Saturday, October 01, 2011

City of God: Tim Keller's subtle contextualization

In the last ten years I have become jaded about the word "contextualization" the way I used to be jaded (and still am) about "community".  "Community" is one of those buzzwords used by people who are out to sell you something, namely their particular idea of community.  I have written elsewhere on this blog about how much of what passes for "community" in Christian circles does not constitute community but alliance. 

Much that passes for contextualization is tangential appropriation.  Now let's be fair to post-internet preachers, it's not as though pastors didn't scour newspaper headlines for sometimes dubious sermon illustrations before Al Gore invented the internet.  Cartoons depicting pastors desperately trying to form the acronym SUPERBOWL in sermon illustrations pre-date the internet.  Christians in America are nothing if not eager to over-explain themselves.  Thus the Wittenburg Door could publish a classic little one panel strip where a Christian singer songwriter is tuning his guitar and says, "Let me tell you a fifteen minute story about how God inspired me to write this three minute song."  As Dan put it over on City of God, sorta, contextualization is what you do when you're not busy talking about doing it.

Much as I love brothers and sisters in Christ over at Mars Hill let me ask a leading question here, who is engaging culture and moving upstream to influence culture more, Driscoll when he rants about Avatar and Twilight or Andrew Stanton making movies like Finding Nemo and WALL-E?  Someone seems quite a bit further upstream and engaging cultural concerns from within a Christian perspective and if I had to pick between Mark Driscoll and Andrew Stanton then Stanton seems like the person further upstream and more directly engaging culture.  After all those Mars Hill members who listened to three months of Peasant Princess got busy and spawned babies odds are pretty good that their progeny are going to get exposed to exponentially more hours of Pixar films than Driscoll sermons.  And this, really, is at it should be, but it also means that "engaging culture" and "influencing culture" are the things that are busy being done by people who rarely announce that this is what they're doing, they just go do it.  Actually do it, not just talk about how Christians should aspire to do this. 

A few years ago I wrote that the only real danger in any contextualization is the simple question of WHAT is being contextualized.  Are you contextualizing "the Gospel" or contextualizing yourself?  Contextualizing the Gospel would be discussing the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the apostles, the Triune God, and Christ as come in the flesh and risen from the dead in a way that touches upon a time and place.  The moment of appropriation is present in any case of contextualization.  Paul quotes Hellenistic poets and shares what they get right before proceeding to discuss who Jesus is. 

But Paul quotes the Hellenistic poets as a pretext as much as a gesture of mutual understanding.  The pretext is to move on to the Gospel itself, which interrupts and subverts the culture that is being engaged.  Paul says "This and this you have are true but it is not adequate to a proper understanding of the true person and nature of God."  To the extent that old-schoolers like MacArthur say that we should not contextualize the Gospel I agree when this means that the core doctrines of the faith don't change and we don't need to diverge from that.

Yet Francis Schaeffer's criticism of evangelicalism remains, "If Jesus is the answer, what is the question?" I am no longer sure that the "never contextualize" folks will ever care about this because they see that everything comes down to sin and there's nothing new or interesting about neurobiology, theory of mind, or anything else to discuss because there is nothing new under the sun and that means we don't have to study too long to figure out that whatever is going on today is just more of the same old heresy.  Well ... kinda.  But, for instance, not all stripes of Montanism are the same, just as not all stripes of church/state equivalency are the same.  Reformed Christians who would denounce papists for a conflation of church and state concerns didn't seem to mind backing the Confederacy in a way that made them the pot calling the kettle black.  If I may go so far as to say Anabaptists have one good idea it's proposing that the historical nexus of church with state power is always a bad one.  It is, ironically, one thing a lot of American Christians have assimilated (and credobaptism) while explicitly rejecting all kinds of other things.  But I digress again.

I've heard more than a few Keller sermons by now and when Keller provides an illustration or a contextualization moment it has a particular character.  In a sermon on Christian friendship he cites C. S. Lewis' The Four Loves.  Keller notes Lewis' observation that ours is an era that lionizes eros and that our literature is not full of famous friendships, or popular culture does not have friendships as famous as the names of famous lovers.  Romeo and Juliet,, Antony and Cleopatra, these we know. 

I would say that for anyone steeped in cartoons and childrens' stories there is another side to this.  Don't we "all" know about Batman and Robin, Charlie Brown & Snoopy, Calvin & Hobbes, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble?  Then there's Wallace & Gromit.  Shaggy and Scooby Doo.  Consider Bart Simpson and Milhouse.  For that matter, moving further along, there's Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny.  Under the noses of most so-called "adult" story-telling cartoons have been trafficking in stories of friendship for generations but we have, as a culture, often felt that there is a need to graduate from kid-fare into "adult" entertainment.  Not THAT kind of adult entertainment, the other kinds.  Still, Lewis, and by extension Keller, have a point, romances are more dominant in our culture than friendships.

