jobs, get married, and make babies, that this becomes a form of applied sanctification and that, therefore, one most go out with intentionality to obtain a wife. After all, it may be said, that when Proverbs says that he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives blessing from the Lord it means active seeking and industrious activity rather than just waiting around for God to drop some woman in a man's lap.

The paradox of applied Calvinism verses applied Arminianism that I have noted for years is that the Arminian who posits free will sweats bullets about how one may truly determine if this or that act is wtihin the will of Christ where as the Calvinist merely presupposes that whatever he wants is approved by God if he is seeking God and so in some sense the Arminian who believes in freedom obsesses about discerning the will of the God who gave him free will that he ironically would like less of. By contrast, the Calvinist who claims we have no free will presumes that freedom of choice allows one to do more or less anything not expressly forbidden by Scripture. How Calvinists can embrace the normative principle in all life but liturgy and then suddenly become insane regulative principle advocates escapes my understanding but I most certainly have limits to my intellect!

It sometimes seems as though a person can, beyond any otherwise dubious notions of creating a list, Christianly come up with a way to seek something that does not exist on the supposition that it does exist, namely, a spouse. The reason this settles in my mind so often is because it seems as though my church obsesses about the idea, has made some kind of idol of the idea. I recently spent some time with a few couples, not couples I consider particularly close friends at all but whom I consider reasonably friendly, and they were speaking wistfully of the things they used to do in terms of outreach or ministry of what-have-you when they were unmarried that they now no longer have time to do. Simply redefine what outreach and ministry are and one will see, quite simply, that the domain in which one loves Christ and His people and creation have changed. No one has lost any opportunities but simply been brought by the grace of Christ into new ones.

And some definitions of ministry assume that breadth rather than depth is needed. What if the nature of the "ministry" we are called to is to love one another as Christ loves us? If that is ministry then evangelism and conversion have their place among those who have that role in the body of Christ where ever they may be. The eye should not consider the ear to be nothing for being an ear, nor should the eye consider itself to be nothing for not being an ear. If every thing can be service to Christ and our neighbor then there is no need for any formality.

And in that moment the lack of a need for formality can reveal a lack of need for intentionality. There can be intent up the yin yang for the Pharisee. As Bonhoeffer put it so plainly in Ethics the problem was that the Pharisee not only KNEW he was seeking to do the right thing but was obsessed with it. The problem of the Pharisee was intentionality that revealed the bifurcated nature of his heart that was not at union with God. So in some ways me, being the single guy at a church that has obsessed for years with guys loving Jesus by getting jobs and marrying, lack what may be called "intentionality" and I feel that in some fundamental ways that is a good thing. If I were "intent" on marriage I might do a terrible disservice to actual woman in search for the would-be wife. One of my closest friends only had one girlfriend before he got married and he deeply regrets having that one girlfriend.

This doesn't mean I think dating is bad, at all. I sometimes begin to suspect that what is worse than dating is "intentionality" that it creates a cure that is worse than the disease. The pastors at my church seem to have stumbled on to this discovery but do not have the courage or circumspection to admit that they promoted a cure that was as bad as the disease. I have not entirely given up on the idea that some kind of corporate repentance is possible on this subject ... but I hold it rather loosely because one of the flaws of "intentionality" is that it is a mode of thought that can pin hopes on things that do not actually exist. It is one thing to trust that Christ may provide this or that blessing and another thing to presume upon it.

I would not say I feel like leaving my church in the sense that I think I should flip them the bird and tell them I never want to see any of them again. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love the people at my church but especially my friends. I admit it, you cannot really love in the abstract and the day that you persuade yourself that you can or do, the day you fool yourself into thinking you love the platonic ideal of your church or friends or husband or wife is the day you fall in love with the idol of what you WANT them to be and not who and what they truly are.

