Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The mark of spiritual leadership

A friend gave me this booklet by Sri Lankan pastor Ajith Fernando. In a few short pages Fernando says what few books on Christian leadership ever get around to saying -- the primary mark of a spiritual leader is a willingness to die for the people we serve. Jesus said it (Mark 8:34, John 15:12-13) and lived it. Paul said it (2 Corinthians 4:12) and lived it. Here are a few snippets.

Even a superficial look at the New Testament would show us that the cross of suffering is an essential part of Christian ministry. We can safely say that if we try to get round that, we will forfeit eternal fruitfulness.

So laying down our lives can mean many things. Most of us are not called literally to die for our friends. . . . We may be called to endure frustration, discomfort, tiredness and pain because of others.

Commenting on Paul's yearning expressed in Galatians 4:19. . .

We hear a lot of talk about incarnational ministry. But incarnation and pain are inseparable. When we cross the barrier from professionalism into yearning, we find that yearning brings hurting with it.

I tell our staff in Youth for Christ that Christian ministers are those who first get their strength by being with God, and then go into the world to get bashed around. Then they come back, get strength from God, and go back into the world to get bashed around again. That is our life.

This is a countercultural message even in the Christian ministry world, where frustration and getting "bashed around" is often taken as a sign that it's time to move on to another church, or another mission field. This is a convicting little book!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 2 "The Slipperiness of Secularization"

Carl Trueman begins chapter two of Republocrat by noting the differing way religion and politics mix in his native UK and his adopted home. The kind of religious language routinely used in American political campaigns is unheard of in British politics. On the face of it this is odd since America has no state church and England does. Of course, church attendance is much higher here than it is in Western Europe, so this no doubt contributes to the explicitly religious nature of American politics.

It would seem that the U.S. is an exception to the secularizing trend that's seen British churches turned into nightclubs and Christianity pushed to the margins of the public square. It might seem so, but Trueman argues that it's not that simple. Earlier in the book he's noted that the task of the historian is to complicate things, and this he sets out to do by asking some questions that challenge American exceptionalism regarding secularization.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? (p. 23)

Is it actually the case that the American church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Could it be that secularization might merely have taken a different form in America from that which we find in Europe? (pp. 26-7)

Answering yes to each question Trueman begins with a "soft target" -- the prosperity gospel taught by such as Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. The message preached by the prosperity preachers bears no resemblance to that found in the New Testament. It's fundamentally the same message preached by the "psychobabble self-help gurus" popular in the UK. Their message "is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity." (p. 27)

Trueman moves on from those soft targets to ones closer to home in the conservative evangelical circles from which he comes, and to which this book is primarily written. Indeed he intends to demonstrate that the secular gospel of personal fulfillment is subtly present even in confessionally orthodox American churches. Borrowing from the work of David Wells he contends that secular values, ambitions and methods pervade doctrinally conservative megachurches and doctrinally liberal emergent churches. The former is an accommodation to market-driven consumerism ("the church's equivalent of the big-box store"), the latter to the "eclecticism of postmodernism." (pp. 28-9)

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with three characteristics of conservative Christianity in America that are examples of the subtle secularization thesis. I'll briefly summarize each.

Cavalier view of church membership vows

Americans rightly celebrate our heritage of the frontier. Rugged individualism and a healthy mistrust of authority are built into our national DNA. Our origin is one of rebellion against a monarch. However, those individualistic values create problems when taken with us into the church of Jesus Christ. The author sees the casual disregard of church membership vows as a prime example of secular values influencing the way we think about church. Church is seen as "another aspect of the consumer culture mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn't scratched" I'm off to the next church. (p. 32)

You would think this wouldn't be a problem in Reformed and Presbyterian churches; since these traditions have historically taken church discipline and vows seriously. Sadly that's not the case. I serve as an elder at a theologically conservative Presbyterian church. One of the biggest surprises to me has been how quick upstanding Presbyterians will be to check out as soon as something happens they don't like. Gentle reminders that membership has responsibilities as well as privileges -- which at least means regular attendance in Sunday worship -- is met with incomprehension.

It's inconsistent for conservative Christians to criticize liberals for preaching a secular gospel when they treat membership vows as no more binding than one's cell phone plan. In fact, less binding, since walking away from your cell phone plan usually has a penalty attached.

The identification of America with God's special people

Trueman isn't concerned here with Christians who are strongly patriotic, or who defend the right of Christians to have a voice in the public square, or whose politics are shaped by their faith. What he's after is a "Christian America" mentality that often morphs into "uncritical nationalism" and where "the boundary between church and state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred." (pp. 32-3) Two examples of this cited are The Patriot's Bible and the painting One Nation Under God. I suspect he's mostly preaching to the choir here so I won't recapitulate his indictment of these admittedly extreme cases.

What's perhaps more troubling is the jingoistic, uncritical support given to the second Iraq War in which the "notion of America as the nation of God" played a prominent part. He recounts being in a Bible study where someone remarked how great it was that "God had raised up George W. Bush for such a time as this. . . . in response, I asked who had raised up Saddam Hussein. By the expressions on the faces of the people around the table, it was clear that the penny was starting to drop. World leaders, good and bad, are all raised up by God, just as they are toppled by him as well." (pp. 34-5)

The temptation to conflate the destiny of a nation with the destiny of the church is strongest when a nation is at the height of its power, as Britain was in the 19th century and America has been in the 20th and 21st centuries. For the integrity of the church and the sake of the gospel this temptation must be resisted.