Moving on, when Keller discusses friendship in ancient literature, Christian and otherwise, his stops on the road of literature and philosophy emphasize friendship within the sermon.  They are not digressions but necessary elements in the presentation on how Christians can and should think about friendship both within the history of Christian reflection itself and within the broader context of human experience.  In this way a contextualizing episode contextualizes ideas that relate to a Christian teaching about a topic in the scriptures in a way that permits reference to historic application. 

At the risk of still using Driscoll as a negative example, most of the contraversies that have brewed up about the guy have had to do with digressionary rants within sermons that are far better known than the actual sermons in which they appeared.  Who out there in the general populace heard that Driscoll preached a sermon on spiritual warfare in his Luke series?  Anyone?  No?  Well, what about the bit how Avatar is the most satanic movie Mark has ever seen?  Ah, a few people heard that.  What biblical text and subject was Driscoll discussing when he had that soundbite about how video games are stupid because they are the pursuit of vicarious victories that don't matter and aren't building a legacy?  Anyone remember which sermon that was? 

Now I'll put my cards on the table here, I'm PCA for a number of reasons and I'm not going to hide my preference for Keller style contextualization over Driscoll style contextualization.  Keller brings up cultural, literary, and philosophical aspects as a way to discuss things related to biblical texts.  The connection is thematic rather than purely exegetical but there's an observable connection.  So if Keller talks about how the Back to the Future movies give us a message that the future is entirely in our hands so we must make it a good one in contrast to movies that discuss destiny and fate, his thread is to show that popular culture cannot resolve the question of determinism and free will and that with respect to the life of the individual believer we can't say that the Bible gives us a clear cut resolution of the question of determinism via God's sovereignty and our responsibility for our actions.  The pop cultural trivia become a point from which to observe that if Christians have not resolved the freedom/determinism question how much less has the world?  You remember the illustration but you also remember the point for which the illustration was brought up to begin with.

I'm afraid Driscoll is often not that far along in his skill as an orator.  In the last few years Driscoll's sermon digressions have become tidal waves of personal punditry that obliterate the relevance of his actual pastoral points.   This is probably due far more to the people who put soundbites and video clips of him in Mars Hill media than Driscoll's actual hour-long sermons.  That is also, unfortunately, generally immaterial because the little fracases describe themselves.  When Driscoll discusses Avatar as the most satanic movie he's ever seenin a sermon on spiritual warfare he's contextualizing ... but by making the focal point of his contextualizing episode what HE thinks of Avatar what he ends up contextualizing is not a scriptural teaching on, say, friendship in light of what Christians and pagans have historically thought about friendship.  What Driscoll ends up contextualizing in his rants against Avatar or video games is simply himself and his opinions about cultural trends that rarely need to be brought up in the setting of an allegedly expository sermon that is just discussing what is in a biblical text.

Now I have a friend who used to be a Christian and within the last ten years one of the things he has admitted to finding insufferable about a lot of preachers, particularly in some youth pastors, is a desperate appropriation of pop culture.  He heard a youth pastor say of Aragorn after Return of the King hit theaters that Aragorn was a type of Christ.  Superman, somewhat famously, has been described as being a type of Christ but this just gets at how meaningless the appropriation has become.  To say that so and so is like Jesus simply means that the person or thing is so famous and unobjectionable as to not be worthy of scabrous attacks within the confines of an increasingly secular civic pseudo-religion.  Anyone can say these days that they respect the real Jesus but reject Christianity. 

A lot of what is passed off as "contextualization" is going to be more revealing of your Netflix queue as it is any indication of whether or not you even read the Bible.  More is revealed by a person attempting to say that Optimus Prime or Superman or Jack Bauer are Christ-types than is ever revealed by the stories of those three characters as manifestations of American pop culture.  Sure, there may be cosmetic resemblances between three characters and stories about Jesus but as skeptics have been pointing out for millenia, there are all sorts of fascinating similarities between early Christian tales and pagan mystery religions.  The atheist and the skeptic could ask whether or not these Christians who see Superman, Jack Bauer, or Optimus Prime as Christ types are seeing Jesus in those characters or whether they are seeing those characters in their own custom-built versions of Jesus. 

