Sunday, October 31, 2010

Classic Luther for Reformation Sunday

On October 31, 1517 an obscure university professor posted a list of 95 theses, or propositions, that he wished to debate. If you read them today they don't seem all that remarkable, and one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. However, in the spring of the following year Luther published another set of 28 theses which came to be known as The Heidelberg Disputation. Luther was still a loyal Roman Catholic when he wrote these, but here you can see the seeds of the theology that would turn him from Martin Luther, Augustinian monk into Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer.

I especially love the last four:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

26. The law says, "do this", and it is never done. Grace says, "believe in this", and everything is already done.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work (operans) and our work an accomplished work (operatum), and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

There in a few brief lines is summed up a theology of free grace alone (sola gratia) for which I give thanks on this Reformation Sunday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The indispensable Christian virtue

I came across this quote from Augustine via John Calvin in Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K. A. Smith.

A saying of Chrysostom's has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility. But that of Augustine pleases me even more: 'When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, "Delivery"; what was the second rule, "Delivery"; what was the third rule, "Delivery"; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third and always I would answer, "Humility."' (Institutes 2.2.11)

Look for more on Smith's book later. It's a gem! You can read the first few chapters, I mean letters, here.

Boehner (pronounced bay-nur)

I enjoyed reading this Vanity Fair piece by Todd Purdum on the man who may well wake up next Wednesday as Speaker of the House, and arguably the most important political figure in the country. If Ohio Congressman John Boehner ends up taking back the gavel from Nancy Pelosi it will be the culmination of an improbable journey.

John Boehner wasn’t born a Republican. He became one the same way that thousands of other working-class Catholic men of his generation did: through hard work and the absorption of the shifting cultural and political values that culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. He is the second-oldest of 12 children (his brother Bob is 362 days older), nine boys and three girls born over a 20-year period to Earl and Mary Ann Boehner. He grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Reading, in a house that initially had only two bedrooms. His parents slept on a foldout couch in the living room. Jerry Vanden Eynden, a childhood friend, recalls that his most vivid memory of the Boehner household is of cloth diapers drying everywhere—on a clothesline outside in summer, and in the basement in winter. Earl Boehner ran Andy’s Café, a shot-and-a-beer bar in nearby Carthage. It specialized in sandwiches and plate lunches for truck drivers and hourly workers from a nearby Procter & Gamble plant. John worked there from the time he was old enough to push a broom, eventually holding every job in the place: bottle sorter, busboy, waiter, and finally bartender, learning, as he put it a couple of years ago, “to deal with every jackass that walks in the door.”

And one more paragraph that hints at the challenges a Speaker Boehner might face. . .

. . . Boehner is by nature a salesman, a deal-maker, not an ideologue. He has been respectful of the anger of Tea Party voters and has attended some of their events, but he has not embraced their tone. He has given a wide berth to the controversial proposal by Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, to dramatically cut back and effectively privatize Social Security and Medicare. On more than one occasion, at roundtable discussions with reporters this summer and fall, I watched him decline to mix it up on hot-button topics on which the loudest voices in his party had taken strong stands. These included the Obama administration’s hasty (and mistaken) firing of a black Department of Agriculture official who was accused of making racist remarks, when in fact she’d been calling for tolerance; the controversy over the proposed Muslim prayer room and cultural center near Ground Zero, in Manhattan; and the nature of Barack Obama’s religious beliefs. After a speech in Cleveland, when Boehner was asked, “Would you care to offer an opinion about whether Barack Obama’s a Christian or not?,” he replied crisply, “No. The American people are worried about the economy.” Boehner’s brain trust includes people whose experience dates to the Gingrich era. They remember what happened when the Republicans overreached by twice shutting down the government in disputes with Bill Clinton, and they also remember the way Gingrich and Clinton managed to work together on issues such as overhauling the welfare system. In Washington, people with this kind of perspective are antiques, like something out of Herodotus.

I wish him well.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pilgrims and theocrats

I started reading Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet by Jason Stellman. The author is pastor of Exile Presbyterian Church in Woodinville, WA and the blogger behind the excellent Creed Code Cult. Stellman introduces the book by sketching the biblical framework for what follows -- "to prepare the soil into which the seeds of Dual Citizens will be sown." He begins by asking, "What is the relationship between cult and culture, the church and the world?" And I would add between worship and life, the sacred and the secular. It's common to hear Christians today say (usually based on Romans 12:1) that all of life is worship. Stellman will argue that for believers under the New Covenant all of life is not worship, and that we must distinguish between the two for the benefit of both.