If I have to sign up to believe in the manifest destiny of the English-speaking people, or of a particular political project, in order to be a member of Christ's church, or even simply to feel that I belong, then it is arguable that, whoever's church it is, it is no longer the property of Christ but of some more earthly power. (p. 36)

The Christian preoccupation with superstars

Here the book makes an especially profound point: a secular mind-set is as much about form as it is about content. One hears here an echo of McLuhan's central insight that the medium is the message. When we judge church leaders by the standards of the celebrity-obsessed society around us we betray a "creeping secularism." (p. 37)

This was one of the problems Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians. The believers in Corinth were comparing Paul to the flashy orators of the day and finding him lacking in star power. They wanted a cult of personality instead of an apostle who preached nothing but Christ crucified. Trueman suggests that the "celebrity syndrome" is alive and well in conservative Christianity, particularly the Reformed/Calvinistic corner. We shouldn't judge the success of the many faithful "ordinary" pastors out there by measuring them against the unique gifts and context of men like John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

This chapter challenged me to look for ways secular thought-patterns creep into my own life. Labelling something as "secular" doesn't make it necessarily bad. One of the strengths of the Reformed stream of Christianity is that it recognizes a place for a secular sphere. But if we think of secular values as the values of the world opposed to God's values, then it makes sense that secular (or worldly) values are always vying for our allegiance. The best defense is a mind being renewed by God's word. Trueman is right to warn us that secularization is more slippery than we imagine.

Up next: a look at that fair and balanced news channel.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent's gift of darkness

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. If you follow the church calendar in a lectionary or The Book of Common Prayer; today you're turning back to the beginning. In a sense this is New Year's Day for the Christian church. Where did the past year go?!

I love Advent. Honestly, the four Sundays of Advent have become more meaningful to my celebration of Christmas than December 25. These weeks leading up to Christmas Day give the church an opportunity to inhabit the story of the Old Testament people of God as they waited for the coming of the Messiah. It's also a time to connect our story with their story (since we too expectantly wait for Christ's appearing) and to meditate on the mystery of The Incarnation.

Last year during Advent our pastor's wife pointed out this poem by Luci Shaw. It's stuck with me all year.

The Overshadow

"...the power of the Most High will overshadow you..." Luke 1:35

When we think of God, and

Angels, and the Angel,

we suppose ineffable light.

So there is surprise in the air

when we see him bring Mary,

in her lit room, a gift of darkness.

What is happening under that

huge wing of shade? In that mystery

what in-breaking wildness fills her?

She is astonished and afraid; even in

the secret twilight she bends her head,

hiding her face behind the curtain

of her hair; she knows that

the rest of her life will mirror

this blaze, this sudden midnight.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Prayer + Thanksgiving = Peace

I've been saving this excellent quote from Richard Lovelace.

To the Philippians Paul writes: "have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). Evidently one sign of deficient prayer is anxiety. As pain tells us of the need for healing, worry tells us of the need for prayer. (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 160)

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but according to Paul giving thanks should be a regular part of life in Christ. The busyness of the holiday season can easily crowd out time for "prayer and supplication." The stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be an anxious time. Feeling stressed? It's probably a sign you need to pray more.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Strange symmetry

The last two evenings I've stayed up late watching the Chaplin classic Modern Times and the recent Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. These two films have absolutely nothing in common except they both end with a strikingly similar shot of the hero walking off into the figurative sunset.

In the first shot it's the Little Tramp exiting with his cinematic (and real-life) gamine Paulette Goddard on his arm. In the second example it's Sergeant First Class James (played by Jeremy Renner) walking off to disarm yet another IED. Was director Kathryn Bigelow paying homage to Chaplin? I very much doubt it. But these are the trivial things that keep me up at night.

For a fine substantive treatment of The Hurt Locker click over to my friend redeyespy's blog. He begins his review by highlighting the aspect of the movie I found most fascinating.

Ever since I heard New York Times journalist Chris Hedges on Fresh Air on NPR one afternoon I began to think differently about war. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." His quote opens THE HURT LOCKER, winner of Best Picture of 2009.War is a drug. Curious. It was odd to think that someone would deliberately put themselves in and return to a hellish battleground. Crave it, even. I've never been in any armed force, never been in battle. Most soldiers I've known and read about wanted to get the hell out of a war as quickly as possible. Then I thought about the medical personnel who crave the excitement of a frantic Emergency Room. Policemen who long for street action. Even those old newspaper folks who loved the adrenaline of a looming deadline. It is a specific personality type. Cutting within a fraction of a second, getting close to the fire. Those people will not have it any other way.

They may also find that when life is not so urgent, a sense of purpose is lost. The comparatively humdrum existences of the human race can't match the thrill. The hardest adaptation for a soldier isn't to a freezing foxhole or a sweltering desert, but a listless week of staring at the multitude of choices in a grocery store.

Continue reading

Republocrat: Chapter 1 "Left Behind"

Carl Trueman begins the book by briefly sketching his own political journey. Born of working class parents (and grandparents) it was natural that he would gravitate toward the liberal side of British politics. However by the 1980s the Labour Party was hopelessly compromised by radical elements, and so Trueman joined the Tories and supported Margaret Thatcher's fusion of traditional working class values and free-market economic reforms. As is often the case though 18 years of Conservative rule ended in corruption and impotence (i.e., the John Major government). At that point the author switched allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, the British party of the center-left that occupies an idealogical niche somewhere between the Conservatives and Labour, and that's where he's remained.

