Monday, April 30, 2012

A New Paradigm of Being the Church

"This is not the work of a three-step, six-month plan. Nor is it a new strategy at all but a mode of individual and collective being. What I am suggesting again is a new paradigm of being the church in the late modern world. The institutional aspect of faithful presence means that Christians and the church are settling in for the duration.

The Christian tradition has a long history of doing precisely this work in everything from the patronage of the arts and the establishment of schools and universities to the creation of hospitals and institutions that care for the poor and the needy. These were all institutions that practiced faithful presence. The church and Christians everywhere must do this again in ways appropriate to the times. Indeed, there are intellectual, economic, and managerial resources available within the church and among Christians to make a profound difference in every sphere of life- the social welfare of the needy, the environment, education, the arts, academia, business, community formation and urban life, and so on; and at every order of magnitude- the local, the regional, the national, and the international. This will invariably mean collaboration, networking, mutual dependence, and institution-building. At times Christians will go it alone and at times they will partner with those of other faiths and none. But it all should be oriented toward enhancing the well-being of all."

Rejoicing the City

"When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices. . ." -Proverbs 11:10a

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Sovereignty of God . . . Over Some of Life?

"In the 'defense against' paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues (revolving around the relationship of faith to vocation and culture). The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (secular) and private (and religious) life inherent in the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had 'kingdom significance,' it was a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized- it was regarded as simply a means to a spiritual ends."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Death of Death

"For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." -1 Corinthians 15:25,26 

The death of a pet piranha might seem like a small thing to most of us; however, the death of our pet piranha Gerhardus was met with tears, a sense of loss and sadness for at least my 8-year-old Isaac and 10-year-old Mia. Of course, we had owned Gerhardus for close to seven years before he died and my two older ones had been particularly attached to Gerhardus. We had a short burial ceremony with some neighborhood kids this morning, and as you can see in the picture below, Mia and Isaac (in the Jayhawk shirt) were particularly sad (Calvin seemed OK with everything, as evidenced by his grin in the picture- let's just say God made him a little different than the other two temperamentally-speaking). Well, death is an intruder isn't it? It won't always be that way, and I'm glad that the unhappy faces of my children in the small losses and great ones will not always be.
Neighborhood children gathering with the Hsu kids for a fish burial
Gerhardus being buried

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Seeing Politics for What It Is

"Its [the Christian community's] lack of critical distance and reflection about politics is an extension of its failure to critically reflect about the rest of the world they inhabit. In the case of politics and political culture, the Christian community has indeed linked its own future to the success of certain political myths, ideologies, and agendas. Though leaders on the Right and on the Left may plausibly deny that this is a problem for themselves, the realities of this linkage for the movements they lead are sociologically undeniable. To be sure, it would be impossible to completely disentangle the church from any society in which it is found. Christians, like all human beings, are constituted by the particularities of their time and culture, and it is only natural that they should identify with their communities and nation. But on all fronts, the merging of faith and politics/culture is deeply problematic. It is a time for a disentangling.

. . . Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression. As we have seen, the expectations that people place on politics are unrealistic for most of the problems we face today are not resolvable through politics. That, however, is not the most serious problem. Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn't 'vote their values' or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations. it cannot realize the various mythic ideals that inspire different Christian communities, it cannot even reduce the tension that exists between the concrete realities of everyday life and the moral and spiritual ideals of the Kingdom of God. At best, politics can make life in this world a little more just and thus a little more bearable.

. . . To decouple the public from the political will open up other options for engaging the world and addressing its problems in ways that do not require the state, the law, or a political party. There are innumerable opportunities not only in art, education, the care for the environment, and the provision of relief for the widow, the orphaned, and sick, but in the market itself to engage the world for the better. Efforts in these directions could entail significant outlays of time, money, and moral commitment, but the consequences for the common good would be extraordinary.

