Saturday, July 28, 2012

the reason we love the olympics

I’m surprised, as I write this, to discover myself confessing that I was more excited about the opening ceremonies than I was about the Green Bay Packer’s last appearance and win in the Super Bowl and the St. Louis Cardinals appearance and win in the World Series (both 2011).  Given that these two share the top spot as my favorite sports teams, I’m compelled to ask myself why.  I do not have a commitment to any particular athlete like I do either of the sports franchises nor do I think I am as patriotic as most Americans.   And though I always cheer for the Americans to win, I find that I’m genuinely excited for the all the winners, regardless of their country of origin, in a way that I could never be for the Minnesota Vikings or the SEC.  

Maybe it’s because the Olympics are really about more than athletics.  Because I have a deep love for rankings, brackets, and all things sports-comparison, I’m a regular participant in ESPN’s polling questions.  Tonight I was asked to rank the best American Olympians of all time.  ESPN offered me 10 athletes to choose from.  I was immediately confronted by the question, “how am I ranking them?”  By the numbers?   Phelps hands down!  By Significance?  Jesse Owens ... that’s who I picked.  His episode in the 1936 Berlin Olympics means more to the development of human history than Phelps 14 gold medals.  The Olympics offer a different sort of commentary on the state of the world.  They demand that hundreds of the nations come together and confront the fact that before we are American, Canadian, Afghani, Russian, Iraqi, we are all human, whether our/their respective political establishments want to acknowledge that or not. 

Two facebook comments stuck out to me as we approached this Olympic season.  The first I got from Anne Lamott via my friend Craig.  She said:

“The only thing that could possibly save this country right now is in fact starting up in eight days--the Olympics. The timing feels like a miracle. My dressage horse Eric has just been sitting around my office for the last two weeks, eating cinnamon toast, so I don't think we are going to get to compete. But I will watch it all, and my belief is that two billion of us worldwide are going to experience this collective show of greatness as a salve to our minds and spirits, like when a few billion of us get to watch a solar eclipse together. A hush falls over the whole world, like a mantilla, and then gasps of amazement, and gratitude to be out of the prison of our thinking and self-absorption and anxiety and greed. We get to watch the Olympics together, holding our one great human breath and cheering others on. Wow.”

Yes, Wow.  Visa just ran an add on my television, even they got it right “Go World.”

Though I do not consider the Olympics an explicitly Christian extravaganza, I do not consider them an un-Christian extravaganza.  That is because, as UBC has taught me, the division between the sacred and the secular is a bad one.  The community has helped me develop the skill not of detecting if something is beautiful, but why something is beautiful. 

In my last semester at Truett, I took my capstone class—Reconciliation.  I had little interest in the topic and made the choice out of scheduling convenience.  But as is often the case, if we take the time to expose ourselves to new ideas, themes, and concepts, we learn something.  What surprised me in that class, was how pervasive that theme is within the Bible.  Of everything I read, I found myself particularly taken with Ephesians 2.  Here, as is often the case with Paul’s epistles, he is talking about Jew/Gentile relationships.  In 2:16 describing what the cross does, Paul says:

“and [Jesus] might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

The reason this surprised me, I now know, is because as an American Western Protestant under the spell of the Reformation, I was latently (and exclusively) taught that the cross was about Jesus taking my sin so that I could go to heaven.  It’s not that, that is not true, it’s just that, that is not the only thing that is true. Atonement may be unique in that it’s the one theological issue that does not demand a right answer or even the best answer.  Scot McKnight offers a nice metaphor when he suggests that atonement theories are like golf clubs.  Depending where you are on the course, you use a different club.  Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Satisfaction, Ransom, Recapitulation, etc.  They all make use of language that permeates the New Testament.  The lesson to be learned is that the cross did a lot of things. 

Jesus didn’t just die to save sinners from hell, he died for a heaven full of different kinds of saints. 

The other comment I noted from Facebook, I consider theological exposition of Lamott’s commentary.  My friend Emily posted this:

“The way I figure, the Olympic parade of nations may be a beautiful, tiny preview of what it will look like when all of the earth's nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues are streaming into the new Jerusalem at the center of the "new heavens and new earth" (Rev 21-22). Behold, Christ is making all things new!”

Indeed!  To bolster the statement I add Revelation 5:9-10.  A ditty from the Eschatological Victory Chior:

“9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, 
and they will reign on earth.’”

In the last few years the phrase “thin places” has gained traction within Christian writing and speech.  It’s an idea from the Celtic tradition that describes the places where the boundary between heaven and earth seems especially thin.  Perhaps what we witness in the Olympics is about more than cycling, running, swimming and even great stories narrated by Bob Costas.  Perhaps what are witnessing is a thin place--the nature of things to come. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How Much Should Church Cost You?