Though Trueman still identifies with the Left, in a sense, he's a man without a country, since the "Old Left" issues he cares about have been eclipsed by the preoccupations of the "New Left." He's been, well, left behind. Let me explain.

But first a little history. The left/right divide in Western politics we recognize today had its origins in the Industrial Revolution. The great progressive reforms of the 19th century were largely in response to the massive shifts of population and wealth to the cities. Reforms such as the right to organize unions, child-labor laws, and the broadening of the franchise were all efforts to humanely respond within a democratic framework to the dramatic changes taking place in society. In these movements one can see the origins of the great Western European and American political parties of the left.

There were more radical responses to the problems of industrialization though, in particular those of Karl Marx. The problem Marx sought to address was the same problem the Old Left sought to address -- the problem of economic oppression. History would go on to utterly discredit the Marxist solution. In practice it turned out to be a bloody failure, but at least Marx was tackling "oppression" as an economic issue -- something that can be measured.

Some people possessed more than others, and some did not enjoy either the material goods or the working conditions to allow them to live with any quality of life. This was the problem the various movements on the Left wished to address. The philosophies varied, but there was basic agreement on the problem: economic poverty. (p. 5)

Moving into the 20th century Trueman documents the "strange love affair" of Western elites with Marxism, even after the bloody butchery of Communist totalitarianism was apparent to all but the most willfully ignorant.

The gulags of Stalin's Soviet Union, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring, the Cultural Revolution in China, the killing fields of Cambodia, to name but a few, showed how the quest for utopia so often ends in a blood-soaked nightmare, whose victims are the very poor and oppressed for whom the Left professes to be most concerned. (p. 7)

Yet there were still remnants of the old democratic Left that weren't compromised by flirtations with totalitarianism. Among its achievements in Great Britain was the National Health Service founded in 1945 (and on this side of the pond FDR's New Deal which helped bring America out of the Great Depression). Trueman credits the NHS for his existence, since it provided his working poor grandparents free health care they wouldn't otherwise have been able to get. I can only wish for an American version of the NHS when I contemplate the thousands of dollars it cost my wife and I to have our son, and the thousands more it will cost to have baby #2. This on top of the hundreds of dollars we shell out each month to the insurance company.

By the 1960s whatever remained of the traditional left-wing concern with poverty and economic exploitation was further diluted by shifting the definition of oppression from the economic to the psychological realm. Trueman details this in a section called "Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud." He argues that this led to a host of pernicious effects, the most pernicious being the elevation of trendy middle-class issues like a woman's right to choose and gay marriage. In advocating these issues, "the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help." (p. 12)

Trueman points out the stunning moral inconsistency of a movement that used to pride itself on giving voice to the voiceless refusing to defend unborn children. Add to that the ridiculous spectre of middle-class academics and rich celebrities scolding working-class folks because they don't support the right of Melissa Etheridge to marry her partner. An absurd case in point was the kerfuffle that broke out when President Obama invited Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration. Here's a man who's given millions of dollars to help the poor, but since he spoke out in favor of California's Proposition 8 he was branded as an intolerant bigot. For the New Left having the right position on same-sex marriage and abortion is more important than clean water, feeding the poor or providing basic health care.

Sadly the concern for trendiness and empty moral gestures among secular members of the New Left has bled over into evangelical Christianity. For example the evangelicals who loudly trumpeted the fact that they were voting for Obama in the last election -- as if to say "Aren't I naughty?" Trueman also cites the sanctimonious outrage among some over the appointment of Philip Ryken as President of Wheaton College because he was a theologically conservative white male. And a Calvinist to boot! The possibility that Ryken might have been the most qualified candidate for the job didn't seem to occur to his critics.

Far from standing as a testimony against the culture and for biblical categories of oppression and liberation, the trendy evangelical Left. . . clearly enjoys empty, conscience-salving gestures as much as the trendy political Left. (pp. 16-7)

In conclusion Trueman writes:

As the Left adopted such concerns as gay rights and abortion as touchstone issues, those of us with strong religious convictions on these matters found ourselves essentially alienated from the parties to which our allegiance would naturally be given. The parties of the Right, while representing to an extent, and at least on paper, positions on these matters with which we are comfortable, yet also represent policies in other areas where we find ourselves in fundamental disagreement. . . . Thus I find myself politically homeless, restless, and disenchanted, and I suspect I am not alone. (p. 18)

No he's not alone. For what it's worth, I find myself increasingly in the same position. By now you may be asking, "If the contemporary Left is as bad as Carl Trueman makes it out to be why doesn't he bite the bullet and join up with the contemporary Right?" In chapter 2 he begins to explain why not.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Monday, November 22, 2010

TV's family-friendly idols

Mike Cosper reveals The 3 Most Disturbing Words on TV:

Few Christians would openly defend viewing a show like Rock of Love, but who doesn’t get teary-eyed watching the final moments of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Never mind that it’s a spinoff of a show about radical plastic surgery, EMHE pulls together a whole community to give a deserving family a new, grandiose home. Who could argue with that?

Which brings me to the three most disturbing words on television: “Move that bus.”

Again, there’s no arguing with the warmth and altruistic sentiments of the show. The families who have been profiled always seem to be wonderful people, I don’t impugn them or the show’s creators with secret evil intentions. But a disturbing thing happens in the final moments of the show. After profiling the family’s suffering, after talking about hardship and perseverance, after recruiting an army of volunteers, the family is brought in front of the new home, which is hidden from view by a large touring bus. They count down and call out those three words, and the reaction can only be described as worship. There are tears and shouting while people fall to their knees, hands raised in the air.

