Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Apocalyptic vision

There are some books that need to be read, and then immediately read again. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation is one such book. And reading it a second time is what I'm doing, because I want to fully absorb the contents. Plus it's a fantastic read! I hesitate to call it revolutionary, since author James K. A. Smith draws on a host of thinkers and practitioners, both ancient and contemporary. It's more a provocative synthesis of work that I think could/should have a revolutionary effect in Christian churches, schools and homes.

One of Smith's primary aims is to get us to wake up to the fact that we're constantly being formed by secular liturgies (Desiring the Kingdom is the first in a 3-volume series called Cultural Liturgies -- the second volume Imagining the Kingdom has just been published). These liturgies of the world act upon us both on conscious cognitive and subconscious non-cognitive (or pre-cognitive) levels. The world here is not the world loved by God so much that he sent his only begotten Son to redeem it. Instead it's the world that the Apostle Paul warns us about in Romans 12 ("Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. . .") and that the Apostle John exhorts us not to love in 1 John 2 ("Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.") That being said, if you know anything about Smith he is for sure not counseling a withdrawal from "the world" into some sort of pietistic ghetto! He's concerned about what the older folks called "worldliness," but it's a worldliness more subtle and pervasive than they, or we, might be willing to acknowledge.

The value of realizing that we're being formed pretty much 24/7 is that it's the first step in resisting what is happening to us. Otherwise we're like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being slowly roasted to death. Once we begin to recognize the siren songs of the world's liturgies we can say: "I see what you're up to!" Then we can begin to cultivate practices that stimulate a counter-formation as people whose hearts learn to desire those things -- and that Kingdom -- which will abide forever (going back to John's dichotomy). For more context check out this previous post.

One of the ways Smith describes an "I see what you're up to!" posture is as a "contemporary apocalyptic" akin to what we see in the apocalyptic books of the Bible. Here he also corrects a common hermeneutical error that I've fallen prey to. Perhaps you have as well. He writes:

Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a matter of prediction. But this is a misunderstanding of the biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin. I imagine it as a bit like the vertical louvered blinds in my room: if the blinds are tilted to the left on a 45-degree angle, then from straight-on they'll appear to be closed and shutting out the light. But if I move slightly to the left and get parallel to the louvers, I'll find that I can see right through them to the outside world. Apocalyptic literature is like that: the empire (whether Babylon or Rome) has something to hide and so tilts the louvers just slightly to cover what it wants to hide. But apocalyptic is revealing precisely because it gives us this new perspective, just to the left, which lets us see through the blinders.

Seeing "through the blinders" is not an end in itself. I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's quote about the man who is always seeing through things, but never seeing something through them. This isn't a call for jaded Christian cynicism. Rather, seeing through the liturgies of the shopping mall, or sports stadium, or university, or etc. needs to be the precursor to a process of counter-formation that, Smith will argue, happens primarily through the practices and rhythms of corporate Christian worship. It doesn't sound very sexy, but maybe one of the things we 21st-century disciples of Jesus need most is a pair of apocalyptic eyes. As a pilgrim people we look forward not to the end of the world, but to the end of the world as we know it.

Quote from p. 92 of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reaction to Pope Benedict's resignation

This blog is very interested in ecclesiology, so I'd be remiss If I didn't note the big news out of the Vatican this week. The Pope's surprising announcement that he'd be stepping down sent shock waves thru the Roman Catholic Church as well as the wider Christian community. Actually, it's more proper to call this an abdication rather than a resignation. After all, Popes aren't supposed to resign! This is supposed to be a divinely conferred lifetime office more like a king or queen than a CEO. Or is it?

If I was a Catholic Christian I'd have some concerns about what Benedict XVI's decision says about the nature of the office. Ross Douthat -- who is Catholic -- expresses those concerns. He writes:

There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.
This last point is underplayed, but supremely important. Catholicism’s resilience has always depended both on the power of the pontiff to sustain unity and safeguard doctrine and on the power of the Catholic faith itself to survive leaders who are wrongheaded, incompetent, senile or corrupt. (There’s a reason why relatively few popes have been canonized, and why Catholics wear their faith’s ability to recover from the Borgias as a badge of honor.) And if papal resignations became commonplace and expected, I worry that they might end up burdening the papacy with a weight it cannot bear — encouraging Catholics to lay far too much stress on the human qualities of the see of Peter’s occupant, and encouraging the world at large to judge the faith’s truth claims on whether the Vatican seemed to be running smoothly, and whether the pope’s approval ratings were robust.

To be fair Douthat sees some possible benefits coming out of this, but I think he astutely sees how this "resignation" opens the door to some difficult questions about the papacy. Coincidentally, I'll be leading a discussion on Sunday about the article in The Apostles' Creed that states: "I believe in the holy catholic Church." This is an article of faith held in common by Catholics and Protestants, but I suspect if we drill down we'll discover some significant differences in how we define "the holy catholic Church" and those differences would revolve around the office that will soon have a new face.

Like the evangelical leaders quoted in this round-up of reactions I'm thankful for this Pope's steadfast stand on issues that all Christians should care deeply about, and I pray for the day when the spiritual unity of the one holy catholic  and apostolic church will be made more visible than it is now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hannah remembers "Grandmam"

An excerpt from Hannah Coulter: a novel by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2005) pp. 10-11. . .

