Friday, January 08, 2010

Prosperity gospell of conservative evangelicalism

Reclaiming the Mind looks back at The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind 16 years later

Noll's observation that there hasn't been much of an evangelical mind so many years ago probably meets with bewilderment from a number of evangelical Christians. One I met a few years ago said it seemed the evangelical mind was alive and well and he talked about John Piper and Grudem and others. He was certain that things were not as bad as Noll described.

The thing that was missing from that observation with respect to Noll is that Noll was addressing the near total failure of evangelicals to engage the arts and the sciences. Theology has been the obsession of evangelicals since the dawn of evangelicalism. The scandal of the evangelical mind is that all it seems to be devoted to is a particular range of piety and social action. Evangelicals by definition see their mission as saving souls and having their lives transformed by Jesus and "engaging culture" is engaged in such pragmatic ways as to further that mission. Actually contributing to the intellectual and cultural heritage of a society is considered secondary to "transforming the culture for Jesus". Notice I'm not saying I don't want the cultures transformed by the teaching of Christ, just that this is generally a side effect rather than the GOAL of Christian thinking and service.

Let me put things this way, when the Lord called Abraham the promise would be that through him the nations would be blessed. Over time the people descended from Abraham that became Israel understood God had made promises to His people. Eventually they proved faithless to the covenant God made with them and sought after other gods (quickly, actually, from the beginning, and persistently). It is a commonplace to say that the story is not ours but the Lord's yet it can be easy to forget that. When the Lord instructed His people through the prophet to seek the welfare of the city so that they could live peacably that meant seeking the welfare of the city. Love your neighbor, not just for your own sake but for your neighbor's.

I have often felt over the last three or four years that when some Christians talk about loving the city loving the city is merely a means to the end of establishing one's own legacy and credentials as someone who can then influence the city for one's own goals. Sounds overly cynical and I admit it is but that's where I'm at. People look after their own interests and this I understand.
Yet it seems that we are not as altruistic as we think we are.

Ironically some of the people who may be most eager to make sure there is no longer a scandal of the evangelical mind may perpetuate the same problems they hope to be the solution for. Evangelicalism will not revive the life of the mind devoted to the arts and sciences that Mark Noll has talked about by having men like John Piper or Mark Driscoll or Tim Keller being preachers and theologians. The sort of solution to the scandal of the kind of mind Mark Noll is addressing is going to be more properly addressed, ironically, by someone like Andrew Stanton making films like WALL-E. Blockbuster animated films are obviously not what most people take seriously as "intellectual" or "the life of the mind" but Noll's central premise was that it was precisely in the humanities and sciences that evangelicals have vanished from having any significant contributions to society as a whole. Arguably many evangelicals would disapprove of WALL-E as politically correct eco-advocacy when that is not the central point of the film.

Perhaps the remedy is to continue to teach, teach, and teach but to recognize that "transforming the culture for Jesus" is not something that will have immediate dividends, not something that will even remotely "pay off" in your lifetime. I don't think it is without cause that Matt Chandler said in a relatively recent sermon that many people go to seminary to become pastors because they preached a sermon or two and a little old lady told that person "You could be the next Billy Graham". That is, however, another topic. I don't feel like going off at length about my agreement with Matthew Lee Anderson that evangelicals would rather talk about making culture than actually go make some.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

HT to Inhabitatio Dei--And ye shall know he is righteous by how many theology books he owns and has read

We’d also never considered book ownership to be a form of gluttony. Because it feels like there are some things that are okay to own in excess, music may be another. Books and music are the cool gluttony, the kind of thing you talk about on your blog, unlike, say, food gluttony or Fabrage egg gluttony.

Lusts can come in many forms. Christians can certainly be aware of the dangers of avarice, we are also aware of the dangers of lust of the sexual variety or a lust for food or a lust for power. A lust for books, however, is likely to be considered not only good but a sign of righteousness. Whether the Reformed or the charismatic or what-have-you the potential problems of the who collects books on spiritual topics the idea that collecting books for the sake of collecting books might ever indicate a spiritual problem rarely comes up. No one to date has ever said in my hearing, "You know I think your theological library is too big to be healthy."

For a good chunk of my life I basically didn't buy books or CDs. There was no money left over for them and I lived in college towns where the libraries were pretty good. I made a point in my teens of checking out CDs and books from libraries. I would not buy a CD unless I heard it and liked all the tracks on it. I would not buy a book unless I had already read it and liked it enough to read it again. It was not until my later twenties that I began to buy books I had not read before or bought CDs of music I had not ALREADY heard.

As Ecclesiastes puts it of the writing of books there is no end and much study wearies the body. Yet some of us keep studying, keep reading books, keep doing things that do not really help us even though we persuade ourselves otherwise. Since I'm job hunting I am already not really going out of my way to collect books. I had enough books about a year ago that getting more isn't interesting to me. In fact I would probably want a moratorium on books as gifts until I have time to read the stuff I actually have. I have considered it a better goal to have read all the books I own than to own a lot of books. As the Spanish proverb puts it as with books, so with friends, few but good. The size of your library does not make you a better person and the avarice to collect books may ultimately be no better a lust than other lusts that are more popular for Christians to talk about.