Here it is on bold display: the ultimate hope of most Americans. It’s as though a phantom voice is responding to their suffering with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant. Here is your reward: dreamy bedrooms, big-screen TVs, privacy fencing, and wireless internet. We watch. We weep. And we hope for ourselves. It’s yet another gospel alternative, this one packaged as a heart-warming vision of the way life is “supposed to be."

The point here isn't to single out one particular television show. It's to warn Christians against watching this show, or any show, uncritically. Television and movies are in the business of selling idols. Don't be fooled by the packaging.

Introducing Republocrat

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to blog my way through the new book from Carl Trueman -- Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. I'll try to summarize each chapter's arguments and share some of the highlights, though choosing which highlights will be difficult. Trueman is a lively and enjoyable writer so I could choose just about any paragraph at random and not go wrong! The subtitle is a bit of a misnomer as Republocrat is less autobiography than it is a work of history and social criticism. Some readers may know that Dr. Trueman is an historian by trade (he teaches church history at Westminster Theological Seminary) and a minister in the OPC. Both of those callings are evident in this book. Trueman is also a Brit, which gives him a Tocquevillian vantage point on American politics.

Republocrat is dedicated to Trueman's boss at WTS, Peter Lillback, with the inscription: "To Peter, living proof that friendship can extend across the political divide. With God, after all, everything is possible." Dr. Lillback contributes one of the best (and wittiest) forewards I've ever read in which he pleads guilty to being a "conservative's conservative" with serious political differences with his colleague down the hall. For what its worth Lillback recently burnished his conservative credentials by an appearance on Glenn Beck's show plugging his biography of George Washington. The mutual affection evident in the dedication and foreward sets the right tone for a book which has as one of its underlying assumptions that what unites believers in Christ is far more important than what happens in the voting booth.

However, if you believe that Obama is not just wrong he's evil, or conversely, that George W. Bush wasn't merely wrong he was evil, then it will be hard to extend charity to brothers and sisters who don't share your political convictions. As a personal aside, I'm glad the church where I'm a member includes a fair degree of political diversity. We have folks who've attended Tea Party rallies and folks who still have Obama bumper stickers on their automobile. Some might see that as a weakness, but I see it as a strength. One of Trueman's primary aims in writing Republocrat was to challenge a prevailing view of politics as an epic struggle between good and evil. The author was introduced to this tendency while spending six months in the U.S. in 1996.

On one of my very first Sundays in the USA, I was engaged in a conversation with a friend over coffee after church, and mentioned in passing what great work I thought the Clintons had done in Ulster. I might as well have said that Jack the Ripper had really helped to make the streets of London safe for women and children. I was given the full forty-minute "truth about Billary" lecture, and left the building in no doubt that the Clintons were, after Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, probably the most dangerous and wicked leaders in the history of world politics. I had just learned an important lesson: American politics is Manichaean, about an elemental struggle between good and evil where, as in those 1940s B-Westerns, the goodies are as obvious as the men in white hats, and the baddies stand out because of their invariable preference for black headgear. Good deeds done by the baddies in one area are simply clever ruses to hide the real agenda of wickedness being pursued in another, and stupid foreigners like me are simply not equipped to discern the depth of the conspiracy we are up against. (Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv)

What makes Trueman's anecdote even more telling is that the Clinton's image has undergone something of a rehabilitation in the eyes of some conservatives. Yes, Bill & Hillary were liberals, but compared to the uber-liberals Barack & Michelle they weren't as bad as all that. The current villain is always the scariest when politics is a zero-sum game of good vs. evil.

Another primary aim of Republocrat, indeed the thesis of the book, is "that conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas." (p. xix) Also, "the gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing." (p. xxv) It follows then that most of Trueman's fire will be directed at the right side of the political spectrum. But before taking on the Right he begins with a chapter skewering the contemporary Left.

To be continued. . .

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Love, friendship and marriage (Hauerwas)

A while back I heard a pastor cite the "Stanley Hauerwas Law" (you always marry the wrong person) in a sermon on Christian marriage. He brought it up to argue against the common romantic notion that each of us has a Mr. or Mrs. Right somewhere out there, and our future marital happiness depends on finding him or her. This assumption is a heavy burden to bear and brings with it the potential for deep disillusionment. Hauerwas explains his "law" in this 1978 article.

Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the "right person." Even if you have married the "right person," there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called "happy marriages" are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve "love" by preventing either from changing.

Think about it. The person you are today (I'm guessing) is much different than the person you were ten years ago. You may even be different than the person you were last year. This explains why close friends can drift apart with the passing of time. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain). If your spouse has told you recently, "You're not the person I married" -- they're probably right!

Certainly for a marriage to flourish it must have an element of phileo love, or "friendship love." Arguably this should be the dominant element rather than it's fickle cousin eros. A Christian conception of marriage must insist on both love and friendship, but how is it possible to reconcile the particular nature of friendship with that "disturbing tendency to change?"

One way is to exert power and control in a way that diminishes the otherness of my spouse. Instead of accepting change I can try to prevent it and keep him/her exactly like the person I married. But that's a stifling sort of friendship and a perverse kind of love, not the agape self-giving love that seeks the well-being of the other as described by the Apostle in the familiar love chapter.