There are, for that matter, some Christians who are more careful about getting things right with the timeline for the Star Wars expanded universe than have paid attention to the significance of Rehoboam's first major decision as king in the wake of Solomon's death.  There are people who are more alert to whether Greedo shot first than to what the significance might be of Micaiah being shown by God to tell Ahab a lying spirit had been sent to Ahab's prophets.  No, I'm not going to give you chapter and verse because my point is to demonstrate that if you don't already know the tale and you can keep track of all the plot twists and character arcs on Lost you're revealing where your priorities have been.  I haven't even seen a whole episode of Lost.  I confess my nerdiness is already well-attested and accounted for.

It's okay to know a lot about nerdy stuff if you're a Christian but if you remember episodes of Family Guy or score listings for baseball games or things like that more readily than you can grasp the history of Israel as part of the history of Christ relating to His Creation then, well, I can't really make you fix that but I can urge you to consider what stuff is being contextualized for the sake of what.  If there is any tragic flaw in the way some pastors "contextualize" it's that they do not impart for their church members a zeal for the scriptures themselves but a willingness to defend their pastors ultimately forgettable digressions on pop culture.  Don't defend your pastor's cultural trivial pursuits, don't defend your pastor's rabbit trails into personal and cultural anecdotes.  What will last are not the stories about the pastor's kids or the movies or books or video games or restaurants your pastor does or doesn't like. When your pastor (or mine) stands before the throne of Christ what's going to matter is what the pastor said about Him. 

What if you, as a pastor, stood before Jesus' throne and Jesus asked you if you ever used the pulpit as a pretext for making fun of things you don't like?  What would you say?  You'd have to plead guilty, first of all, and second you'd have to consider whether or not the use of the pulpit and the privilege of expounding the scriptures to those who need to hear the words of life was worth taking that liberty.  Now I'm not hiding my frequent disagreement with a guy like John MacArthur but I'm willing to say that on this particular subject he and I are probably in some agreement. 

But there are two edges to this blade.  Jesus can look at you and ask if you preached only Him or if you also preached Jack Bauer or golf or whatever other things you liked.  But Jesus can also ask if you preached only His words instead of preaching against your dislike of The Simpsons or Family Guy or Desperate Housewives or light beer or vegetarians or Republicans or Democrats.  As David Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it half a century ago, there will come a point where your being opposed to communism will not prove that you are in any way actually a follower of Christ.  Being opposed to "contextualization" is the same way. My salvation and yours does not depend, thank God, on whether or not the words of so many forgettable and forgotten preachers went this way or that.  He must become greater and greater and we must become less and less. 

Then again I'm not a pastor, hope never to be, and perhaps don't know what I'm talking about.

Confident in competence

My friend Wendy posted this recently and it reminded me of a discussion on her blog earlier this year.  A few people suggested that men derive a sense of worth from their professions while women find their worth in things like relationships and family.  Some women (rightly) objected that this is far too simplistic a take on things.  The simplification is problematic not because there are no women who measure their worth as wives and mothers in contrast to women who measure their worth as professionals or theologians; the simplification is problematic because it does not go far enough.

Our confidence in worldly terms sooner or later comes down to our competence.  To cast this in utterly high school stereotypes the jock boasts in his athletic ability and the nerd boasts in his academic ability but both ground themselves in a competence.  The pretty cheerleader who isn't much of a scholar but who is beautiful and well-liked and knows how to get along with the important people in the social structure grounders herself in competence.  The teacher's pet does the same thing, as does the rebellious loner.  In the course of our lives we weigh and balance what competencies seem most likely to give us the kind of life we want.  The world does this at length and Christians are no different ... except that we often spiritualize our pursuit of competence in theological terms like "vocation" and "honoring the Lord" and "leaving a legacy."  Certainly those three things are precious and valuable, but we can still end up defining ourselves by what we believe our competencies are. 

It may be helpful to consider the following things.  When Isaiah wrote to the barren woman and the eunuch he was telling them that the Lord was going to bring about a reversal.  Those who entrust themselves to God will receive God Himself as their heritage, inheritance, and legacy even though by the measures of even the godly people of that age they had nothing and were nothing.  They as individuals didn't matter and their names would not endure.  When Qoholeth surveyed all the things he built he considered it meaningless. He had amassed a mountain of wealth someone else would receive after his death.  He built many great things and yet these things would inevitably crumble and fall. He built himself a great legacy but saw it was vain.