I am concerned, sometimes, that some of my pastors may love the idea of the church they run more than the church they are placed to serve. I have not gone out on a limb to discuss the matter because if I were to say anything I am concerned that that might simply be taken as proof in their minds that the problem is all me. I do not have this misgiving about the specific pastor who handles the place I attend but I have that worry about other people at other branches because I have heard from friends and acquaintences about how leaders who have no real relationship with those they formally lead simply accuse and condemn in the wake of concerns expressed that, so far as the paperwork of a "covenant" goes, the members are considered obliged to express and yet are punished for expressing. This is the sort of abusive double-bind that can run in families for generations and not be recognized for what it is because it is the only relational pattern that is known. It takes time and effort to recognize it.

To the extent that the term intentionality has meaning it seems to have meaning for the Christian first of all in repentance and not necessarily in other ways. But it is dangerous here, too, because I can always "intend" to repent of whatever sins I have resigned to without actually repenting. Repenting is both a condition and direction of the heart and the manifestation of that condition and direction. Just as it is impossible to decouple the imputation and impartation of Christ's righteousness on the basis of a systematics demanding a forensic/judicial metaphor at the expense of all others, so it is divorce actions from heart.

I was speaking ever so briefly with a woman I am acquainted with who works as a deacon at a party I was at a week ago. She shared that she sometimes wished that the pastors at her church would just settle on one message about men, women, dating, marriage, and courtship and simply stick with it because the messages right now are so legion and irreconciliable the collective message is an incoherent, contradictory mess.

It is here that some friends of mine simply suppose "so? What does it matter?" It matters because when people claim to be placed in spiritual authority over people, claim to preach from the Scriptures and have the truth about life as given by Christ, then any and all internal contradictions that fail to be resolved take on a new meaning, the spiritual authorities who voted themselves into the position (and may be in a variety of cases are appointed by God, really) do not speak with one voice or speak with one voice in such a casuistric way they fail to grasp the limits of the advice.

In other words, if you preach a message to the 90% the 10% who are not providentially in the place of the 90% do not benefit yet are told to live in light of the message for the 90%.

If the leaders are excused simply on the basis that the followers ought to know better it sets up a dynamic in which the led bear all the responsibility while the leaders bear none.

Let me explain in terms too broad what this might mean. Suppose the pastor at a church full of single people says to guys "Go with the one in front of you." this advice means, in one sense, to not quest for the holy grail wife and go with a woman whom God has set before you. Walk in a given direction and if a woman is walking along the same path and the two of you seem to love God and at some point each other then marry. This is not usually described in transactional terms as "Would this man/woman be a good business partner for me?" That is more or less what would be involved since the two of you would be sharing finances and resources and all other less tangible things, too. But there's no romance in presenting marriage like that, is there? Nevertheless, most marriages allegedly founder on the subject of money.

But a man who is told to be intentional does not realize that two organic components that are inert in themselves and sustain life can become paradoxically toxic in combination. The term "intentionality" brings with it the law that can destroy grace and paradoxically binds rather than liberates. It sets up a standard of righteousness in which the man is expected to simply sort out things. He has been told "go with the one in front of you" and also "you need to be intentional and not casual" even though to go with the one in front of you generally implies a potentially casual approach to things. After all, if you're going with the one in front of you you're not necessarily looking that hard or questing for the holy grail. By contrast, "intentionality" introduces an ethical standard in which you are SUPPOSED to be questing for the right wife and being "intentional" about your relationships with women. And this means that the guy who might otherwise go with the one in front of him because of desires in his heart may simply decide something like this.

Pastor says I should be intentional and not casual.
Pastor says I should go with the one in front of me.
Pastor says I should not have a laundry list.
Pastor lays out a laundry list from the Song of Songs.

These contradictions are inherent in the pastor's presentation of the subject, not the unmarried man, yet it is held upon the man as his burden to unravel the would-be paradoxes and treat them as pardoxes and not contradictions. Or the fellow is told he needs to recognize that is all grace, which is the get-out-of-jail free card for a Calvinist church leader who isn't bothering to really unpack anything that might actually be a paradox. I have heard it said that you don't find the one you're looking for until you stop looking. Since I have never been looking as such does that mean I need to START looking so I can stop looking and thereby magically find the right woman whom I should marry? It doesn't seem like it actually works like that. When a married friend of mine said that you have to stop looking to find the right one and heard my joke about how i ought to start looking so I could stop looking she laughed. She got the joke and I took no offense at her suggestion because she has provided other insights that help me understand what she's getting at.