If we always marry the "wrong person" what hope is there of enduring friendship in marriage? How can a husband and wife continue to be best friends and comrades-in-arms in the face of constant personal and relational change? In a wedding sermon on John 15 Hauerwas points to God's love for us in Christ ("I have called you friends") as the basis of love and friendship in a Christian marriage.

The miracle of God's love is that he can and does love each of us as other than himself without becoming less of a friend to any of us. Thus, we are commanded to love the other, but to love as those who are first loved of such a God. For God's love stretches our souls as he makes us his friends by freeing us of our preoccupation with ourselves and thus opening us to friendships with others. It is this kind of love that provides the means for marriage between Christians, for it forms us into a community that must be ready to accept the challenge of new life to which such love must give birth.

It is God's command to love, therefore, that has given Christians the courage to demand that marriage involve love and friendship. For the love that we bring to marriage must be the love that is based on, trained, and made fast by the conviction that we can regard the other as other without being destroyed. We do not have the capacity to love all as God loves, but by making us his friends, he has at least given us the confidence that such a love is not impossible in this existence.

This is a wonderful sermon and well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Quote from War by Sebastian Junger (via Stars and Stripes):

Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it’s much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win.

That choreography  —  you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up  —  is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.

Most firefights go by so fast that acts of bravery or cowardice are more or less spontaneous. Soldiers might live the rest of their lives regretting a decision that they don’t even remember making; they might receive a medal for doing something that was over before they even knew they were doing it. When Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy was asked why he took on an entire company of German infantry by himself, he replied famously, “They were killing my friends.” Wars are won or lost because of the aggregate effect of thousands of decisions like that during firefights that often last only minutes or seconds. Giunta* estimates that not more than ten or fifteen seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those ten or fifteen seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who react that way would undoubtedly die to the last man.

*Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Read the citation here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Joe Scarborough mocks hypocrisy of GOP freshman: "he was against government-run health care before he was for it"

via Think Progress

Do it again!

G.K. Chesterton:

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The first time I read those great lines from Chesterton they didn't make an impression. Now that I'm daddy to a toddler who insists I read him the same book over and over, or play the same game again and again, they make me laugh out loud. What an amazing thing that the sun came up again this morning! Father, give us grown-ups the strength to exult in monotony.

Quote from Orthodoxy "The Ethics of Elfland"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is the Reformed resurgence overblown?

A new Barna study suggests it is. As the graphic below shows the percentage of Protestant pastors in the U.S. who identify their church as "Calvinist or Reformed" is virtually unchanged from ten years ago. One encouraging bit of data is that both Calvinist/Reformed and Wesleyan/Arminian pastors report steady growth in adult attendance over the last ten years -- 13% and 18% respectively. Based on the higher growth of the latter group maybe we should be talking about an Arminian resurgence. I know some of my readers would like that!

UPDATE: James K.A. Smith points out the "weaknesses and shoddy social science" of this report.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Highlights from Facing Grief (Flavel)

Following up from this post -- surely if anyone ever had reason to weep it was the Widow of Nain. Yet Jesus motivated by compassion tells her, "Weep not." Taking Luke 7:13 as his central text Puritan pastor John Flavel (1627-1691) applies Jesus' words in order to comfort believers and help them grieve in a way that glorifies God. Here are some tidbits from Flavel's comfort to Christian's facing the loss of someone dear.

The death of a loved one can't take away the believer's salvation in Christ.

. . . as long as our best mercies are all safe, the things that have salvation in them remain, and only the things that have vanity in them are removed, you are not prejudiced or much hindered as to the attainment of your last end by the loss of these things. (p. 45)

The duration of our loved one's life was what God intended it to be. His timing is best.

The time of our life, as well as the place of our habitation, was fixed before we were born. . . . Oh, if this had been done, or that omitted; had it not been for such miscarriages and oversights, my dear husband, wife, or child, had been alive at this day! No, no, the Lord's time was fully come, and all things concurred, and fell in together to bring about the pleasure of his will. Let that satisfy you. . . (p. 47)

Surely the Lord of time is the best judge of time; and in nothing do we more discover our folly and rashness, than in presuming to fix the times either of our comforts or our troubles. (p. 57)

Sometimes death is God's tool to spare one from some future evil.
Just as a careful and tender father who has a son abroad at school, hearing the plague is broken out in or near the place, sends his horse presently to fetch home his son before the danger and difficulty be greater: so death is our Father's pale horse which he sends to fetch home his tender children and carry them out of harm's way. (p. 54)

The ultimate comfort: the sure hope of resurrection and eternal life for us and our loved ones who die in Christ.
You shall have an everlasting enjoyment of them in heaven, never to part again. The children of the resurrection can die no more (Luke 20:36); you shall kiss their pale lips and cold cheeks no more; you shall never fear another parting pull, but be together with the Lord for ever (1 Thess. 4:17). (p. 68)

Angels neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither shall the children of the resurrection; when the days of our sinning are ended, the days of our mourning shall be so too. No graves were opened till sin entered, and no more shall be opened when sin is excluded. (p. 92)

I hope those may have whetted your appetite to check this book out for yourself. If you're a pastor, priest or elder you might want to keep a few copies on hand to give to grieving members of your flock, especially those with deep roots in the promises of scripture.