Now traditionally Solomon is considered to be the author but even if we assume for the sake of discussion (and not even all conservative scholars agree that Solomon wrote the book) notice something about this book Ecclesiastes if Solomon was the author--the book is written in such a way as to deflect our attention away from anything that would make Solomon unique.  Solomon never comes out and says "I'm Solomon and I wrote this book." Consider how self-effacing it is if one of the greatest kings in Israel who is credited with a library of songs and attached his name to the book of Proverbs and had his name attached to Song of Songs to, say, write Ecclesiastes but deliberately avoid even naming himself.  Of course this could mean Solomon didn't write the book of Ecclesiastes but if he did then we overlook an obvious point if we focus on Solomonic authoriship as a point for scriptural authority and not at Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes as a take-down of the validity of Solomon's own legacy. 

If Solomon refused to identify himself in any direct way and said the end of the matter is to fear God this means that this takes precedent over Solomon's own legacy.  Kings and Chronicles do not suggest in any clear way that Solomon ever repented of his legions of sinful habits, though, and though it's nice to think that Solomon repented and wrote Ecclesiastes the warnings of Kings and Chronicles and Ecclesiastes do not stand or fall only on Solomonic authorship.  The competency the author gained in being wise turns out to have been a trap.  He sees that with increased knowledge comes increased misery and that the wise and the fool both die anyway, so what was gained in becoming so very wise?  Something, to be sure, but something that will be lost at death. 

To the extent that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes and withheld his name we can see this as a kind of abnegation of his unique competence as being the foundation for his observations.  Iain Provan mentions in his commentary on 1 & 2 Kings that the author talks about David considering Solomon's wisdom and we see Solomon asked for wisdom.  There is a dramatic tension in the narrative in which we are invited to figure out whose wisdom Solomon is operating within when he makes this decision or that, the wisdom from Yahweh or his own wisdom.  By the end of Solomon's life recounted in Kings and Chronicles it becomes tragically apparent which sort of wisdom dominated.  It is good to gain wisdom and it is good to gain competence but these can be, in their own ways, snares.  You and I will eventually and inevitably be forgotten as everyone will be.  Jesus said to not store up treasures here on earth that will rot and rust but to store up treasures in heaven.  It is good to be skilled and to be competent.  The scriptures say that a man who is skilled in his labor will stand before kings and will not serve obscure and unknown men.  That's true ... but it's also true, as Qoholeth noted so grimly, that great and wise men of all kinds are forgotten after they die, just like all the idiots who helped create the problems that great and wise men had to figure out how to solve!  Death is the fate of everyone and the living take this to heart.

A Christian's struggle is not merely in vocation to be productive and helpful to others, though that is important, a Christian must remember he or she is saved not by self-possessed or self-acquired competence.  Our competence will not always save us, no matter how much of it we have.  The Lord is our provider and sometimes, truly, the Lord lets us suffer to the point of shed blood or some other kind of death.  To deny this is to deny what the scriptures teach.  In him we live and move and have our being as Paul shared at Areogapus, but he also said that to live is Christ and to die is gain.  Whether we live or die it is to the Lord.  Just because Jesus makes up my dying bed doesn't mean dying is ever fun but if Jesus makes up my dying bed it is He who raises me.  It is His omnicompetence and not my competence or imcompetence that is the foundation of hope.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

James MacDonald disagrees with people who think T. D. Jakes is a modalist

I learned of this bit of trivia by way of the Boar's Head Tavern resident Matthew Johnson
Among other things James MacDonald wrote the following:
... I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as I find it in Scripture. I believe it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced. I believe God is very happy with His Word as given to us and does not wish to update or clarify anything that He has purposefully left opaque. Somethings are stark and immensely clear, such as the deity of Jesus Christ; others are taught but shrouded in mystery, such as the Trinity. I do not trace my beliefs to credal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might.

So he affirms the doctrine of the Trinity as he finds it in Scripture.  He believes it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced.  Nothing should be clarified that is left opaque. 

So does this mean that MacDonald is seriously laying out a precedent through his public teaching and blogging in which it is more crucial to agree with him that, say, congregational rule is Satanic and most be spoken out against more vociferously than, say, Nestorianism?  Or Docetism?  Is the Satanic nature of congregational polity that clearly spelled out in Scripture in comparison to say the fully divine and human nature of Christ?  If you don't get things nailed down along the lines of the Nicene Creed about the Trinity, well, hey, no biggie.  But you better be sure you're not advocating congregational ecclesiology or suggesting that multi-site church preaching and sacramentology might have some long-term short-comings.  Yeah, that, uh, is really reassuring there, man.  For a second I would have thought that the Trinity and how we formulate it and understand it is nothing less than a make or break issue in the Christian faith. But what do I know?  I only sat through the 2008 Doctrine series Mark Driscoll preached.