She shared with me that what Christian guys, or at least Christian guys at the church we attend, seem to do, is to mess up the intentional thing. They come at it with their resume printed out and their five year business plan (possibly inspired by the head pastor's pop pyschology fetish for reverse engineering his life by mapping out where he wants to be in five years and building his life around that and encouraging others to do the same). They come to the woman and make the case for them to be the girlfriend or wife for them. And my friend would have to somehow politely decline in a way that conveyed that since these guys had never bothered to form an actual friendship with her how on earth could they suppose she would take them seriously as a possible husband. Intentionality became the means of destroying not only any possibility for being married to this woman but in some sense precluded even the possibility of friendship. Intentionality was here the law that destroyed grace. Ironically, the man she is now married to (and he's a great guy) didn't let on how interested he was in her for months so that it came as a genuine and complete surprise to her.

Now, where these aforementioned contradictory axioms coalesce into a mess is that the Christian guy who is advised that married men can do more for the kingdom of God even though Scripture so otherwise has to somehow reconcile the "don't be casual, be intentional" command with the "go with the one in front of you" advice. What does he do?

Well, it's pretty simple. He tries to put himself in front of as many of the hottest single women in the church that he can in the hopes that one of them will happen to be the one in front of him whom he should seek intentionality with the goal of marriage in mind. This is actually a recipe for a shallow Christian version of a ladies man who sanctifies his quest for validation by means of a putatively pastor-ordained approach to mating rituals.

I have met Christian men who hold in all seriousness that how men and women meet involves the man pretending to be interested in things the woman is interested in long enough to establlish a relationship at which point the man can be secure enough in the relationship to stop pretending he is interested in the thing the woman is interested in. Or the woman goes into. This pernicious approach seems to be popular with both the sexes and I find the idea so repellant I can't find words for it I feel would befit this blog entry (at least right now). It is essentially giving yourself permission to lie. The rationale for this sort of wickedness is that married people often come around to genuinely liking things that their spouses like over time. In fact I am friends with a couple where after years the husband genuinely enjoys baseball and doesn't stick his nose in a book when he and his wife go to ball games. He never feigned interest in the sport but joined his wife on the activity out of real love for her and out of that mutual love he eventually came to not only understand but truly enjoy the activity he formerly had no interest in. "Intentionality" can be a form of self deception and deception of others that we should avoid as though the cost were our own souls and the souls of others.

In other words, were I married and my wife loved Meg Ryan movies I would not lie to her about detesting Meg Ryan and Nora Ephron. I would, however, not malign them to the best of my feeble ability so as to ensure that I don't make a mockery of something she loves. After all, I love half the string quartets of Hindemith. Hindemith, seriously.

This is why when friends have advised me to, say, use my being a musician or composer as a way to attract women I just hate the idea. Sure, were I married I would love for my wife to love the music that I write and listen to but I don't think I should simply assume that. I shouldn't assume that if I marry at all that she must have this or that quality. I mean, I feel uncomfortable putting it this way but I have some family who at the time of being married wanted to play in a professional band and didn't want kids and were set on going the path of professional music. They never did anything in professional music and seem likely to never go down that path and haven't seemed to write or do anything music in the last decade. Yet they were determined that supporting each other in music was necessary and vital as part of their marriage.