Quotes from Facing Grief: Counsel for Mourners (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2010)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke, 2009)

I recently watched The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) a film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. See previous posts on Haneke here and here. This most recent effort is a black and white German-language film about the mysterious and sadistic goings-on in a rural German village on the eve of the First World War. The first thing to be said about The White Ribbon is that it's beautifully shot and executed. It has the sleek elegance of a classic luxury car -- German, of course! Shooting in black and white is more than a stylistic choice for a filmmaker of Haneke's skill. He uses it as a tool to evoke all kinds of associations from European history and cinema. As I've said before black and white is a genre in and of itself. Not only that Haneke coaxes astonishingly subtle acting from his large cast, especially from the various and sundry children around whom the story revolves. For an example of this see the video below.

Going back to the luxury car analogy, though, I found this movie to be like a sports car in which you raise the hood and nothing is there. I have a high tolerance for films that traffic in ambiguity and unresolved plotlines, but watching this German kinder tale left me more than a little exasperated. I suspect the filmmaker meant it to be so, and the fact that I'm thinking and writing about it a week later is evidence of its effectiveness. Even the flawed film of a first-rate artist is a far worthier investment of time than ninety-nine percent of the dreck that sells popcorn at Muvico.

Herr Haneke keeps his cards close to the vest, but he seems to be trying here to draw a straight line from strict religious observance and authoritarian childrearing practices to the national sins of the Third Reich. To put it mildly this is a bit of a cliche. Even if the severe faith epitomized by the Lutheran pastor of the film was somehow to blame for the German people's complicity in Nazism's crimes, I'd remind Haneke that the same religiocultural stew that produced a populace willing to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust; also produced Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl. I'm reminded of the point I've heard made by my friend Paul Copan: the biggest problem for the materialist is not the problem of evil, it's the problem of virtue. Where does that come from in a cruel impersonal universe?

I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that Haneke has an essentially materialistic worldview in which notions like the Fall and original sin are dismissed as relics of the Dark Ages. He probably holds to a romantic notion of the "noble savage." Children are fundamentally good until they're corrupted by education, religion, patriarchy, you name it. Nevertheless he has an acute sense that something is deeply wrong with the world as it is. Whether one attributes it to sin, genetics, or psychological disorder, it's clear that beneath the serene veneer of bourgeois life is a shocking capacity for cruelty. In Haneke's fictional village the sins of the fathers are graphically visited on the children. The director means for his audience to be shocked by all of this, and we are, in an unsettling sort of a way. In fact "unsettling" is the dominant Haneke mood. He only gives us glimpses of what's beneath the surface, what's behind the closed door, but that's enough.

The white ribbon, we're told, is a symbol of innocence and purity. Though in the movie it's wielded more like a scarlet letter. Perhaps that's as it should be. The ancient narrative of a man, a woman, and a serpent tells us that, strictly speaking, there are no innocents. No child of our first parents, save one, has ever been fit to wear the white ribbon.

Here's a scene from the film. Watch the reaction of the child when he realizes he's been lied to.

Hallelujah's at Macy's

Watch as these surprised shoppers experience something grander than the consumer goods surrounding them. Surely an echo of the heavenly chorus.

via Justin Taylor

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More from Dual Citizens

Reservations aside I'm really enjoying this book. Author Jason Stellman pulls no punches in making his case for a "pilgrim theology" that keeps the realms of worship (cult) and life (culture) distinct, avoids Christian triumphalism, and maintains the tension of living in the overlap of this present evil age and the age to come, between the "already" and the "not yet." Though I'd like to see a little more of the "already" in Stellman's applications, this book offers a bracing alternative to many of the dominant paradigms in contemporary Western Christianity.

One of those paradigms is the view that America is a "city on a hill" which has often resulted in confusing our nation with the kingdom of God. Instead, Stellman argues, America (or any nation) is still nothing more than a "suburb of Babylon. . . a local expression of the kingdom of man" and that "there is nothing redemptive about our national identity." Our difficulty in accepting this leads us to criticize other cultures while being blind to the faults of our own.

For example, we often look at the fact that Muslim females wear burkas and then decry the way Islam treats its women, while at the same time rarely seeing the demand in the United States for Botox, Collagen, and surgical augmentation as glaring testimonies against how we Westerners view our own. We can wonder with great sanctimony how antebellum Southerners could claim to be disciples of Jesus while being owners of slaves, but when a Fortune 500 company moves its manufacturing operations to sweatshops in Malaysia so it can pay the workers $.09 an hour without having to worry about labor laws to protest them from oppression, we don't call that "slave-owning," we call it "smart business." . . . . Though the world and its lusts may take a different form in our country than in those "heathen lands afar." they are still alive, well, and largely characteristic even of a free and democratic society such as our own. (p. 71)

Stellman follows the chapter on "Suburbylon" with one on Reformational piety, which emphasizes corporate expressions of worship and spirituality over individual ones. This is my favorite part of the book so far. He draws out the differences between "Saddleback" and "Geneva" as to how each tradition has typically viewed the beginning of the Christian life and it's practice thereafter. Stellman traces the former's emphasis on spectacular conversion experiences and rejection of "churchly Christianity" back to that favorite Calvinist whipping boy, the Presbyterian revivalist Charles Finney. In contrast to the Saddleback/Finney tradition is the one advocated by the author -- and your reviewer -- in which spectacular conversions are the exception rather than the rule, and evidences of living faith are seen in the context of the "ordinary ministry of the local church, with her worship, liturgy, preaching, and sacraments."