Here's a condensed version of his thesis. In the beginning worship and life were one. There was no division between sacred and secular, cult and culture. The pre-fall arrangement between God and man was -- as described by theologians Geerhardus Vos and Meredith Kline -- a holy theocracy. More importantly for Stellman's argument this holy theocracy was connected to a holy land -- an actual piece of real estate called Eden. The ground Adam walked on was truly holy ground. The garden was the "palace-sanctuary" where "God's presence was enthroned." Then came the fall into sin which brought with it mankind's divided self and "an unnatural separation between cult and culture. Man was expelled from 'the holy land' and consigned to exile east of Eden."

Flash forward to the institution of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai. Here again God is instituting (re-instituting?) a theocracy connected to a holy land. Once the people of God entered Canaan they were to be religiously and culturally distinct from the nations around them. There would once again be no division between sacred and secular. If the people broke the covenant they would be thrown out of the land and sent into exile just like Adam was. Of course that's what happened, but let's back up a bit.

Even more foundational to our faith than the covenant at Sinai is the one instituted centuries before between God and Abraham in Genesis 17. Stellman wants to show that under the Abrahamic covenant the distinctiveness of the people of God was religious only. For the patriarchs the separation between cult and culture continued. Their particularity was in their worship of the one true God, especially by their observation of the covenant rite of circumcision. Other than that, Stellman argues, they were "culturally similar" to the pagans around them. In other words they were "culturally common but religiously distinct." And, significantly, their status was that of pilgrims and exiles without a land of their own (Heb. 11:8-10) and without the corresponding theocratic arrangement in which all of life was subsumed under worship.

Before you check out on me there's one more essential element to bring in. As mentioned the Israelites repeated violations of the Mosaic covenant resulted in exile. Through syncretic worship practices and intermarriage they failed to maintain their religious and cultural distinctiveness. First the northern kingdom (Israel) and then Judah were cast out of the land and sent to live among the nations. But here's where it gets interesting. Once the people of God aren't dwelling in the holy land the rules seem to change. They're encouraged to engage in some of the same activity that got them into trouble in the first place. Here's Jeremiah speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:4-7)

Here's a call to cultural assimilation not cultural separation. Later, when the exiles are back in the land and rebuilding Jerusalem (the period written about in Ezra and Nehemiah) the rules seen to change again as Ezra condemns the very intermingling type behavior encouraged when the Jews were in Babylon (see Ezra 9). What gives?

According to Stellman the key to reconciling these apparent contradictions is to remember that God's people are always commanded to withdraw from pagan religion, but it's only when living under a theocracy that we're commanded to withdraw from pagan culture. He concludes, "And what determines whether God's people are a theocracy or a band of pilgrims? The answer is simple: a distinct land. A theocracy, as I pointed out above, always has a geographical element to it."

I believe the crux of Rev. Stellman's thesis is unassailable, which is that the situation of new covenant believers is like that of the patriarchs and the Hebrew exiles in Babylon (Daniel being an instructive case study). We are a band of pilgrims living in exile as citizens of heaven. Though we and the world around us live under God's rule, it's not the same kind of rule enjoyed by Adam and OT Israel. The promises of God no longer have a geopolitical dimension. Under the new covenant there isn't a holy land or a holy theocracy. The implications of this are manifold and complex.

The New Testament provides abundant support for the author's "pilgrim theology." With him I embrace my identity as an exile living in Babylon waiting for my true home -- the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 & 22 -- where once again cult and culture will be one. I can see how in our status as pilgrims and exiles we need to distinguish between cult and culture, worship and life. On the other hand I think John Frame makes a good point when he says in a quote cited by Stellman that "it is very difficult, in general, to separate 'life' from 'worship' in a biblical framework."