. . . Some argue that what we need is a redefinition of politics, one that is more capacious and capable of absorbing actions, ideas, and initiatives that are independent of the State. The idea here is to reclaim or restore a 'proper' understanding of the political. Such efforts would, in principle, accomplish the same end as I am describing here. This position is certainly worthy of serious debate but as a sociologist who is attentive to the power of institutions, I am inclined to think that all such efforts will be swallowed up by the current ways in which politics is thought of and used. It is why I continue to think that it is important to separate the public from the political and to think of new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in public that are not merely political."

Creation Mandate and the Tension of Power

". . . to be made in the image of God and to be charged with the task of working in and cultivating, preserving, and protecting the creation, is to possess power. The creation mandate, then is a mandate to use that power in the world in ways that reflect God's intentions. With the Fall, however, the divine nature and potential of human power was compromised. While Christ's life, death, and resurrection does fundamentally alter the relationship of believers to the 'powers' and to power itself, in the time while believers wait for the eschaton, power is inherently tainted and its use inherently compromising of the standards to which Christ beckons.

What this means is that faithful Christian witness is fated to exist in the tension between the historical and the transcendent; between the social realities that press on human existence and the spiritual and ethical requirements of the gospel; between the morality of the society in which Christian believers live and the will of God. These oppositions are a fact of existence for the church and each Christian believer and they pull in conflicting directions- one toward the necessities of survival and the other toward the perfect will of God. There is no place of equilibrium between these oppositions and no satisfying resolutions. In this world, the church can never be in repose. The tension is not lessened by the fact that there are unavoidable ambiguities that inhere in the application of biblical promises, values, and ideals to everyday life. Nor is it lessened by the fact that the love required of the Christian is unlivable, except in flawed approximation."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Faithful Presence in All Realms of Life

"The creation mandate (Gen. 1:28) inevitably leads Christian believers to a transformative engagement with the culture in which they find themselves. Yet by its very nature, this engagement will not be neutral in character. whether we like it or not, merely engaging the culture implies the issue and exercise of power. The matter of power is unavoidable. One cannot transcend it or avoid it or pretend it isn't there. The only questions are, how will Christians think about power? What kind of power will Christians exercise? How will Christians, individually and institutionally, relate to the range of powers that operate in the world?

If the analysis I have offered thus far is correct, it would be natural for some to conclude that what is implied here is an alternative way for Christians to pursue, attain, and use political power to achieve faith-based ends. It might be natural but it would also be completely wrong and, in my view, an utter distortion of the creation mandate. This is an interpretation of the creation mandate that Christians should reject entirely. Speaking as a Christian myself, contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective- part and parcel of the worst elements of our late-modern culture today, rather than a healthy alternative to it. . . .

Let me say further that the best understanding of the creation mandate is not about changing the world at all. It is certainly not about 'saving Western civilization,' 'saving America,' 'winning the culture war,' or anything else like it. The reason is that so much of the discussion surrounding this kind of world-changing is oriented toward the idea of controlling history. The presumption is both that one can know God's specific plans in human history and that one possesses the power to realize those plans in human affairs. There is a fine line between presumption and hope, as Aquinas observed, but in our culture, such presumption nearly always has tragic consequences.

For now, I will only say that the antidote to 'seizing power' in a new way is a better understanding of faithful presence. Consider it this way: the culture matrix from the previous chapter is not just a visual demonstration of Christianity's lack of influence in the larger culture. It is also, and far more significantly, a visual demonstration of its absence (of people, institutions, and other resources) from key areas of culture; an abandonment of the call to faithful presence- irrespective of influence. Not least, the culture matrix is a visual demonstration of where the church is not healthy. A healthy body exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few. The failure to encourage excellence in vocation in our time has fostered a culture of mediocrity in so many areas of vocation."