The Christian faith, normally speaking, is passed on from parent(s) to child(ren) by means of infant baptism. After the child is thus initiated into the covenant community, he or she is nurtured in the faith by parents and pastors, who, believing God's promise to be a God to us "and to our children," treat the child as a believer unless given a reason to do otherwise (Acts 2:39). (p. 80)

Like their evangelical brethren, confessional Reformed believers desire to see the Christian faith demonstrated in the lives of those who profess it. But rather than the litmus test being one's devotional life, voting record, or collection of Left Behind novels, it should be the fact that those who confess Christ gather together each Lord's Day around Word and sacrament, confessing their sins, singing His praises, and hearing, eating, and drinking the gospel of Jesus Christ. (p. 81)

The great advantage of this approach is that it directs our gaze to Christ and his promises rather than within. The objective nature of the gospel is what makes Christianity different from everything else.

Quotes from Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Medicine for Christian mourners

I make it a point not to go too long without reading something from the Puritans. I haven't found another body of Christian literature that does a better job of bringing my spiritual compass back to true north. Thanks to the Puritan Paperbacks series from Banner of Truth these writings are more accessible than ever.

I've been reading John Flavel -- Facing Grief: Counsel for Mourners. Flavel (1627-1691) was a pastor in England and one of the hundreds of ministers who resigned from the Church of England in the Great Ejection of 1662. Along with loss of livelihood this brought other persecutions, including the threat of imprisonment. Flavel's parents died after contracting the plague while being confined in Newgate Prison. Flavel himself buried three wives and a child. He was a man well acquainted with the subject he writes about in this book first published in 1674 as A Token for Mourners. It's written as an extended exposition of Luke 7:13 and was something of a bestseller -- as recounted by Mark Dever in his foreward to the new edition from Banner of Truth.

For the next 150 years Flavel's Token was printed and re-printed in England and America. The times demanded that the heart-breaking experience of the loss of children be faced by most parents. And generations of Christian parents found comfort through this little book. [viii]

Death was more of a present reality for our forebears than it is to us in our medically advanced society. They had daily personal reminders of how fragile life was. Yet death and the grief it brings is still a universal part of the human experience. I liken this book to a vial of medicine that one keeps on hand knowing it will be needed someday, if not today. Flavel sets out his purpose in an opening letter addressed to "dear friends" grieving the loss of a loved one.

It is not my design to exasperate your troubles, but to heal them; and for that purpose have I sent you these papers, which I hope may be of use to you and many others in your condition, since they are the after-fruits of my own troubles; things that I have not commended to you from another hand, but which I have, in some measure, proved and tasted in my own trials. [xi]

Later in the week I'll share some tidbits from Flavel's pastoral counsel to Christian mourners.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hauerwas on the church as true family

I love this from Methodist theologian and churchman Stanley Hauerwas!

We, as church, are ready to be challenged by the other. This has to do with the fact that in the church, every adult, whether single or married, is called to be a parent. All Christian adults have a parental responsibility because of baptism. Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does. Baptism makes all adult Christians parents and gives them the obligation to help introduce these children to the gospel.

From the beginning we Christians have made singleness as valid a way of life as marriage. What it means to be the church is to be a group of people called out of the world, and back into the world, to embody the hope of the Kingdom of God. Children are not necessary for the growth of the Kingdom, because the church can call the stranger into her midst. That makes both singleness and marriage possible vocations. If everybody has to marry, then marriage is a terrible burden. But the church does not believe that everybody has to marry. Even so, those who do not marry are parents within the church, because the church is now the true family. The church is a family into which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes sense for the church to say, "We are always ready to receive children. We are always ready to receive children." The people of God know no enemy when it comes to children.

Quotes from "Abortion, Theologically Understood" in The Hauerwas Reader (pp. 612-3)

Interview with Don Reid of the Statler Brothers

I know there are some country music fans out there. Here's an interview with Don Reid about his legendary gospel and country music career, as well as his service as an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A lighthearted Election 2010 recap

Now that the most important election in American history is over, earnest pundits everywhere are offering theories on what it all meant. Rather than add my two cents, here's some post-election comedy.

Ballot measures were all the rage this year including one in Colorado to establish a UFO commission. It didn't pass. The Atlantic Wire has a round-up of the 8 weirdest ballot measures.

And here's a compilation of the 9 funniest campaign ads of 2010. My personal favorite is #2.

There were lots of noteworthy concession speeches on Election Night. Here's New York governor candidate Carl Paladino grabbing a baseball bat and going Al Capone on Andrew Cuomo.

And of course the question on everyone's mind is, "What's next for Alvin Greene?"

Only 733 days until Election Day 2012!

Good question

Carl Trueman:

Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part.

Pivoting off of that quote Bryan Cross writes:

Carl carries with him a memory that many if not most Protestants have forgotten, the old ancestral memory of having once been Catholic, before the events of the sixteenth century. He carries within himself this memory of Protestants’ true home and family, understanding that Protestants as such are in essence Catholics-in-exile whose Catholic ancestors in the sixteenth century made the painful decision to live in exile from the Catholic Church until she had sufficiently reformed, never intending to be or form a permanently separate body or group of bodies. This is what Protestant fathers used to teach to their children. But memories are feeble and naturally fade and grow dull with the passing of the centuries. Eventually Protestant fathers no longer taught this to their children, and these children grew up not even knowing that they were in exile. They came to think that schism from the Church was normal, because they no longer retained even the concept of schism from the Church.

They came to believe that the Church Christ founded was not a visible institution, was not even visible at all, even though some still used the term ‘visible Church.’ For many, if not most, the Church is an entirely spiritual entity to which one is fully united by a merely spiritual act of faith, such as a sinner’s prayer. These descendants of the earlier Protestants have completely forgotten that they were separated from anything. And without this memory, there no longer stirs within them any longing for the conclusion of the Catholic Church’s reformation so that they can be reunited to her. Instead, understandably, their discovery of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded arouses in them some degree of resentment and offense.