In the first half of Dual Citizens Stellman focuses on Christian worship. He argues that the new covenant people of God should be most distinct when we gather for worship on the Lord's Day. He borrows from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon to encourage the local church to be a "countercultural community" and individual believers to live out their status as "resident aliens." I agree with all of that! But I have reservations about the overarching two kingdoms paradigm (i.e. kingdom of God/kingdom of man) advocated by Stellman since, for example, it's been used to criticize Tim Keller as a "transformationalist" for advocating an approach to ministry that seeks to bring the gospel to bear on all aspects of society, including culture. Is Redeemer Presbyterian not being a faithful countercultural community by seeking the social, spiritual and cultural welfare of their city? Was Lesslie Newbigin wrong in saying that the gospel gives us the lenses through which to view all of life? And was he wrong that the local church is to be a "hermeneutic of the gospel" challenging and exposing the structures of this present evil age?

Stellman's contention that the contemporary Western church has often sacrificed distinctive Christian worship on the altars of relevance and worldly notions of success is right on. But couldn't we say that when worship is distinctively faithful on Sunday it will mark the worshipers in such a way that they go out to live distinctive lives the rest of the week? Maybe the problem is that American Christians (Stellman's primary audience) have been culturally distinctive in the wrong ways, and not distinctive enough in the right ways?

Those are just some questions this book has raised so far. As you can see it's gotten me thinking. If you found any of this intriguing then get your hands on a copy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farmer Joel

Money quote at 5:15. . .

Food, Inc. (dir. Robert Kenner, 2008)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lovelace on the "indissoluble connection" of Justification and Sanctification

One of my former pastors -- a church planter influenced by Tim Keller -- told me I should read Dynamics of Spiritual Life by Richard Lovelace. Five years later I'm taking him up on his suggestion. Lovelace was one of Keller's professors, and one doesn't have to read far to recognize Lovelace's imprint on Pastor Keller's ministry.

At the outset Lovelace acknowledges the huge debt his book owes to Jonathan Edwards. In Dynamics he was attempting to write a "manual of spiritual theology" along the lines of Edwards' work defending and critiquing the First Great Awakening. Lovelace saw a spiritual awakening happening in the 1970's with the rise of the Jesus Movement and the resurgence of evangelical faith on college campuses. He may well have been right. Not only Keller, but present-day leaders like John Piper, Bill Hybels and Chuck Smith came out of the milieu that Lovelace chronicles in the opening pages of the book. In any case, his main concern was to identify the elements of individual and corporate vitality that mark periods of renewal, or revival, throughout biblical and church history.

One of the reasons my former pastor loved the book was because the gospel is always at the front and center of Lovelace's arguments. A chart on pg. 75 (of my older edition) describes the three stages of renewal as I. Preparation for the Gospel (we're gripped by an awareness of God's holiness and the depth of our sin) II. Depth Presentation of the Gospel III. Outworking of the Gospel in the Church's Life. The second of those stages he divides into four primary elements. They look something like this.

A. Justification: You are accepted in Christ

B. Sanctification: You are free from bondage to sin in Christ

C. The indwelling Spirit: You are not alone in Christ

D. Authority in spiritual conflict: You have authority in Christ

Regarding A and B there is an "indissoluble connection between our appropriation of justification and our experience of sanctification." Confusing or conflating the two inevitably leads to some form of works-righteousness. Examples of this are Augustine's teaching on "infused grace" and the "calculus-of-merit theology" of the medieval church. It was against this backdrop that Luther's rediscovery of justification sola fide came like a lightning bolt across the night sky. However, Lovelace reminds the reader that preaching and piety that emphasizes justification by faith alone without an equal commitment to progressive sanctification leads to the spiritual virus the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer diagnosed as "cheap grace." On the other hand, an emphasis on sanctification that isn't grounded in an unalloyed doctrine of justification results in legalism and/or a theology of merit. Lovelace is worth quoting here since yours truly and some regular readers of this blog grew up in a tradition that was prone to the latter error.

. . . the conscience cannot accept sanctification unless it is based on a foundation in justification. When this is attempted the resulting insecurity creates a luxuriant overgrowth of religious flesh as believers seek to build a holiness formidable enough to pacify their consciences and quiet their sense of alienation from God. Theoretically this should be a disorder limited to Catholics—medieval asceticism is the largest monument in history to the uneasy conscience which results when justification is misconstrued—but the large number of serious Protestants who are essentially insecure about their own justification makes it common in the rest of the church also.

Here are two more quotes on justification/sanctification.

Viewed from one perspective, the Protestant Reformation was an effort to remake every sector of the church according to biblical direction. In another sense, however, the spiritual heart of the Reformation was more simply an effort to rebuild the understanding of the Christian life, incorporating Luther's insight on justification.

