Wednesday, November 26, 2008


5. What’s the view of the church and the Christian life that’s behind the cartoons?

I think it’s my understanding of the principalities and powers and how the church is susceptible to falling under that. I hope my cartoons unveil hypocrisy, deflate arrogance, uncover abuse, unmask manipulation, and expose exploitation. That’s lofty, but I suspect they behave as whistle-blowers on the principalities and powers that we are susceptible to. I believe one of the ways the principalities and powers claim dominion over the church is through visionary thinking that attempts to steer people in a certain direction. [emphasis added] I question that. I believe in the church. I love the church. It’s is the body of Christ, the localized manifestation of his body in the world. Which explains why I am so intent on critiquing that which I think compromises that. And then some of my cartoons are just silly or poignant. Others they are just images from a warped mind that no one gets but me.


megachurches, evangelicalism, and preaching about sex

This entry over at Internet Monk went in and out of existence pending a final attached photo, but it seems to be back up now. I don't understand exactly why the initial photo was such a problem but I guess if there's no face to attach to such a commonplace name that can be taken for what it is, wheatever that is.

iMonk focuses chiefly on Young but also refers to Driscoll along the way. As an older pastor he finds the prospect of younger pastors spending a ton of time preaching through Song of Songs and promoting sex among married people to be humiliating and setting an embarrassing precedent people in other churches may require of their own pastors. The happy smiley blonde preachers and their barby wives may get to him. And perhaps he's just an old fuddy duddy after all, as some people might have it.

But commenter Chris E. summarized the biggest risk, that a pastor can set up a disclaimer that marriage isn't created to make you happy but to make you holy. Okay, so you can say that at the start of a sermon but that doesn't mean that's the actual message that comes across in the next hour of preaching. It doesn't matter what disclaimers you put up about how God designed marriage not to make you happy but to make you holy if you spend the next hour talking about sex.

And if your story is that you married your high school sweetheart and love her more now than twenty years ago and you have a bunch of kids then the trouble is that despite all the disclaimers mentioned earlier they amount to nothing. Why? Because you're making a case from your life and general speech that marriage not only makes YOU holy it makes you HAPPY, too. It vitiates any value in the disclaimer that marriage is to make you holy not happy if you constantly talk in other settings about how great married life is, how much you love your spouse more now than ever, and how great everything is about married life that other people should pursue. Spend a few months on marriage as what most people statistically should obtain and it can also come off, unintentionally I might add, as equating holiness and happiness.

And, to be fair, most people I know who have been married for more than a decade are so happy to be married I might be tempted to wonder if some of them aren't just codependent. If you don't have any friends except your spouse odds are really good that you have some kind of codependent relationship because if you didn't you would have, uh, you know, other friends. Evangelicals can tend to make an idol out of marriage as though it were the main end of Christians in this life. Not that marriage is bad but an idol is any good that is placed at the same level as Christ.

What iMonk doesn't really address in his piece is that there are basically two books in Scripture where if you never read them your whole life you will not understand the core of the Gospel less. Those two books are Revelation and then at the very end Song of Songs. There's nothing about the Cross in Song of Songs, nothing about Christ (unless you take an allegorical interpretation that most evangelicals preaching Song of Songs are probably assiduously avoiding), and nothing about the different ways that Christ atones for us on the Cross.

By way of an aside on atonement I find it sad that Christians so often get behind one explanation of the atonement as the one you HAVE to believe while ignoring the others. I have never taken that stupid view of the atonement. I don't think you can understand what Christ accomplished on the cross just through substitionary explanation any more than I think you can understand it through christus victor or ransom. It has been sad over the years to see and hear Christians talk about the atonement as though it were one thing. Well, perhaps by way of analogy, it can be sad to see that evangelicals in megachurches can spend a ton of time on sex (which isn't bad in itself) when the same amount of time could be devoted to examining the atoning work of Christ. I do know one church that at least spent three months on the atonement so that at least is a way to balance things out, kind of.

As I said earlier, you can go for most of your life without reading Revelation or Song of Songs and still do just fine in your walk with the Lord. If a church spends three months on Song of Songs then spending three months on different explanations of the atoning work of Christ seems necessary. That way after you get people all worked up about sex you can spend time showing them how Christ went to the Cross for their sins. Or balance it out by spending a couple of years in a Gospel. It's not that sex isn't important or that Song of Songs isn't in the Bible, it's that I wonder if the book that gets the most seats filled isn't the one that in terms of explaining the core of the Gospel, that in terms of knowing only Christ and Him crucified, is the least important book in the Bible. Besides all that, I'm not sure that when Solomon says there are lots of wives and concubines that he isn't really referring to his own harem. No textual proof that he isn't referring to them. Solomon is the author that Christians can be very selective about taking seriously, assuming that all of the works traditionally ascribed to Solomon were written by him but I don't feel like getting into the reasons even some conservative scholars have for wondering if Solomon actually wrote Ecclesiastes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

a riff on iMonk's series on unresolved tensions in evangelicalism, part 2

Experience is a two-edged sword. It both confirms and denies, all according to the disposition of the mind and heart. The oracle at Delphi neither conceals nor reveals but merely gives a sign. Heraclitus wrote that about the Delphic oracle and that is, at the risk of sounding incredibly pagan when I'm a Christian, one of the central problems with how Christians and unbelievers are apt to interpret experience.