I don't know if I want to marry a woman who will "support" me in my music so much as a wife with whom I can build a life in which I also have time to pursue music as a hobby or even as a profession so that the two spheres, though ideally mutually blessing, do not at the worst become inert or get in each others way. In other words, if being married doesn't get in the way of working on music and working on music doesn't get in the way of being married I don't have to have a wife who "supports" me as a musician or whom I support as a musician. It's not that I wouldn't want to be married to a musician, just that I have to recognize that as the course of life goes if I had my hands irreparably damaged I couldn't even be a musician and life with my wife would consist of other things. And I think my family who wanted to be musicians have made the wise decision of not really bothering about music to focus on the things they do share together now, raising a family. I think that their abandonment of what might be called intentionality to invest in each other as actual people, not the people they hoped themselves and each other to be, is how they have gotten their marriage to work as it has in the last ten years. That doesn't mean I don't hope they can become musicians again and work on music, but love that hopes for all things and believes all things can also acknowledge that some of our hopes are passing worldly fancies.

And sometimes the passing worldly fancy can be the aspiration to be married itself.

So I have thought a lot about these things because few things reveal the insanity of the church I genuinely love more than its astonishingly incoherent views on men and women seeking to build lives together. And yet I am not in the least looking forward to this topic being revisited in the next few months because I confess to having no confidence that the contradictions visited so far won't be revisited, and I also have no confidence that those who foisted these incoherent ideas upon me and my kind will ever actually confess to having erred in any respect by adding things which are not necessarily in Scripture.

I do not look forward to what I fear will simply be a lengthy study in what I might have to call Christian porn. If you reject the idea that Song of Songs is an allegory of Christ's love for the Church and hold that it is chiefly and only about marital relationship and the joy of sex with no reference to children why would you do this at the expense of acknowledging that the prophets are littered with passages in which the metaphor of God as groom and Israel as bride and that as that relationship is invariably described within the prophetic corpus as full of adultery, idolatry, and betrayal, then how can Paul when he writes his epistle to the Ephesians invoke the mystery that the husband and wife are like Christ and the Church and have ANY POSITIVE CORRELATION FOR THAT RELATIONSHIP IF WE ASSUME THE SONG OF SONGS CANNOT POSSIBLY BE A DIVINE ALLEGORY?

Remember, folks, Revelation has probably not been written yet at the time Paul wrotes to the Ephesians. Well, that would be true unless you hold that Paul couldn't have possibly written Ephesians and that Ephesians has to have been written some time after Revelation, which means that Paul would have been dead around AD 60 under Nero and Revelation was written some time after AD 90, the most commonly guessed date range for Revelation. Even if we held to a more preterist view the earliest date for Revelation would still presuppose a date of writing around the destruction of the Temple which means that any genuinely Pauline letter could not draw on a Revelation that was given to John at Patmos.

So, in any event, Paul could speak of, say, the groom/bride relationship in Hosea, but if those promises find their fulfillment in and through Christ then why would Paul still speak to the Ephesians about the bride of Christ being like Gomer if the restoration of God's people promised in the eschaton was already being brought about by Christ? Answer, uh, well, uh is there one if we reject even the possibility that the metaphor given to us through the Scriptures about the groom and bride as God and His people? Paul had to have had some kind of fresh insight based on nothing but some revelation only he got that wouldn't be replicated until John if the Song of Songs isn't even a possibility of understanding the relationship God in Christ had and would have with His people.

It means that we are presented an Old and New Testament in which the bride of Christ is invariably some rutting slut who can't see herself as the unblemished bride or hope to be presented as that until the end of all things. It is surely something to hope and pray for but if there is no example of what that can be now in reality or in its history that presents what might be called a moral problem and a problem of morale all at once!

Who would want to join this bride, this body? Now I would say that the allegory can only function if at its literal narrative level it is also true, but I see no reason to reject one level to affirm the other. The two ought to be able to reinforce each other. A pastor may want to avoid literalizing a metaphorical idiom like apocalyptic and conversely a poetic idiom of the like we see in Song of Songs may lose its poetry of literalized too much. So Revelation loses its poetry if the locusts have to be interpreted as Soviet helicopters by the likes of Jack van Impe just as Song of Songs may lose its poetry if someone like Mark Driscoll, for instance, reduces the meaning of the poetic language to oral sex and ses only that meaning in it. It may be a meaning possible within the text but is that really the only meaning? Who is really doing a possible disservice to the poetry of Scripture here? Is it possible that both approaches at fixating on what the poetic symbolism in Scripture means can do damage to the actual poetry?