A large part of institutional Protestantism assumes that all professing Christians (and perhaps all men) are justified, whether or not they show evidence of conversion and sanctification. This is simply the modern form of cheap grace.

And here Lovelace cuts to the chase.

Only a fraction of the present body of professing Christians are solidly appropriating the justifying work of Christ in their lives. Many have so light an apprehension of God's holiness and of the extent and guilt of their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface of their lives they are deeply guilt-ridden and insecure. Many others have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification, in the Augustinian manner, drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience. Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther's platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification as faith is active in love and gratitude.

In order for a pure and lasting work of spiritual renewal to take place within the church, multitudes within it must be led to build their lives on this foundation. [emphasis mine]

I look forward to sharing more from this book!

Quotes from Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979) pp. 100-102, 104

Google goes bebop

I love what the doodlers at Google came up with to celebrate jazz legend John "Dizzy" Gillespie's birthday. Get a taste of Dizzy's artistry here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Comfort for the persecuted church

Photo courtesy of the the Lausanne Movement flickrstream

Read the story behind the picture here

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The posture of a disciple

Two more vignettes and some concluding comments on Scot McKnight's The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. This is from the chapter titled "Abiding in Jesus" on the story of Martha & Mary in Luke 10.

Martha flits about the kitchen with her mind on many things, mostly herself, while her sister, Mary, sits in front of Jesus at his feet, with her mind on anything but herself. There you have it. Mary's posture tells the story. Her posture is that of a student, of someone who wants to listen to what Jesus has to say, of someone who can wait for dinner. It is the posture, in fact, of someone who is so enthralled with Jesus that dinner might not even happen. . . .

Disciples at the time of Jesus didn't sit in chairs and listen to teachers who lectured behind Torah-lecterns with each Torah-point on the screen. Instead, teachers often taught in homes. When they did, their students sat at their feet, the way kindergarten students gather round their teachers in a circle and open up their minds for learning, like little birds in a nest with open beaks waiting for food. Because this posture is the custom for disciples, "sitting at the feet" of someone becomes an idiom for "being a disciple." (p. 193)

I love McKnight's ability to situate Jesus in his first century Jewish world using clear approachable language. Here's another example from the chapter on the last supper.

To any casual onlooker at the time of Jesus, the Last Supper of Jesus looks like the official Passover meal. But the longer that onlooker observes, the more subtle differences appear. In fact, the onlooker can be excused for thinking that Jesus is setting himself in center stage much more than the Jewish father normally does. There is a reason for Jesus' becoming the center of the meal.

We've already observed that Jesus amended the sacred Shema to form the Jesus Creed; we've also seen that he amended the sacred Kaddish prayer to form the Lord's Prayer. Now we can see that he amends Pesah (Passover) to form the Last Supper. Jesus makes it clear that he is the Lamb of God, and he also makes it clear that the Last Supper anticipates his death, a death for others. That is, Passover becomes personal. Instead of an altar and a priest, Christians have a table and Jesus. Instead of sacrificing a lamb, Christians remember Jesus' death. Instead of eating a lamb, Christians drink the wine and eat the bread. Instead of slaying the firstborn of Egypt, Abba slays his own firstborn. And instead of protecting Israelite babies with blood-smeared doors, Abba protects those who drink from the Firstborn's cup. (p. 268)

Given the author's self-identification as an Anabaptist theologian I admit I expected to find a lot to disagree with in this book. I didn't. This is a solid work of theological and devotional reflection on the meaning of Jesus' actions and words. Though the "Jesus Creed" -- McKnight's name for the Two Great Commandments of Mark 12:28-31 -- isn't the same as the gospel (i.e., it's not the basis of our justification Jesus is) it is the key to spiritual formation for the justified sinner. Loving God and loving neighbor is an apt mission statement for the disciple of Jesus Christ. I'm glad I read this book.

From lattes to IPA's

USA Today and AP report on the opening of a revamped version of Starbucks that just opened in Seattle. From the AP story:

Something new is on the menu at a renovated Starbucks in Seattle: beer and wine.

The store that reopened Monday is the first under the Starbucks brand to offer alcohol.

Craft beer and local wines go on sale after 4 p.m. The idea is to offer drinks and a wider variety of savory food that will attract customers after the morning espresso rush.