Suppose you walk into a house and you sense a spectacular amount of unease. You sense a tightness in the room even though it is empty but you can't explain why. Are you in a house that has demons? Are you in a house that has infrasound that is at such a low frequency your ears and mind can't perceive it but the vibrations of the sound effect a great anxiety in your body because your skin can feel it? Are these explanations actually mutually exclusive? This is what I mean when I invoke Heraclitus and do so with an eye toward Christians and experience.

iMonk recently wrote about how evangelicals want God-proving experience. It's true. It's true that Christians of every kind want it. We differ on HOW we want it. Some of us want the God-proving experience directly through mystical moments, visions, dreams, audible callings, and the like. Others want propositional truth and scientific verifiability of the existence of God. If things can't be explained EXCEPT by the existence of God then that is enough to prove God exists, even though it is surely the most negative explanation. Others want the God-proving experience to be through their church, either in terms of feeling as though tye have found the one true church or, far more broadly, that billions of Christians across space and time following in the steps of apostolic witness can't really all have been wrong about the claims of the way.

But the appeal to experience remains the same in the broadest sense. What iMonk writes about is personal experience as a validation of one's belief in the existence of God. And I agree that evangelicals (but I would say everyone has this issue) simultaneously put stock in and are skeptical of experience. One of the paradoxes of Mark Driscoll's early years at Mars Hill was that he admitted both that he had a charismatic type experience where God told him to marry Grace and start a church and yet he could go on cheerfully in the early years being, more or less, cessationist in his pneumatology. Fortunately quite a few years ago Driscoll figured out that there's an inherent (and spectacular) problem in this kind of selective methodology. How do you affirm that God can speak to you directly but the other guy just had some bad pizza the night before and that's possibly all it is?

The truth is that recognizing the voice of God is difficult and possibly impossible if by this we mean a voice that is outside ourselves and our own perception. Some heard the voice of God the Father praising the Son while others just heard peals of thunder. If Scripture affirms that experience is such a double-edged sword then we must be aware that our faith is faith. It is not faith in a vaccum or with no evidence but it is also not certainty. That is why experience is problematic when it is invoked as certainty.

I will go further and ask "certainty of what?" If we turn to Scripture we see that God calls men and women to serve Him and gives them tasks but what is the pattern? God calls upon Isaiah and sends him off to a people who won't listen and won't see. God sends Jeremiah to people who will go into exile. God sends Elijah to a nation full of idolators. God through Moses warns Israel of their inevitable betrayal of the covenant, exile, and restoration. The pattern that emerges when God speaks to us, His people, is not usually the "God told me to marry so-and-so" or "God told me to do this job." God throughout Scripture warns of disaster coming to His people and that He has appointed that disaster and will shepherd them through punishment, exile, and death into a renrewed relationship with Him.

In other words, we have reason to doubt that God really told you to go work at whatever job you have. It's not that He really didn't, but if you tell me that you have X job because God told you to and you're happily making a ton of money and have all the time you want to spend with friends or family then you have to admit that what you're telling me was God's call on your life could come across as just you telling me that God underwrote your suburban yuppie existence before your birth. :)

Yeah, that sounds mean-spirited but consider how you would feel if I shared the same story with you. Wouldn't you think it a bit odd that I would say God told me to do the thing I love doing? Let me put it this way, if a successfully man in his thirties is married to a wife he thinks is hot and says God told him to marry her the reason I don't take it entirely seriously is not because I don't think God doesn't speak to people, it's because God has designed men and women in such a way that if they find each other attractive they are apt to marry, especially if they agree on most other points about life and style. If you invoke the experience that God told you to marry a woman you think is hot I don't question it because of God's love or wisdom, I question why you're such a dim bulb that God had to tell you something billions of other people didn't have to be told. They saw someone hot, got to know them, and decided to marry. God didn't have to tell them, "Now my child, give yourself in marriage to so and so." He or she saw the love of their life and basically said, give or take a higher or lower degree of discretion and piety, "Ooh, I'd hit that."

My stepfather once said that moments where God speaks to us should be taken with some caution. It's rare he ever held forth on spiritual topics because he has never thought of himself as "that" kind of spiritual person. But he once said that people who talk about how God told them to do X, Y, or Z can be excited about that. They feel that experience validates their calling. But the flip side is that maybe they're so dumb and slow-witted God has to directly intervene and tell them before they'll go do what they're supposed to do. Experience is a double-edged sword. The things that so often seem like big signs that affirm our calling may be all of the fleeces of Gideon, signs of fear and doubt and unbelief so great that God has to directly intervene to exhort us to do what He would have us do. Many Christians go through life without any experience at all that would suggest doing X,Y, or Z.

It would seem as though we need to revisit the end of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus had RISEN FROM THE DEAD ... yet some doubted. Thomas would not believe until he saw Jesus himself. We don't realize as Christians how dubious our experience often is in our own sight. If even apostles wondered if Jesus had really risen from the dead at first then we should recognize that experience is a part of our walk with Christ but that it is a part.

And it is a part that is easy to doubt because experience can so often neither reveal nor conceal but merely gives a sign. This is why, all things considered, I have come to believe that we must steep ourselves in Scripture because it is only through that and an awareness of the ways God speaks through and to His people that, when experience arrives, we have a basis for understanding it. That basis is Christ and also the narrative of God's people. The experience of God's voice, however it comes to us, we must recognize is not proof of God's existence so that we may believe, not most of the time. That God speaks to us is to encourage us so that we don't lose hope or aware that God can and does enact justice against sin, individual and corporate.