For the record, going through 10 of 27 books of the NT doesn't prove a person has any competence as an exegete or biblical scholar.  Sorry, but it's true.  A preacher can go through the whole book of Romans one verse at a time but if he's a Jehovah's Witness it's washed up. 

What people say and think about the Trinity matters astronomically more than whether or not they'll agree with James MacDonald that congregational church leadership is from Satan or that multi-site churches constitute a basis from which MacDonald can keep Mark Dever from finishing more than a single sentence.  MacDonald can say that the Trinity is a big deal and we know this is because it is true.  But just the idea that not being informed by a creedal approach about the Trinity while sticking up for the idea that congregational rule is of Satan ... that's just something I don't get.  Maybe someone can explain it to me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I think ... I think ...

I think I may be making the breakthroughs I need in a couple of projects now. :)  I've made some important discoveries about how to approach my final fugue in my cycle thanks to Bach and Beethoven (duh, should have thought of this earlier). 

I've also made a serendipitous discovery dusting off G. K. Chesterton that is going to be (probably) a vital new element in my forthcoming series at Mockingbird about Batman: the animateed series.  Yep, Chesterton ... and C. S. Lewis, but chiefly Chesterton. 

HT Scotteriology: Digital Dead Sea Scrolls link

This link pretty much speaks for itself.

Monday, September 26, 2011

a bit more from DG Hart on The Gospel Coalition

... Which is why it is possible that the problem afflicting the evangelicals at the Gospel Coalition is one of sentimentality. That is, they value feelings more than doctrine. This is what Ken Myers called orthopathy instead of orthodoxy. This does not mean that the folks at TGC ignore doctrine. Obviously, they promote it. But they never let it function in a way that might make leaders, readers, or bloggers uncomfortable — that is, doctrine will never be offensive, especially to the co-allies. But they seem to have no problem patrolling the Christian world for incorrect emotions.

This would apparently explain why the bloggers at TGC have yet to mention the two six hundred pound gorillas in the TGC parlor — C. J. Mahaney and Mark Driscoll. The former has at the very least created a ruckus about the kind of pastoral leadership within SGM circles, which would seem to undermine TGC’s commitment to promoting gospel-centered churches. And then there is Dricoll’s clairvoyance which in sixteenth-century Geneva would have gotten him drowned. I understand that these situations are delicate and that friends want to stand by friends. But to call Calvinists — yet again — angry when TGC has its own image problems is well nigh remarkable unless, that is, you remember the importance of feelings, affections, passions, and hedonism. A co-ally may not be able to spot Mahaney’s or Driscoll’s errors but can FEEL their pain

I've seen rows of comments deleted from articles at the Gospel Coalition. One of the more memorable ones was an interview with Driscoll where he explained that 1,000 members left Mars Hill because they ramped up their doctrinal requirements. They didn't, I was there and they didn't ramp up doctrinal requirements in any meaningful way. What they did do was insist that members of long-standing had to renew their membership and said (but did not enforce) the new policy was renewing members had to sign off that they agreed with all the new by-laws circa 2007. I didn't renew because I didn't see the point of having to renew membership on the condition of saying I agreed to a pile of by-laws I was not allowed to have any input or say about. It's not a matter of some populist democratic impulse, it's a matter that the previous three to four times I renewed my membership I wasn't given this new requirement. Some friends and family renewed their memberships and never even SAW the by-laws.

The ridiculousness of setting up a criteria that was never even enforced got to be a bit much for me. And then this is sidelined and the "real" reason for a loss of members is an increased doctrinal stress? Sorry, I wish that were actually the case but nothing changed. Now if Mars Hill doctrine specifically repudiated both postmillenialism and premillenialism on the grounds that theonomistic reconstructionism and Rapture-expectant apocalypticism do harm to the spiritual health of congregants THAT would have been a truly brave and more demanding stance on doctrine!

Even something as simple as telling paedobaptists to go find another church would be braver but I have known any number of closeted paedobaptists who have been at Mars Hill, some of whom baptised their kids at home in lieu of any hope that the church would accept that. Wanna guess how many paedobaptists are members or serving in paid positions at Mars Hill? I have no idea but I know there are probably at least a few more of them there than are willing to attempt teaching on the subject in a community group.