The store closed in July for the renovation, which also includes a circular coffee bar that brings customers closer to the baristas.

The Olive Way store is one of Starbucks Corp.'s percolators for ideas that could someday spread to the Seattle-based chain's other locations. Company officials have declined to say how soon elements from the shop might appear elsewhere.

And from USA Today:

If Starbucks (SBUX) executives have it figured out right, this could be the prototype for the next generation of stores for one of the world's most influential brands.

A very different kind of Starbucks is on tap. It will serve regional wine and beer. It offers an expansive plate of locally made cheeses — served on china. The barista bar is rebuilt to seat customers up close to the coffee.

Most conspicuously, the place looks less like a Starbucks and more like a cafe that's been part of the neighborhood for years.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I have something of a love/hate relationship with the world's most famous siren. I'm down with the whole regional thing, but my cynical side thinks Starbucks should figure out how to serve up a consistently good cup of coffee (or a latte for under $3) before they branch out into beer, wine and cheese. Nevertheless expect to see this trend coming to a store near you. Like the USA Today story says: "When Starbucks sneezes, global pop culture feels the draft."

Monday, October 18, 2010

Updates from Cape Town 2010

Don Sweeting the president of RTS/Orlando is posting daily reflections from the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization at his blog The Chief End of Man. He points out that Lausanne is the closest thing evangelicals have to a global church council and writes:

Why another large council? Councils arise out of new situations that the church finds itself in. It has always been that way. The early church councils arose because of some new challenge to the church—the rise of Arianism, or Pelagianism, or the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

Think of how the world has changed since the last Lausanne Congress in 1989. We have seen the collapse of communism, the unbottling and radicalizing of Islam, the wiring of the world through the internet, the acceleration of globalism and urbanization, the continued growth of mega cities, the shifting of the center of Christianity from the West to the South and the East. Each of these changes has brought new challenges to the church. A congress like this gives Christian leaders an opportunity to confess their faith (the uniqueness of Christ and the abiding importance of his cross and resurrection) in a new cultural situation.

The fact that a majority of the delegates to Lausanne III are from outside Europe and North America is dramatic confirmation of Jesus' words in Matthew 24:14!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Trueman strikes again

Carl Trueman:

One of the most depressing things about the current season of political stumping in the USA is the mindless nature of so much of the discourse. The recent sight of the unbearably self-important and ill-informed Bill O'Reilly and the overwheeningly self-righteous and equally ignorant Whoopi Goldberg squaring off in a TV spat about as realistic and spontaneous as a Hulk Hogan smackdown just about says it all. The most popular TV pundit of the Right, who yet cannot define `socialism,' versus the advocate for women's rights who does not regard the drugging, and forcible and perverted sexual violation of a thirteen year old girl as `rape.' If ever we needed a microcosmic demonstration of all that is wrong with left and right, those two say it all: it is all about empty posturing, extreme slogans, and, above all, entertainment.

More worrying, however, is the role of the religious in all this. The culture of extreme nonsense that leads many to regard the O'Reillys, Becks, Goldbergs and Olbermanns of this world as serious contributors to intelligent debate and discussion is, sadly, alive and well in religious circles, and frequently fed by such. Just recently, I read a comment in World Magazine describing Obama as a `Marxist-Christian syncretist.' Of course, Marxism, like socialism, is a term the Religious Right love to hate, even as they often struggle to be able to define it with any degree of precision. For myself, while disagreeing with many of Obama's policies, I find characterisation of him as a Marxist to be ridiculous, risible, and an affront to those who have truly struggled (and continue to struggle) under real totalitarian Marxist regimes. Indeed, when the `M' word is used by the Religious Right in the USA, it would seem to function in the same hyperbolic way as the phrase `You've totally ruined my life!' functions for the typical teenager whose cell phone has been confiscated for a couple of hours by an irate parent.

BTW Trueman's new book Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative will be arriving in my mailbox any day. I have a sneaking suspicion that sacred cows of both left and right will come in for a thrashing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Perfect Penitent

Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (p. 49 of this edition)

Pray for Cape Town 2010

If the upcoming Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization isn't on your radar it should be. I'm excited that two members of our little church will be among the 4000 leaders from 200 countries now converging on Cape Town, South Africa. Sadly it looks as if delegates from China will not be allowed to attend as reported in this NPR story. Pray that the Chinese goverment relents.