A Priesthood Sustaining Priests

"The idea of an invisible Church is, of course, always attractive for the simple reason that one chooses in the privacy of one's own mind who are the members and who are not. By contrast, the Church in the New Testament is represented by visible communities of men and women located in places which can be visited and to which letters can be written. This is not to deny the very important point, which was the subject of Chapter 16, that there is a spiritual reality 'in the heavenly places' which is not visible to the eye of flesh but which is the reality which has visible embodiment in these congregations; that there are 'angels' of the churches, spiritual realities which are more than simply the sum of the individual members; and that the 'angels' can be accused of behavior which is not in accordance with the will of God (for example, Rev. 3:15ff.) But the 'angels' do not have any impact on events except as they are represented by visible congregations which have a specific location- whether in the primary geographical sense, or in the sense of location within one of the sectors of public life in a complex and multisectional modern society. I have already said that I believe that the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations and not through the official pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies. But the developing, nourishing, and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing congregation. It is therefore important for my thesis to consider, however briefly, the question of the leadership of such congregations.

In some Christian circles it is unfashionable to talk much about the ordained ministry, because of the fear of being guilty of elitism, one of contemporary society's catalogue of unforgivable sins. . . . I hope I have made clear my belief that it is the whole Church which is called to be- in Christ- a royal priesthood, that every member of the body is called to the exercise of this priesthood, and that this priesthood is to be exercised in the daily life and work of Christians in the secular business of the world. But this will not happen unless there is a ministerial priesthood which serves, nourishes, sustains and guides this priestly work. The priestly people needs a ministering priesthood to sustain and nourish it."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Exploring a Researchable Question

Some of you may not fully realize this but the purpose of blogging for me for the last year or so has been to assist me in my doctoral work at Covenant Seminary (see this earlier post). I've needed to blog to process my ideas as well as to keep anyone interested in the loop, on the development of my work. So from time to time, I will simply quote sections of my readings that are deeply meaningful to me; certainly this is what I did yesterday with the quotes from James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World. So, admittedly some of my insights might be a bit difficult to follow here; however, for what it is worth, it's helpful for me to write them out. In a word, I'm helped even if you are not, so thank you for your forbearance :-).

My first potential researchable question (that may or not be my dissertation topic) is on the role of God's redemptive aim to redeem not only human hearts but also human institutions. First, I would like for us to consider Romans 8:18-27:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?  25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. 

I'd like for us to consider the identification "creation" has with the "children of God" in the passage. I've been intentional to underline the word "groan" and "groaning" in verses 22 and 23 respectively. BOTH groan deeply. Also, both are described here as having a kind of longing. Creation personified "groans" in this place of "waiting in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed" (v. 19). The children of God also groan awaiting the final restoration of our bodies, our full adoption as sons when what is positionally true of us now (Romans 8:16,17), will be entirely true as well in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 23).

What is more, what is the Gracious Spirit doing for us? Identifying with us in our weakness by interceding for us with "groans" (v. 26). At the risk of sounding glib, what the Spirit is doing for us is "feeling our pain." Whose pain? Our pain, not only the pain of God's children but also everything that is fallen about the created order, creational structures if you will. Of course at the core of what we might define as creational structures are: work, marriage and family as outlined in the first couple chapters of the Bible. As the first man and woman came together in marriage to be "fruitful and multiply," they in turn were given the task of multiplying, filling the earth and taking dominion over it (Gen. 1:28): at the most basic level, they did so by working the Garden (Gen. 2:15), the woman being created to come alongside the man (created from his side, the rib- Gen. 2:22). Together as complementary parts, being one, they began taking the raw materials of the earth to form and shape them in a way that would reflect the rule and dominion of God the King. This was the essence of "image-bearing" and "taking dominion," multiplying the just and beautiful rule of God through the world by engaging marriage and family, also by creating, in essence making beautiful and just culture for the sake of the King.

So the work of the Spirit who works in concert with the work of the Father and the Son is participating on behalf of God's children and also on behalf of all of creation. As the Spirit begins to work, God's people are regenerated, sanctified and renewed but also so are human institutions. Consider the words of the Psalmist who says, "When you send your Spirit, they (creational things) are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works" (Psalm 104:30,31). Also, consider how the Sovereign Spirit hovered over creation, participating within the Triune Godhead bringing all things into existence (Gen. 1:2).