I'm not saying that Song of Songs isn't about married life, just suggesting that it CAN ALSO be about the love of God for His people? Why? Because it seems weird to insist that every book of the Bible points to Christ properly interpreted and His atoning sacrifice except the Song of Songs. Didn't Solomon write that it is good to hold on to one and not let go of the other? Would not Solomon's method, who is traditionally attributed as WRITING THE SONG OF SONGS, be a valuable guide in how to approach the song that he wrote? Or does Solomon's advice in Ecclesiastes about the godly man not going to extremes have no value here because the interpreter has already made up his mind about what the text must mean regardless of what the biblical author may have to share with us?

If a pastor takes the approach of rejecting the allegorical approach and emphasizes not only the literal meaning but also extends the poetic idiom of the song to include things like oral sex, mutual masturbation, practicing various positions, and the like ... well, of course a person would have to reject the idea of Song of Songs as an allegory because what could a person then bring to the idea that Christ is the groom and the Church is the bride if a person fixates on the subject of what might have to be described as holy blow jobs (sorry, that's just a line that Burt Ward's Robin might have said between takes of an episode of Batman and Robin in the 1960s).

As an unmarried Christian I simply want to know that if a Christian pastor takes that approach to the book what good is the book to an unmarried man? It sets him on a path in which he reads the book in more or less the terms of it being sanctified porn and has an interpretive lens that skews the entire book in that light. Is it then only that man's fault if he begins to struggle with lust in a new way? Is it possible that the pastor's interpretive approach made him culpable before God in having that unmarried man reject the possibility that the Song of Songs speaks of Christ's love for His bride?

More pointledly, if the pastor presents Song of Songs as dealing with sexual positions and techniques without also examining other aspects of the text that in both rabbinic and Christian traditions go beyond married life to speak of God and His people, then if the unmarried man comes to obsess over such a reading of Scripture does the hearer become the person solely responsible for what the pastor insisted is the only way to interpret the book? Or does the pastor potentially become culpable before Christ Himself for presenting the book in a light that inflames rather than calms the passions?

Why is the metaphor of groom and bride sacrosanct and beautiful in Revelation where the apostle clearly invokes it in the most positive way if to invoke it in Song of Songs is somehow overspiritualized or somehow perverse? What if the problem is that a pastor attempts to overliteralize a metaphor of alarming power?

A pastor might complain that having the Song of Songs as an allegory doesn't work because he doesn't want to imagine himself in a wedding dress and Jesus is looking at him with a hard on. Well ... uh ... he's got no problem imagining that in Revelation Christ is depicted as the groom who loves his bride the Church or preaching about how we can look forward to the wedding supper of the Lamb. It is only by taking an atomized approach to biblical literature and super-imposing himself as an individual Christian into the Song of Songs taken as an allegory that this becomes so problematic for the pastor who explicitly rejects allegory in favor of a Song of Songs that is sexually explicit. Now it seems Bernard of Clairveaux took the allegorical approach of Song of Songs as applying to God's love for the individual Christian but that seems like a somewhat innovative extension of an allegory beyond biblical/traditional warrant anyway. Rejecting a metaphor on the basis of presumed individual relevance when the metaphor invariably takes on a corporate meaning that anyone can verify seems ... odd.

Here's the thing, I'm for interpreting Song of Songs in a way that shows that married life can be full of joy. But what I find increasingly troublesome is that if this is done so by explicitly rejecting even the possibility that the Song of Songs can also be taken as in any way pointing to Christ a pastor who takes this interpretive path becomes a hypocrite if he claims that all of Scripture points to Christ if it is properly interpreted ... except the Song of Songs which is about holy blow jobs. If a pastor were to take offense at my taking him to task for this it could only because his own conscience may be injuring him for not consistently applying his own stated paradigm about the proper handling of Scripture. I'm just pointing out the hypocrisy in the hermeneutic, that's all.