A great way to get up to speed on Lausanne is to read The Lausanne Covenant drafted by John Stott, Billy Graham and others at the first Congress in 1974. In light of all the debate nowadays over what it means to be "evangelical" and "missional" this splendid document deserves to be read and studied. John Stott was missional before it was cool!

And here's a short video on the history of The Lausanne Movement. . .

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Lord's Supper - the culmination of worship

This collection looks to be a handsome and worthwhile volume to have. I'm tempted to order it just on the basis of the intriguing chapter titles. Among the contributions is an essay by Kim Riddlebarger on the Lord's Supper which is available as a free pdf. In it he brings together the Biblical and historical support for frequent, even weekly, celebration of the sacrament. This will be a valuable resource for those of us who agree with the author, and hopefully will sway some folks on the other side, or who haven't given the issue much thought. My church recently moved from quarterly to monthly communion. I wish it was weekly, but it's a start!

One of the problems with infrequent (or non-existent) celebration of the Lord's Supper is that it leaves a hole in the worship service that begs to be filled. If coming to the Lord's table is the natural response to the reading and preaching of God's word, then severing that connection and filling the hole with other innovations comes at a cost. Along with Pastor Riddlebarger I believe it is the natural response and the most fitting culmination of corporate worship. The conclusion of the essay is worth quoting at length.

As we see in the apostolic pattern set forth in Acts 2:42, the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship seems to culminate in the “breaking of bread” and “the prayers.” Because the observance of the Lord’s Supper is the logical (and liturgical) culmination of the preaching of the word, the frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper provides the fitting, natural and, dare I say, “biblical” culmination of the worship service. The gospel promises are proclaimed from the word, and then ratified in the Supper. We are reminded not only of Christ’s presence with us (“this is my body”) but of his favor towards us because through his sacrificial death our sins are forgiven (Matt 26:28). Since believers partake together (as seen in the apostolic emphasis upon the fellowship meal), those who have heard the gospel promise see the fruits of that promise manifest in their midst. As Paul reminded the Corinthians “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). The Supper not only strengthens our faith, but it reminds us that all believers are members of Christ’s one body. Not only this, in the Supper we are continually pointed ahead to the great messianic feast when Christ’s kingdom is finally and gloriously consummated (cf. Rev 19:7–9). In light of this, it is proper to conclude that the preached word naturally leads to (and culminates in) the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as seen in the apostolic pattern.

In the absence of frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper, the gap created in the apostolic order of worship becomes rather noticeable. There is a reason why those fundamentalists who stand in the revivalist tradition place the “altar call” or an appeal to make some sort of re-dedication or re-commitment to Christ at the end of the service, after the sermon. When God’s word is proclaimed, we are called to act upon what we have just heard. But the absence of the Supper creates what seems to be a rather abrupt ending to worship, and the sense that something is missing gives impetus to those who want to see the preached word culminate in some sort of a call to action, which then takes on a more formal role in closing out the worship service. Since this same tension exists in many Pentecostal and charismatic churches, there is likewise a tendency to see the worship service culminate in the exercise of the charismatic manifestation of the Spirit, which not only brings the service to a more dramatic ending but serves to connect the worshiper to the church in the Book of Acts.

This sense that Christians should see themselves as part of that church founded by the apostles and that concluding worship immediately after the sermon is too abrupt (as though something were missing) is not necessarily a bad thing. But this tension can lead to bad things if we seek to fill the gap with humanly-devised ceremonies (such as the “altar call”) or distorted views of the work of the Holy Spirit.

The frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper not only fulfills the apostolic prescription and brings the service to a well-defined end, it ties contemporary believers to the apostolic church. After all, we hear the same gospel Jesus proclaimed to his disciples and which they, in turn, proclaim to us. We then take in our hands the very same elements (the bread and wine) which Jesus gave to his disciples on that fateful night in which he was betrayed, and which the members of the churches in Jerusalem, Troas, and Corinth took in their hands. And through the work of the same Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to send to his disciples, our faith is both strengthened and confirmed. As Calvin reminds us, Christ “nourishes faith spiritually through the sacraments, whose one function is to set his promises before our eyes to be looked upon, indeed, to be guarantees of them to us.”