So if my researchable question for now is on the role of God's redemptive aim to redeem not only human hearts but also human institutions, then I suppose my question distilled at its essence is "where's the fruit?" In a nutshell, the line of thinking goes something like this, if I expect fruitfulness at some point of the journey of an individual Christian who has received the redemption of Christ, shouldn't I also expect institutional fruitfulness as well in the Church as well as in broader creational structures, i.e. human institutions?

Secondly, if I go with James Davison Hunter's basic contention that Christianity in America is both marginalized as well as weak culture, then we have a question to ask ourselves:

. . . even the most optimistic assessment would lead one to conclude that Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is also a very weak culture. For all of the vitality and all the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful" (To Change the World, p. 92). 

The question is this, why is there less than visible fruitfulness in our human institutions if we would expect no less in the lives of followers of Jesus Christ? Now, a distinction must be made here, for fear that Davison Hunter's point becomes misconstrued. Often when I've talked to others about Davison Hunter's ideas that Christian influence is absent from centers of cultural production and power, the push-back I will often get is that Christians shouldn't seek halls of power nor expect to achieve places of status, etc. After all, look at the early Christians who spent most of their time disenfranchised, persecuted, pushed out to the margins, harassed, beaten, stoned, destitute and mistreated (Hebrews 11:38). So the clarification is this: Davison Hunter is not arguing for God's people to "reach" for power in high places and in elite institutions, rather he is arguing for God's people to be "faithfully present" in such places. Here we might think of the parable of the mustard seed in Matt. 13:31ff. that describes the Kingdom of Heaven as being like a mustard seed that starts small but grows into a large tree with many branches that birds can perch in. It's not so much the reach for power so much as the good work of prayer and investment that go into being desirous of seeing God's people flourish in such places. After all, isn't it Christlike people who have a servant-mindset and a healthy understanding of power that we want in the world's most powerful places? Isn't that a vision of the realization of the Kingdom where even the greatest among us choose to become the least?

Thirdly, another thread that must be pulled out of this "researchable question" of relative fruitlessness of American Christian strength among American institutions is the relative weakness of the American Church as an institution itself. Perhaps the reason for this observation is all too obvious- the American Church is divided among many denominations and movements with very little in terms of institutional collaboration, strength, resourcing and togetherness. In a word, perhaps the reason Christians are broadly scattered across our centers of cultural production, without a significant amount of cultural capital, is in large part because Christ's own institution, the Church, isn't particularly strong itself. At its most basic level, didn't Jesus Himself say that the world would know we're His disciples by the love we have for one another (John 13:35)? Again, before leveling an accusation at this point that Christians are not to seek worldly recognition and affirmation, I push back in this way- isn't it true that Jesus told His disciples to "let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16)? Christianity isn't primarily a private affair, rather as Lesslie Newbigin has said, the Gospel is "public truth."

So there is an initial stab at tackling a researchable question that may or may not wind up being my dissertation topic. Thanks for listening!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Good Intentions and Work, Weak Collective Impact

"At one level, it is impossible to deny the extraordinary and genuine vitality in American Christianity today. Ministries of mercy, foreign missions, church planting, and ministries oriented to the care of souls, the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled all flourish and as such, remarkable good is accomplished. But these achievements are largely rooted in and belong to the local church or parish. Para-church ministries have an important place but they are driven by the energy and passion of ordinary Christians and clergy of the local church community. This represents integrity with the best of the tradition. Yet for all of the reasons noted above, the collective impact of the Christian community on the nature and direction of the culture itself is negligible. There are other issues to consider as well.

Earlier I argued that the potential for world-changing is greatest when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose. Is there the possibility of finding common purpose in American Christianity today?