Grandmam was still proud of the narrowness of her waist when she was a young woman. When she married, she said, her waist had been so small that my grandfather could almost encircle it with his two hands. Now, after all her years of bearing and mothering and hard work, she had grown thick and slow, and she remembered her lost suppleness and beauty with affection but without grief. She didn't grieve over herself. Looking me up and down as I began to grow toward womanhood, she would say, "Do you know your old grandmam was like you once?" And she would smile, knowing I didn't know it even though she had told me.
She would do a man's work when she needed to, but she lived and died without ever putting on a pair of pants. She wore dresses. Being a widow, she wore them black. Being a woman of her time, she wore them long. The girls of her day, I think, must have been like well-wrapped gifts, to be opened by their husbands on their wedding night, a complete surprise. "Well! What's this?"

Though times were hard and she was poor, Grandmam was a respectable woman, and she knew she was. When there was a reason for it, she could make herself look respectable. But mostly, when she was at home and at work, she wore clothes that many a woman, even then, would have thrown away. Her "everyday" black dresses were faded by the sun and lye soap, and they would be patched and tattery and worn out of shape. For cold weather she had an overcoat that must have been as old as she was, but it was, she said, "still as good as new." In any weather she was apt to be wearing a leftover pair of my grandfather's shoes that were too big. She never gave up on her clothes until they were entirely worn out, and then she ripped them up, saving the buttons, and wore them out as rags.

She was an old-fashioned housewife: determined and skillful and saving and sparing. She worked hard, provided much, bought little, and saved everything that might be of use, buttons and buckles and rags and string and paper sacks from the store. She mended leaky pans, patched clothes, and darned socks. She used the end of a turkey's wing as a broom to sweep around the stove.

She always had one Sunday dress carefully preserved that she wore to church and on her visits to town. For those occasions she had also, during all the years I knew her, a little black hat with a brim and a bouquet of paper violets, which she wore as level on her head as a saucer full of coffee.

My father was not a man of much ambition or, to be honest, much sense about anything beyond his day-to-day life of making do and doing without. It was because of Grandmam's intelligence and knowledge and thrift that we always had plenty to eat and enough, though sometimes just barely enough, of everything else.

And Grandmam, as I have seen in looking back, was the decider of my fate. She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be. She taught me many things that I was going to need to know, without either of us knowing I would need to know them. She made the connections that made my life, as you will see. If it hadn't been for her, what would my life have been? I don't know. I know it surely would have been different. And it is only by looking back, as an old woman myself, like her a widow and a grandmother, that I can see how much she loved me and can pay her out of my heart the love I owe her.

As I'm learning...the lines between Berry's essays, poetry and fiction are fine ones. In my mind's ear his spare prose style is every bit as poetic as his poetry proper, and the values he celebrates as an essayist are consonant with the ones he so sympathetically illustrates as a novelist. Wendell Berry defies categorization, other than to say he is a writer.

I feel like I know Grandmam. She has virtues and traits and quirks that I recognize in my own female ancestors, some of whom I have only a dim memory of. Reading Hannah Coulter's memories makes those memories less dim. Berry invites his reader to look back at the "decider(s) of my fate" and to connect the dots of the "connections that made my life." His novels beguilingly tempt us out of the self-imposed isolation of late modernity into a grateful communion of saints and sinners without which we can't be fully human.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reaching for understanding

Five Easy Pieces (dir. Bob Rafelson, writers Bob Rafelson & Carole Eastman, 1970)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is "Jesus Saves" enough?

Is "Jesus saves" an adequate summary of the Christian message? Yes. . . and no. It's been said that the gospel is simple enough that a child can understand it, yet so rich and multifaceted that a lifetime is not enough time to grasp it fully. To illustrate here's an anecdote from Richard Mouw.

I had guessed that the taxi driver was a Christian as soon as I got into the cab. The evidence certainly seemed strong: there was a small wooden cross hanging from his rearview mirror, and when I leaned forward to tell him what hotel I wanted to go to, I saw an open Bible on the front
passenger seat. But all doubt was removed when, driving through the city, we passed a church with a large neon sign proclaiming “Jesus Saves.” The driver leaned back, pointing: “See that sign? That’s all you need to know!”
His remark caught me off guard, so I merely grunted a quick approving sound. But when he dropped me off a few minutes later, I told him that I appreciated his Christian witness. Needless to say, though, if we had been given time for a longer conversation I would have discussed the two word message with him at a great length.
That message is a profound one. I’m pleased when I see it on public display. But it is
shorthand for a lot of important topics, ones that deal with highly significant questions. Here are
some of them. Who is the Jesus who saves? What does he save us from? How did he do it? What does he expect us to do about it? What does his saving mission tell us about how human history is going to end up?
People can agree on the simple formula, “Jesus Saves,” and still have strong disagreements
about how to answer those questions. As a Presbyterian who subscribes to the basic teachings
associated with the Reformed faith, I believe that my tradition provides a profound framework for answering those important questions. And when I say “subscribe” I am putting it mildly. I am passionate about the Reformed way of understanding the basic claims of the gospel.

Like Mouw I'm passionate about the "Reformed way of understanding the basic claims of the gospel." Contrary to the impression you get from some Reformed folks, the Presbyterian/Reformed understanding doesn't have a monopoly on biblical truth, but it's the understanding I believe is the best expression of that biblical truth, and it's the one I've chosen to order my life around. Mouw's anecdote serves as an advertisement for studying a contemporary expression of the Reformed understanding called the Essential Tenets. These tenets are the foundation of a brand new Presbyterian denomination called ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians that I'm excited to be part of. You can read more about this movement here and here.