For them, the question “How would Protestants know when to return?” makes no sense, because they have forgotten that they were waiting to return to anything. They have forgotten from whence they came, as Protestants. Carl would have them remember. He would have every Protestant get out of bed each morning asking himself whether there remain any good reasons for not returning to full communion with the Catholic Church. Carl understands that those who have no such good reasons, but who remain Protestant, are perpetuating an “act of schism.” By his prescription, every Protestant should place the following question in a prominent place by his bed, and read it aloud every morning first thing when he gets out of bed, and teach his children to do the same:

Why have I not yet returned to full communion with the Catholic Church?

That's a good question. The provocative point being made by both of these writers is that if you think the Reformation is over, that Luther and Calvin and the rest were all wet, that the doctrine of justification and the nature of the visible church isn't worth fighting over, that we're saved by grace but sanctified by works -- then you have no compelling reason to remain a Protestant. When conscientious Protestant evangelicals such as Richard Neuhaus and Francis Beckwith realized this they followed the path back to Rome. Also, Cross is right to remind those of us who embrace confessional Reformed Christianity that we should do so as those who hope for the day when this breach of our visible unity is healed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The role of the Spirit (Lovelace)

Richard Lovelace wrote Dynamics of Spiritual Life from a broadly Reformed perspective, but he wasn't dismissive of Pentecostal Christianity as most Reformed/Calvinistic writers are. He credits the Charismatic movements as key factors in the signs of renewal he saw appearing in American Christianity throughout the 1970s. As is often the case the movement that came to be known as Pentecostalism seems to have providentially arose in reaction to a deficit. In this case the widespread loss among churches of the belief in, and expectation of, the appearance of the supernatural power of the Spirit. "There is a vigorous faith in the supernatural operation of God in many Charismatic circles which the rest of the church should emulate." (p. 126)

That being said Lovelace goes on to argue that the distinctive mark of the 20th-century Neo-Pentecostal movement -- a second work of grace validated by speaking in tongues usually called "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" -- is exegetically unsound. Yet even as the author answers "no" to the question "must every believer re-experience Pentecost?" he argues that one of the primary elements of spiritual renewal (or revival) is "a very explicit recognition of the indwelling Holy Spirit as a counselor (parakletos, one called alongside) who is personally real and dynamically active in the life of a believer." (p. 130)

Lovelace makes a connection between the believer's subjective awareness of the Holy Spirit and his power in the believer's life. Too often we're practically like the Ephesian believers in Acts 19 who when asked by Paul if they had received the Holy Spirit answered "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit!"

Here's a longer quote that I like:

This failure to recognize the Holy Spirit as personally present in our lives is widespread in the churches today. Sometimes the lack of recognition is intentional and theologically motivated, as in Fundamentalist or confessional churches which are afraid that too much emphasis on conscious communion with the Holy Spirit will lead to a lessened regard for Christ, enthusiasm, mysticism or Pentecostalism. More often it is simply ignorance. Even where Christians know about the Holy Spirit doctrinally, they have not necessarily made a deliberate point of getting to know him personally. They may have occasional experiences of his reality on a hit-and-run basis, but the fact that the pronoun "it" is so frequently used to refer to him is not accidental. It reflects the fact that he is perceived impersonally as an expression of God's power and not experienced continually as a personal Guide and Counselor.

A normal relationship with the Holy Spirit should at least approximate the Old Testament experience described in Psalm 139: a profound awareness that we are always face to face with God; that as we move through life the presence of his Spirit is the most real and powerful factor in our daily environment; that underneath the momentary static of events, conflicts, problems and even excursions into sin, he is always there like the continuously sounding note in a basso ostinato. (pp. 130-1)

I've appreciated Lovelace's balanced treatment of this subject. He's prompted me to examine and refresh my own personal relationship with the third person of the Trinity. In advocating the recovery of a vital experience of the Spirit in our individual and corporate life in Christ; he's right in line with Calvin, arguably the theologian of the Holy Spirit par excellence. More importantly, he's in line with the New Testament.

One more quote:

We should particularly recognize that growth in holiness is not simply a matter of the lonely individual making claims of faith on the basis of Romans 6:1-14. It involves moving about in all areas of our life in dependent fellowship with a person: "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16 NASB). When this practice of the presence of God is maintained over a period of time, our experience of the Holy Spirit becomes less subjective and more clearly identifiable, as gradually we learn to distinguish the strivings of the Spirit from the motions of our flesh. (p. 131)

Quotes from Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lament or complaint?

Tremper Longman helpfully distinguishes between lament and complaint in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.

Indeed, before speaking, [Job's three friends ] Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar sit for seven days in deep empathy with their friend (Job 2:13). They don’t offer their opinion until prodded to do so by Job’s lament—or, better, complaint (Job 3). Indeed, it is misleading to call Job’s words a lament because that invites comparison to the psalms of lament. Upon closer reading, we see that Job’s impassioned statement is closer to the grumbling tradition found in Numbers (e.g., Num. 20:1–13) than to the psalms. In the latter, the prayer is directed toward God, while the former is addressed to other people about God. God invites the lament, but not the complaint.

Quote from Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? A Biblical-Theological Approach (pdf here)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Scores dead in Baghdad church attack

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Revelation 6:9-11

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

"Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Revelation 7:13-17