And since this is the case, why should we not take advantage of such a good and gracious gift passed down to us by the apostles, so that when we come together as a church on the Lord’s day, we too devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”?

Quote from Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey, edited by R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim (pp. 206-7)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jesus: making purity contagious

I continue to appreciate Scot McKnight's insights on Jesus and discipleship. This is from pg. 159 of The Jesus Creed:

Everyone in Judaism knows that impurity is contagious. It spreads to whatever touches it. That is why humans are classified and segregated into the pure and impure. In contrast, purity is not contagious. Until Jesus comes.

Jesus is the first contagion of purity. Jesus lives for us, and he becomes impure for us so that he can touch us and "infect" us with his purity. We've seen above that Jesus absorbs two blows of impurity: from a zavah [the bleeding woman of Mark 5:25-34] and from a metsora' [the leper of Luke 5:12-14]. But the really odd thing about Jesus is that he absorbs the impure blow, transforms it, and then marvelously "infects" the impure person with his own purity. By sending back a flow of purity, Jesus restores the person to the community and ushers the person to a seat at his table.

Thankful for the contagious purity and righteousness of Christ Jesus!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Almost nothing like it

I've been watching again Terrence Malick's 1998 World War II picture The Thin Red Line. . . 45 minutes here, 30 minutes there, usually after the rest of the family's in bed. On the new Criterion disc it looks better than it ever has in a home video format -- oh so important in a film in which color, light and shadow are primary actors. TRL shakes me to the core every time I watch it. New layers are revealed with each viewing. Eventually I'd like to write a proper essay on it, but a few lines for now.

One of the things I'm noticing this time around is the proliferation of biblical allusion (that's a-llusion not i-llusion). Is it just me, or do those bare trees at the top of the hill that Charlie Company spends a third of the film trying to take look like crosses? I'd never noticed it before. And there's the private played by John Dee Smith who has 1 John 4:4 tatooed on his bicep. Hadn't noticed that before either.

What anyone will notice right off is that in a cast filled with A-list stars -- some of whom Malick edited out of the finished film -- it's the character played by a then little-known actor named James Caviezel that occupies the central position. Six years before he played Christ for Mel Gibson, Caviezel played Private Witt -- an apostle of love who lays down his life for his friends. A veritable cottage industry of critics has grown up trying to get into the head of Malick, the reclusive professor of philosophy turned movie director. Ryland Walker Knight at GreenCine points out a detail of Malick's bio that usually isn't mentioned -- he's a devout Episcopalian. That could explain the Christological imagery and sacramental sense of awe that suffuses his films, especially this one. It might also explain the glimpses of a paradise beyond and behind the hells-on-earth that men create.

Another writer, Josef Braun, helps describe why I come away from The Thin Red Line emotionally spent and seeing the world in a new way.

The overall effect. . . is to leave us by its end feeling as though we’ve been pushed through something, bore witness to something grandiose that only the cinema can offer. We feel closer to a particular vision that’s at once helmed by a single and singular artist, and a portrayal of a difficult to fathom experience shared by hundreds. There’s almost nothing like it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Babies (dir. Thomas Balmès, 2009)

My wife and I watched the documentary Babies. As parents of a toddler there were lots of knowing chuckles and little moments that reminded us of the past year and a half.

French director Thomas Balmès and his team (make no mistake it took a team to pull this off) filmed four babies, in four different locales, from birth to first steps. The result is this beguiling 80-minute film. Babies stars Ponijao of Namibia, Bayar of Mongolia, Mari of Tokyo, and Hattie of San Francisco. Balmès surely chose these locales for the stark contrasts they produce, from rural to urban, primitive to modern. The parents of this quartet are supporting characters about which we learn nothing beyond what we observe. Much of the time they aren't present at all. Indeed the most revealing moments are when the babies are left to their own devices, sometimes shockingly so to our overprotective parent eyes. By keeping his cameras at baby-level Balmès creates a portrait of emerging awareness. This film should dispel any doubt that baby humans have a rich interior life.