The clairvoyence of Driscoll is something I'll tackle later, God willing. The problem D. G. Hart may be roughly pointing out is something that other Christians have pointed out with varying degrees of anger or equanimity, which is that the new Calvinists may be very soft on touching the subject of double predestination but are even softer on the subject of whether or not there is a double standard in when they believe they are justified in using polemics vs whether there is any justification for a polemic against a position or practice they stake out (or don't, for that matter). Doctrine exists for "me" to make "you" uncomfortable about a failure on your part to truly love Jesus. And pertinent to what the GC doesn't address ...

That tallies up to Pat Robertson, Rob Bell, and angry Calvinists as all worthy of Gospel Coalition opposition. If I do my math aright, that means that TGC is against extremism and for moderation (read: nice). My calculations may be off. But I’m reasonably confident of my findings.

Robertson, Bell, and "angry Calvinists" do all seem to be fish in the same barrel. They are not risky targets because one of these targets has been the subject of worldly mockery for two decades and if the Wittenburg Door mentioned a guy at all in the past THREE DECADES that means a young, hip neo-Calvinist gains nothing by criticizing a crazy old man.

Rob Bell may just be another post-modern emergent sort of the type who a lot of people don't pay attention to but this lack of person-of-interest states cuts in several directions. I know a few Christians who will rhetorically ask "Who is John Piper?" To that I say "self-appointed Calvinist Baptist pope, maybe?" But unloading a few shots at Bell for his ideas about Hell seems easy. That doesn't mean it shouldn't have possibly been done, I guess. I don't think N. T. Wright was just wasting time writing his book on the Resurrection or replying to various claims made by people on the Jesus Seminar. The Body has different members locally and globally that do different things. But where Piper's "farewell Rob Bell" tweet may have had any relevance to me is not that he bid farewell to Rob Bell as though this were some big deal about Bell's ideas but that it was "farewell" at all. On what basis did Piper ever consider Rob Bell to be anything remotely close to being on the same team about anything? When were Bell and Piper under the same standard about anything anyway?

And last and lest "angry Calvinists". For Arminians and Lutherans and various other people who are not identified as "evangelical" Calvinist Baptists can be considered pretty angry. Various members of the Gospel Coalition writing about anything could be considered above the risk of "angry Calvinist" only on the basis of a generous sliding curve.

I've had friends run stuff by me that's at the Gospel Coalition and, well ...meh. It's just not quite my interest. I care about actual theological disagreements amongst sincere Christians. I also care about the disagreements and disputes over which Christians decide to start throwing around the word "heresy" because, as Carl Trueman put it, these were the kinds of differences about which self-professing Christians started killing each other over the last millenia. This is why a diet of polemic or "medicine" reveals itself in the end to be no diet at all for sustained life. It's not that there is never a place for it but there are a lot of Christians (and I have often seen how I am one of them) for whom polemic provides a kind of identity. I saw this a lot in the earliest days of Mars Hill but didn't recognize it for what it was because it was (and arguably still is) one of my weak spots. But it is why, quaintly enough, I fit in so very, very well there.

Carl Trueman: Video multisite and a possible end of the Reformation

Time was that the megachurch was not highly thought of by those who claimed the name Reformed or looked to the Reformation for their historical inspiration. This was consistent with two basic concerns which had high priority for the Reformers: as opposition to things such as pluralities (ministers holding multiple appointments) and absenteeism (ministers not actually ever being where they ministered); and the fear of turning leaders into fetishes.

... The lack of pastoral care such multi-sites engender is common knowledge. Further, the whole idea seems clearly to turn certain preachers into fetishes. Medieval Catholics liked to obtain the body, or even just a fragment, of a saint for their church building in order to make it an authentic church, or a better church than the one in the neighbouring town (see. the undignified fight for the corpse of St. Anthony of Padua; today we need a virtual piece of a famous preacher in our locale to have access to the magic.

Carl Trueman mentions that the contemporary multi-site megachurch encourages to habits in pastoral leadership that were focal points for criticism of the Roman church by the Reformers. It was too easy for a priest to have a series of appointments and to not be at many of those appointed places. A megachurch multi-site pastor may rationalize that a video feed or a week-delay DVD rebroadcast of his sermon is reaching more people for Jesus. The videology argument has it that more people are reached for Jesus and most people won't be seeing the pastor anyway.

It's one of those ironies of history that neo-Calvinists are embracing a kind of ecclesiology that may be embodying at every level precisely the sort of ecclesiology that the Reformers believed was part of the corruption of the Roman church. At a multi-site church it's possible for a member to never attend more than a few times a year and no one, literally no one, will notice. A multi-site church rebroadcasting the lead teaching pastor's content a week later at all the other churches/satellites/campuses transforms the lead teaching pastor into a functional archbishop in a surreptitious episcopate (mind you, those of you who are in episcopates I'm not dogging that church government system, I'm just speaking here about megachurch multi-site systems who are living in denial about their true ecclesiological nature. The churches that have regional bishops and arch-bishops aren't the ones who are somehow in denial about what's actually going on!