Now let's for the moment simply forget the argument from Church tradition and history here. Let's go to the Protestant paradigm of the sola scripture and rejecting patristic evidence and insist only on the paradigm of Scripture interpreting Scripture. Guess what? If all over the prophets and in the New Testament Christ is spoken of as the groom and the Church as the bride then would not the perpescuity of Scripture itself argue in favor of at least the possibility of an allegorical element? Why not? Where in the Old Testament could the faithful turn to see an example of a husband and wife in Scripture who are not lying to each other, who are not betraying each other to pagan rulers, who are not resenting each other, who are not failing each other except within the Song of Songs?

And by extension, if in the prophets we see that the bride of God has whored herself out to idols and nations where in Scripture could saints of old and in our time turn to during the apostolic era for any POSITIVE example of what the metaphorical marriage between God and His people might look like if we expressly reject the Song of Songs? We have Hosea and yet Hosea invokes a restoration that suppose the metaphor of marriage. But what is the metaphor of marriage really invoking? Erections and sexual positions or abiding and inexpressable love?

Were a pastor to insist that seeing Christ allegorically in the groom in Song of Songs compels us to imagine Jesus with a hard-on then why not import this imposition of literalism regarding the metaphor on to Revelation where the metaphor is so pointed? Would this pastor attempt to extrapolate what the honeymoon of the Groom and Bride might look like? Would he go so far as to suppose that the arrival of heaven on earth will be some kind of cosmos-enveloping orgasm? And in that age no one will be married or given in marriage yet God's people will be His bride. If marriage itself is a metaphor then why reject the metaphor in the book where marriage is presented in its most beautiful form? If the Church is not merely the Bride of Christ but also the Body of Christ then should we ask who is the erect penis of the body of Christ that Paul is talking about. If this sounds blasphemous or disrespectful I am not saying this to be blasphemous or disrespectful about Christ or the family He has purchased with His blood that is united through the work of the Spirit. I'm demonstrating that at some point using a series of reductio ad absurdums about the metaphors of Scripture to justify avoiding a particular interpretation of the Song of Songs may itself be a symptom of a deeply flawed approach to appreciating the poetry of Scripture and the symbolism given to us to help us better understand that our hope is in Christ. Any hermeneutic which impels us to accept the metaphor as given everywhere but in the book that describes itself in the canon as the Song of Songs presents us with a problem.

I'm simply pointing out that if the objection in one instance applies it must applied in all others. So if we must avoid the allegory of the groom and bride as describing God and His people in Song of Songs because we refuse to imagine ourselves wearing the wedding dress and seeing Jesus looking at us with a hard-on then we must apply this objection to the metaphor of God as a husband and His people as His bride in every instance in which the metaphor is invoked in Scripture. Reductio ad absurdums regarding intepretive paradigms applied to Scripture don't present themselves more readily than that, do they? This isn't just a straw man, this is a straw man that comes to us soaked in gasoline, dancing his way toward us with a book of matches in hand, singing "Come on baby light my fire!"

I respectfully submit that my reservation about that whole hermeneutic is that it is so mercilessly cherry-picking the internal evidence regarding the metaphor of groom and bride within Scripture in an attempt to discredit its potential application as symbolism (in just one book of the Bible and not the others, no less) that it's problematic. If there is some nasty pun involving a double entendre in what I just wrote it's not intended but if your mind is dirty enough to go there you probably just proved my point about how things can be taken too far. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that it is good for a man to hold on to one and not let go of the other and that a godly man will avoid all extremes. The trouble I see is that someone seems to be proposing a cure to one extreme that is possibly no better than the disease. Substituting one extreme for the other is not looking like the answer to what the problem appears to be.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

people leaving evangelical churches, Weekly Standard article

Note that by the end of his ministry the number of disciples with Jesus was down to 12. Now there was a decent church, one might say, if a small one.

Heh, perhaps a church growth planner should have told Jesus His church growth plan was all wrong.

I don't USUALLY read The Weekly Standard but this article caught my eye thanks to TommyMertonHead and that ending shot pretty much says it all.