Though Babies isn't primarily about parenting it reminded me what a culturally conditioned activity raising children is. In one scene little Ponijao evacuates on his mama's leg as she nurses him (diapers are non-existent in this society). She calmly scrapes the feces off with a corncob and rubs some dust over the spot. No harm, no foul. Ironies abound. In another scene Hattie and her papa sit in a circle with other parents and children as an instructor sings "the earth is our mother, she will take care of us." (Pardon the stereotype, but that's so San Francisco!) However, Hattie spends most of her life indoors shielded from the vicissitudes of Mother Earth by the conveniences of affluent Western society. Her parents really don't believe that the earth will take care of her. Meanwhile Ponijao literally grows up in the earth, playing in the dirt and drinking from a stream, while Bayar roams among the cows and goats beneath brilliant Mongolian skies. The two boys are closer to the land than Hattie or fellow urbanite Mari will ever be.

All four of Balmès subjects seem to be blessed with parents that love and care for them, though the way that works out in practice can be very different. By Western standards Ponijao lives in poverty, but if skin-to-skin contact and sense of community is a measure of childhood well-being then Ponijao is the richest of the four. We never see him alone. As an infant he's always reclining on his mother, and he's surrounded by siblings and/or other children of the village. In this culture it does take a village to raise a child. On the other hand Mari is growing up in one of the most densely populated and technologically advanced areas of the planet (Tokyo), but the sense of isolation is palpable as she plays alone in her well-appointed nursery. One can reasonably surmise that Mari will be an only child. Which isn't to say she isn't loved or fortunate. Surely I would choose her safe and secure existence over Ponijao's for my son.

For all the differences that Babies so skillfully draws out, the similarities are more profound. At a primal level what unites these four families is greater than what divides them. Get Ponijao, Bayar, Mari & Hattie (and their parents) together in a room and they would have a level of understanding that transcends the cultural differences. Nature hasn't changed and nurture hasn't changed much. The significant milestones of infancy are the same as they've been for millennia of human history -- from sitting up to crawling, from liquids to solid food, to the awesome achievements of learning how to walk and talk. As we watch these four we experience the joy of a journey all of us have taken. This is who we are. This is what we do.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Summing up Machen and Defending the Faith

Here's the concluding paragraph of Daryl G. Hart's fascinating biography/intellectual history of the life and times of J. Gresham Machen.

Machen's death in North Dakota [on January 1, 1937] was filled with irony. A Presbyterian scholar who enjoyed the East Coast's urban culture and spent his life addressing the well educated, Machen died in the Catholic hospital of a small and remote town on the Northern Plains trying to rally a few Presbyterians of modest means. Yet Bismarck was also an appropriate place for Machen's death; the town's cultural isolation fit well with his religious convictions and social views. For Machen, Christianity was not to be a national presence that shaped culture. The quest for a Christian civilization, he believed, had severely weakened the church's witness and had greatly abetted the centralization of political power and the homogenization of cultural life in America. The church should only be one voice in the cacophony of American creeds and its influence should be limited to Christian homes and schools, local communities, and voluntary organizations. Machen's cultural stance first took root in his decision to leave Princeton for Westminster, grew stronger during the missions controversy of the 1930s, and finally bore fruit in the new denomination he helped to found. By establishing rival institutions and building alternative networks, Machen hoped to preserve a Christian witness that was cautious about the church's cultural involvement and fully attuned to the reality of religious freedom. That hope made Machen too Christian for most intellectuals and too marginal for most Protestants. But it did approach the problem of the relationship between church and society in a way that grasped well the possibilities and perils of modern America.

Those familiar with Hart will probably recognize in that themes he develops in subsequent books, as well as his advocacy for a pure version of Old School Presbyterianism and a sharp divide between the sacred and secular. I enjoy Hart's polemics even when I don't agree. He's a first-rate historian and a lively writer. Defending the Faith is essential reading for anyone interested in Machen, the fundamentalist/modernist controversies, or American Protestantism in general.

One of the things that surprised me was the scope of Machen's influence during the 1920s. His public career intersected with some of the most prominent figures of pre-war American history, and his articles were regularly published in the organs of elite opinion. Yet as the paragraph above hints at, his final years were one's of diminishing influence and increasing marginalization. Was that as inevitable as the author makes it sound? I'm not sure. It's interesting to speculate what trajectory Machen's career might have taken had he lived to a ripe old age.

What's clear is that this formidable and flawed man stood almost alone among his peers for the truth of the New Testament gospel at a pivotal time in American church life. He fulfilled the purpose of God in his generation, and his influence lives on through his books and the institutions he founded.

Quote from Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994) pp. 158-9