Delegating pastoral care to campus pastors and saying that campuses are churches can mean that some actual pastoral care can happen, ideally, but the pastor who does the lion's share of the preaching at these campuses is preaching to people he'll never meet whose lives he has no connection to. As a certain pastor used to put it, this means the pastor is a denominational top dog who works in some office in some other state who never has any interaction with the actual people he is supposedly shepherding in the church yet gets to make decisions about what leaders at that distant church can do or say and whether or not they work there. For some of the new Calvinists, though, it would appear that so long as that office hundreds of miles from churches that spiritual leader oversees is in the pastor's own house that's okay. It's only really a problem and a temptation to OTHER churches that have the cajones to describe themselves as actually being denominations. ;)

PsyBlog: the problem with narcissistic leaders

One job of a leader is to help the members of a group communicate with each other. If information is flowing between group members, then better decisions can be made. So, what do narcissists do to information flow amongst group members?

What Nevicka et al.'s study found was that narcissistic leaders actually reduced information sharing among groups, which led to worse group performance.

Crucially, though, this wasn't the perception of the group. The groups thought the narcissists were doing a good job, when actually they weren't (as measured by task performance). This perception is probably dynamic:

"It is possible that over time, group members’ positive impressions of narcissistic leaders decrease. Indeed, previous research has shown that although people’s impressions of narcissists are positive at first, they decline over time (Paulhus, 1998)." (emphasis added)

But by then we're stuck with them.


Well, maybe, but sometimes underperforming narcissistic leaders actually get the boot depending on how much accountability they have for job performance. Depending on what organization you're in there are ways to opt out. In employment settings, yes, you're stuck with a narcissist but in voluntary associations (i.e. clubs, churches, etc.) you can go somewhere else.

It can certainly turn out that a narcissist gives an impression of being very competent and accomplished in the short run and then it is possible to surmise that the person isn't even close to being as good as he or she thinks he or she is. I suppose to put it in absurd comic book lingo, the Riddler can think he's the best and smartest criminal out there and that he can't be figured out but we know Batman will work things out sooner or later. Riddler's narcissistic pursuit of proving his individual glory doesn't beat Batman's willingness to cooperate to solve a problem.

There is a point where the sentiment "none of us is as dumb as all of us" is a realistic skepticism about herd tendencies but there is another point at which the sentiment "none of us is as dumb as all of us" is a reflection of a narcissism that proposes that the individual transcends the huddled masses of the stupid, the average, and the pedestrian. I have been reviewing a bunch of Batman: the animated series episodes lately and so I trust you'll just overlook my reflexive tying things to Batman cartoons. I'm still struggling to work out a whole bunch of ideas about themes and character arcs in this series for Mockingbird.

found a new blog, thanks to commenter chris e

Commenter chris e introduced me to a theological blog I had not encountered before. Well, maybe I encountered it before but forgot about it and didn't post anything about an entry as I had planned. I think I did come across the "Driscoll has some `splaining to do" months back but there's nothing like having an uncle die, having some medical problems with eyes come up, and having some beloved friends marry to make a person forget something as mundane as even a good theological blog! Anyway, a portion of an entry I recently read where I highlight some things that struck me.

But what is curious about Keller’s concession that polemics is necessary as a form of medicine is whether the folks at TGC think that what they are doing through the coalition is offering a well-rounded diet. Keller says, “Polemics is medicine, not food. Without medicine we will surely die—we can’t live without it. This is why polemical theology must be a required part of every theological curriculum. Yet we cannot live on medicine.” [emphasis mine] I understand this. And it can also be said of candy, except that candy isn’t nearly as beneficial as medicine, nor is it the case that we could not live without it. Still, as I’ve asked before, what does TGC do that churches do not already do? The churches have the recipes and ingredients for a healthy spiritual diet. And sometimes they engage in polemics with those institutions that offer up prepackaged-food as the wholesome article.

So perhaps the folks at TGC need to look in the mirror and ask whether they are doing something that instigates polemics. In which case, it wouldn’t be a personality defect of Calvinists to disagree with and point out the weaknesses of a project such as TGC.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

writing and more writing

I know, I know. I keep writing about writing and not necessarily writing here. I have been struggling with some material that is important in the newest series for Mockingbird. I am also struggling with a couple of future series to write about the DC animated universe as well. Been thinking about a couple of themes and contrasts to explore down the road but also waiting to see if I can get help for a medical procedure I need that I don't have the money to pay for. I am also still unemployed and have little money.