Yesterday Rachel Held Evans posted this thought provoking piece.  Especially intriguing to me was Diana Butler Bass’s response to New York Times author Ross Douthat’s article "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?".  Evans posted this summary of Bass’s response on her blog:

Diana Butler Bass responded with an article entitled “Can Christianity be Saved?”  in which she reminds Douthat that conservative churches are also in decline. “In the last decade,” she writes, “as conservative denominations lost members, their leaders have not equated the loss with unfaithfulness. Instead, they refer to declines as demographic "blips," waning evangelism, or the impact of secular culture. Membership decline has no inherent theological meaning for either liberals or conservatives. Decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.  The real question is not 'Can liberal Christianity be saved?' The real question is:'Can Christianity be saved?' 

Intriguing because I did not know this (the decline of conservative churches) was the case. 

Recently I finished reading Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity.  In his chapter on “Pluralism and American Piety,” Stark makes an interesting suggestion.  “As is evident in most consumer markets, people do not usually rush to purchase the cheapest model or variety, but attempt to maximize by selecting the item that offers the most for their money—that offers the best value. (359)”  Crass language to describe the religion business, I know, but consider a few of his examples.

Stark points out that the American religious landscape was dominated by traditional denominational options at the country’s outset in 1776, but then the far stricter Methodists moved in becoming the largest denomination in America by 1850.  Then by the dawn of the 20th century, the Methodists had greatly reduced the moral requirements to be a member in good standing and their decline already had begun. (359-60).

This pattern, Stark points out, shows up in the data below:

The denominations at the top of the list have “discarded traditional Christian teachings and ask little of its clergy and members—the Episcopalians long tolerated Josh Shelby Spong, an extremely vocal atheist, as a bishop. (360)”

One might be tempted to point to the Catholic Church as anomaly in some way or form, given the relative absence of shift in data, but this is not the indicative of the whole story.  After the amendments of Vatican II the number of monks and nuns plummeted.  Why?  Stark argues it was because the sacrifices required of people to be in these orders was reduced.  “Fore example, many orders of nuns were allowed to abandon their elaborate garb and wear clothing that does not identify them as members of a religious order.  Other council actions revoked rules requiring many hours of daily prayer and meditation in convents and monasteries. (362)”  Within a year there began a rapid decline in the number of nuns.  In the U.S. the number of nuns went from 176,671 in 1966 to 71,487 in 2004 (363).

Stark’s conclusion: competition does not reward “cheap” religion.

One of my friends recently called Stark “bombastic” in some of his claims.  I know that we should always be wary of statistics and that generalizations are never completely correct so I will share this anecdotal evidence. 

I recently received a phone call from a prospective Truett (Baylor’s seminary) student.  He became a Christian at a Passion event.  As a result he has developed deep affinities with that movement and wanted to know if, since this was the church David Crowder helped start, we were a church like that? 

I will now make some of my own generalizations.  The Passion movement seems to be distantly connected with the neo-reformed movement.  I say "distantly" because I don’t think it is explicitly so.  Louie Giglio, though a Calvinist, is seeking to make Christians, not just Calvinists.  And though John Piper is a frequent speaker I would guess the masses have a Christian faith more akin to Francis Chan or Beth Moore, at least in expression.  I say that because my suspicion was that this student was really wanting to know if we were a neo-reformed church. 

Wanting to be articulate in my response to this student I began asking what a church like “this,” was like.  We chatted extensively about atonement, providence, salvation and a bunch of other theological issues that I thought might help him make a decision.  Some issues made it clear how divergent our views were, some issues made clear how much we had in common.  At one point we got to a “so what’s really important for you about church,” question.  His answer surprised me.  It was essentially that he wanted a church that partner with him in sharing the gospel at whatever the cost, even if it meant death like the early martyrs died. 

I follow John Piper on Twitter.  Occasionally I’ll click on a link as I did when this was posted on the Desiring God blog.  For all my theological objections, I can agree with neo-reformers on this: the gospel demands our life … all of it. 

I’ve said this much about the neo-reformers for two reasons.  1. As far as I can tell, they are the fasting growing religious movement in this country.  2. They understand that the gospel is costly. 

Dietrich Bonheoffer understood better than most of us that grace is not cheap.  Because grace is not cheap, neither should our ecclesiology be.

My favorite David Crowder Band song is “I’m Trying To Make You Sing.” 