Still, the reason this is, if at all relevant, peculiar is because overweening desires are our problem. I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon a while back in which he explained that the desires Paul was warning against are not necessarily bad desires categorically but consuming desires. A lust for spiritual books can be seen for what it is, a lust. :) Not that I'm advocating some literary equivalent of being a Luddite. I think reading is immensely valuable. I can understand why people like to buy things. Once you buy it then it's yours and the idea of borrowing or lending can be unpallatable if you have trouble remembering to turn in your library check out materials or have lent things to see them never returned.

Of course the original post begs the question about what excess is. People who have eaten too much honey themselves can be inspired to tell other people to not eat so much of it. Have you found honey? Eat only what you need otherwise you will vomit it up after getting sick. There is a time and season for everything. I have had a time and season for theological reading and lately I am more in a time and season of looking for a job.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

In which I link to one of my older, better poems

That sonnett about paying bills was middling at best. It made me feel like linking back to an older, better poem I wrote years ago. I haven't written anywhere near as decent a villanelle since. Poetry isn't easy. Then again, as they say, nothing worth doing well ever is easy.

"On Paying Bills" (a sonnett)

I have bills to pay the old-fashioned way
(bills do not creep up on you unawares).
Paying them will take up most of my day.
A bill you receive is one for your cares.
You can't tell yourself, "I will care for less."
You can't help but be in some other's debt
And you can't stop caring, that is your mess.
You can't help living a life with regret.
You can't help but pay for others' mistakes
(As both life and death are just what they are)
As well as your own, and that is what makes
The death of a man the life of a star--
Both distant, certain, and yet indistinct.
Not even after life are bills extinct.

It isn't great but it's improvised. Improvised sonnetts tend to be lacking in quality. I trust there is no need to expound upon the inspiration for such a piece of doggerel as this. My villanelle a few years ago was better.

Monday, January 04, 2010

link to a post by Bob Myers over at BHT

Quote by Reformed theologian Bavinck on Catholic doctrine of justification by works is superior to Protestant doctrine of justification by correct doctrine….

[W]e must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentence, complete surrender and the fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians. The Christian life is so rich that it develops its full glory not just in a single form or within the walls of one church.

A useful reminder. I feel as though I have been in church traditions where salvation by right doctrine has been the norm. Of course I do believe it is vital to believe the right doctrines but I also find that it is not necessarily more helpful to believe the right doctrines as doctrines. It is too easy to look at a person's life, see that their doctrine does not measure up to what you think it should be, and write them off as just happening to be a good Christian despite that or perhaps not as good as they could be if they did something else better.

This salvation by right doctrine is admittedly a reaction on my part to impulses I saw within my Pentecostal background where the position was that if you displayed the right spiritual gifts, if you just let go and let God, if you just cut loose and REALLY got on fire for God then the Lord would open up pathways to new levels of spiritual victory and being used by the Spirit. To say that this approach could be antiintellectual is unfair because it implies that these sorts of people considered intellectual activity to be a part of the Christian faith in some form. I was once at the sort of church where little old church lady was sitting in on a Sunday school class where the youth pastor was going through how to interpret biblical literature and got to Ecclesiastes. Yes, I DID just write about how a Pentecostal youth pastor was explaining why Ecclesiastes is in the canon to his Sunday school youth group! Well, the reason he had occasion to explain was precisely because the little old lady who was some kind of pillar in the church (maybe, she at least thought so) asked, "But why is this book even in the Bible?" She didn't sound like she was asking the question for rhetorical effect.

As I have written elsewhere the Bible is full of stuff that doesn't always come off as particularly inviting. The older I get the more I realize that it is more honestly Christian to admit that, as Peter put it, there are some like Paul who write things that are hard to understand. Some people love the Psalms while not liking the prophets. Other people love the prophets but don't like the Psalms. Some people may like the Gospels and find the epistles troubling. Many people avoid the apocalyptic literature while going for almost anything else. Some people adore the epistles for their theology, set out in such wonderful, abstract, propositional terms, but struggle to get a proper appreciation for the historical writings and to put them to responsible application.

When I consider the reasons why I have not continued a formal connection to a particular churchl it increasingly dawns on me that I had become part of a mentality in which salvation by right doctrine was where I was at entirely without realizing it. I thought for sure I knew better. I had family and friends who were pretty much on this track, too. Salvation by right belief is part, not the whole. I can understand why some people would go all the way to the other way and define righteousness and salvation by right practice, right liturgy, and right church but I am admittedly still too much a Protestant to go where a lot of people want those quests to lead people. It is ultimately just a variation on an earlier quest to be with the right crowd and to feel secure knowing you've found the "right" church. The criteria may change but the impulse may often be the same.

By way of allusion to a Reclaiming the Mind post evangelicals in America have been so eager to NOT appear to be embracing a social gospel of some bygone liberalism they can seem to forget that the apostles cared about the poor. When I measure my Christian faith in light of things described in scripture I'm not particularly good but then I never really have been. On the other hand, in the last five to six years I have noticed changes in my spiritual life and I realize that while I have always had reasons to doubt being "good enough" by any measure of any Christian community I have been part of I have also found that I have been