By the providential kindness of the Lord I have a roof over my head and am well-fed (in fact I need to exercise off some of the not-starving parts of me). I have scrounged up just enough funds that, Lord willing, by the time I finish a couple of little free-lance projects I shall at least be able to keep a roof over my head through to next year but that means I have to work my tail off.

I am also working diligently on my 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar. By now I suppose I make no secret (not that anyone would necessarily have a reason to care) that one of my goals in composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar is to create music that can be useful in liturgical settings. I have even been able, thanks to support from church musicians and pastors, present a few of my works from the cycle during offering and communion. I am covering the stylistic and regional waterfront. Some of the preludes and fugues owe much to Luigi Legnani or Haydn. Still others owe everything to J. S. Bach. Still others are inspired by Shostakovich, Bartok, Hindemith, Durufle, even Messiaen. Ellington, Brubeck, and Monk have been inspirations. The closing prelude and fugue of the entire cycle is an homage to the pavans and sacred choral music of William Byrd. I've littered hymns throughout the cycle, sometimes in obvious ways, at other times in deliberately light-hearted ways.

I am planning on writing some more guest posts in a few other settings, which requires some attention. Meanwhile, I wait to find out how things will go for cataract removal surgery. It's grimly amusing that I have only ever needed major eye surgery at points in my life when I'm unemployed with no money!

There are so many things I would have liked to have written about by now but I realize that a mixture of joblessness with depression can kill the writing impulse. I had hoped by now to have read quite a bit more of Schlatter's commentary on Romans than I have! I had hoped by now to have written at some length about contemporary critical (that is to say negative) reactions to Haydn's music and the significance I see in this on the subject of changing musical forms and styles.

I believe that for contemporary composers so many people have broken rules and forms and styles that Leo Brouwer is correct to say the next big musical revolution we will see is fusion. This would not even be the first time such a consolidation of styles has occurred. In the West the old style and new style in the Baroque era eventually gave way to style gallant, roccoco, and all that stuff that was eventually synthesized into the Classic style proper.

The trouble I find with a lot of music and musical approaches is not so much that there's no good music. There's all sorts of wonderful music now. I admit I haven't listened to pop music with much attention since, oh, the last Portishead album and before that Weezer's Maladroit and before that Bjork's Vespertine (her last good album, in my opinion). There's a lot, historically speaking, that has not particularly changed about popular music in a lot of ways since, really, Tin Pan Alley. I think that's a good thing, but the rate of stylistic change is perceived as being so much faster than it actually is that a lot of taste-dividing issues become cultural rather than strictly musical. Why should I listen to "new country" when I can listen to "old rock and roll" (no, not the Bob Seger kind!)? But I ramble ... .

I am working on compiling a whole bunch of thoughts on biblical texts and on charismatic/cesssationist debates and why I increasingly find both views to be problematic. There's a great deal of polemic made in bad faith by both sides. Now in terms of practice and advocacy I can't say I'm "charismatic" at all now but I don't see cessationism as viable and a lot of the problems have to do with what I consider to be gross misrepresentations and question-begging on the part of both sides about certain offices and gifts. Since the blogosphere has erupted with ruminations about Driscoll's claims to spiritual superpowers I want to eventually address that and concerns I have about that stuff. But I need more time to compile and organize my thoughts on those subjects--I should say here that my concerns are not strictly about Driscoll alone but will represent my reservations about lay Christian counselors in general (i.e. people with no competencies in psychological research or training). I don't think the Team Pyro sort of screed is a useful contribution to such a discussion because lazy prooftexting seems to be what MacArthur fans are good at. I'll grudgingly grant MacArthur himself can exposit biblical texts but as an amillenial partial preterist I'll probably never got on board with his dispensationalism. But I ramble.

Particularly alert readers with long memories will notice I haven't gotten back to that project about Hell, either.

In the midst of all this I am trying to see what I can scrounge up for job leads, attending church (which should be more often these days than I've been actually accomplishing), and tackling all sorts of "real world" concerns. One of those concerns is getting everything in order for my first published composition. Lord willing, by year's end, I'll be a published composer. It's a modest achievement at every level but a special one to me since I have been playing guitar for some twenty-one years and have been composing as a hobby for nearly that long.

A few of you readers and lurkers have sent me links to a few things that I have found enjoyable, interesting, or exasperating. I will see if I can at times muster up the will-power to write about some of that stuff. :)