The song, just two verses, remind me of the profound and haunting nature of the gospel:

And I'm trying to make you sing

From inside where you believe

Like it's something that you need

Like it means everything

And I'm trying to make you feel that

This is for real, that life is happening

That it means everything

I'm just trying to make you sing 

I think the churches that will grow will be those that cost you something to be a part of. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

What North Carolina Really Got Wrong

I recently read this article which features John Piper's decisive stance on the issue of homosexual marriage.  Despite my consistent disagreement with John Piper on most things theological, I can appreciate his black and white approach to those issues.  He doesn't leave people guessing what he believes and in this case who the word marriage belongs to.  I cite him because this is the problem in this debate.  No one is taking the time to talk about who gets to define what marriage is. 

Shortly after the recent vote in North Carolina on the amendment to ban homosexual marriage, my cousin, a woman who is apprehensive of church, but nonetheless a faithful Christian, sent me this message:

“In my normally not-overly-political church this morning, I was a little surprised by what struck me as political fear-mongering. The pastor said that if homosexual marriage becomes legal, then it is just a short step before all churches of all denominations will be required to marry homosexual couples, and that refusal would be discrimination. From there, the discrimination would result in churches losing their tax exempt status. And even mentioning God's condemnation of homosexual behavior would be considered discrimination and bullying, resulting in the incarceration of pastors who preach the Word.”

My cousin wanted to know if this assertion by her pastor was in fact true.  The preacher used 2 Timothy 4:1-6: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” His main point was that homeliticians must preach the Word faithfully despite consequences.

I had a feeling that the heart of the issue, however, was not courage, but marriage, the word marriage. To whom does the word marriage belong and what does it mean?

In 1996 former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Under the law, no U.S. state or political subdivision is required to recognize a same-sex marriage treated as a marriage in another state. Section 3 of DOMA codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriage for all federal purposes, including insurance benefits for government employees, Social Security survivors' benefits, and the filing of joint tax returns.[1]

Americans often vote on the “definition of marriage.” Though I’m a free-church protestant I sometimes find myself envious of high church traditions that have taken the time to name important truths.  The Catholic Church, for example, counts marriage as one of its seven sacraments.  So when a marriage is performed by a priest, he is aiding God in a covenant forming ceremony in which an outward sign becomes an inward reality. 

The community I pastor would say something like: marriage happens when a Christian community witnesses two Christians exchange vows that reflect a Christological commitment of covenantal fidelity.  For the state, marriage happens when the license is signed and tax statuses are officially changed.  The state will never be able to do what the church does nor the church what the state does.

For this reason it’s intriguing that American Evangelicals get so feisty about the state’s definition of marriage. So who really marries the couple?  Who owns the word marriage?
This suggests that we’ve lost our gospel imagination and begun taking our cultural cues from the state.  The state issues decisions that don’t reflect Christian values all the time.  To be frank, that doesn’t bother me. I don’t expect the state to be Christian. 

In the Spring of 2004 I spent my last few weeks at Bethel University studying for finals and my last few weeks at Woodland Hills Church listening to Greg Boyd preach a six week sermon series entitled, “The Cross and The Sword.”  This series later became the book, The Myth of A Christian Nation.  In that six weeks I watched that church lose nearly a thousand of its regular attendees.  Boyd killed one of America’s most sacred cows.  He told the church to get out of the state’s bed.

As a pastor I’m often asked if I think homosexual marriage should be legalized.  I respond by asking someone if they think I should have been circumcised by a Jewish Mohel.  Obviously not, because we don’t believe the same thing about circumcision.  Obviously, the state and I don’t agree on what marriage is or rather when someone is married so I don’t really care how they define it.

It strikes me that what we really ought to vote on is whether or not “marriage” is a distinctively Christian word.  If so then one of two things should happen:

In communities of Christian faith that have decided marriage should be restricted to a man and a woman, and that community of faith existed in a state that passed a law similar to the one described by my cousin’s pastor, then the church’s job is to be defiantly faithful.  If they lose their tax status so be it.  This is a small price to pay when compared with the testimony of early Christian martyrs.  

On the other hand, if a Christian community or denomination decided that covenantal metaphors in scripture should be extended to same sex couples, and if that community of faith lived in a state that had passed laws prohibiting otherwise, then they should be defiantly faithful.  They should offer the marriage sacrament to those couples, invite them to marriage retreats, list them in the directory as married and anything else that would testify to the fact that the church lives by a different reality than the world.  Sure the church cannot change a homosexual couple’s tax status or legalize their adoptions, but they can bear witness to their convictions, which is rooted in the truer reality. 

What the church should not do, is let the state define who can participate in God’s activity of forming covenantal bonds or pay any attention to the state when it tries do so.  That is unless we have decided to let the state define “marriage” for us.