Different people will have different opinions on the matter. Politics has been a realm that has generated some defensive unity among some parts of the Christian community. For example, family law and edge-of-life issues have been sources of political solidarity among conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Reformed. Social justice issues have been the source of political solidarity among their progressive counterparts. Yet apart from politics in these areas, fragmentation seems to be much more prominent tendency. Clearly, there are ways in which the history of Christianity can be told through the history of its divisions and this has not abated in our time. Insofar as Christianity aspires to maintain certain continuities through time, fragmentation is as much of a challenge as it has ever been. The fragmentation of theology and confession has lessened among the Catholic, Reformed and, in some instances, the Evangelical, though it is as deep as it has ever been and probably more widespread among the conservative and liberal within various traditions. There is no question that Christians in their historic traditions want to be united by common core beliefs, even when their ecclesiology varies- agreement on the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the status of the unbeliever and the purposes of evangelism, and so on- yet when one goes below the surface, one sees very little agreement at all. Certainly the pressures toward denominational, doctrinal, and social fragmentation are significant. Within the traditions, the very meaning of the terms 'Catholic,' 'mainline,' 'Reformed,' and 'Evangelical' are contested. There are disagreements among all who call themselves by these terms as to what the terms mean in the first place.

Nowhere is this disarray more in evidence than among the leadership of the Evangelical movement. As a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals said when asked who the most influential people were giving leadership to the Evangelical movement, 'My answer, I think, is nobody. And that's part of the problem. It's amazing the lack of leadership. Evangelicalism is a bunch of personalities who either are so hung up on their own kingdoms . . . or are so anti-intellectual that [issues of vision and leadership] are just out of their purview.'

. . . even the most optimistic assessment would lead one to conclude that Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is also a very weak culture. For all of the vitality and all the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful."

American Christianity's Lack of Cultural Capital

"In the early decades of the twenty-first century as in the last decades of the twentieth, Christian presence in America has been a presence primarily in, of, and for the middle class in everything that this designation means. This is especially true of the Evangelical, Reformed, and Catholic traditions. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions tend to prove the rule. Thus, the financial capital that fuels Christianity's religious, social, and political causes is generated primarily from the extraordinarily generous tithing of the ordinary faithful. The considerable political capital American Christianity has amassed exist primarily in its pressure groups and the ability of those groups to mobilize the grassroots, middle-class, church-going voters. The vitality of its cultural capital today is a vitality that resides almost exclusively among average people in the pew rather than those in leadership, on the periphery not the center of cultural production, in tastes that run to the popular rather than the exceptional, the middle brow rather than the high brow, and almost always toward the practical as opposed to the theoretical or the imaginative. There is little taste for 'high culture' especially in Evangelicalism, where the tendency has long been toward translation- making things accessible to the largest number of people. . . .

In terms of the cultural economy, . . . , Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and the peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don't believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.

. . . the Christians who do operate in positions of social, cultural, and economic influence are neither operating within dense social networks nor working together coherently with common agendas, not least because they are largely disaffected from the local church. There are those with fairly high levels of social and economic capital but it is not linked with high levels of cultural capital. It is fair to say, then, that in any social and culturally significant way, Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cultural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most."

Christian Cultural Production

"Since the late nineteenth century, Evangelicals have invested most of their energies into creating a structure of 'parallel institutions.' Evangelicals are extraordinarily energetic, generating hundreds of millions of dollars through books and magazine publishing, radio, and television. In Evangelical publishing the most prominent publishers are Eerdmans, Baker Publishing Group, Brazos Press, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, Gospel Light/Regal Books, Intervarsity Press, NavPress, Paraclete Press, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Tyndale House Publishers, and Zondervan. In the magazine world, there are Christianity Today, World, and Discipleship Journal, among others. In terms of radio programs, there is Breakpoint, Adventures in Odyssey, Creation Moment, Family Life Today, Focus on the Family, Janet Parshall's America, Jay Sekulow Live!, Money Matters, and Our Daily Bread, among many others. In Evangelical television broadcasting, there is the Christian Broadcasting network, Sky Angel, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and the Daystar Television Network, each of which offers multiple programs for public viewing. There is also a developing Evangelical film industry that has produced dozes of films such as The Omega Code (1999), Left Behind (2000), Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie (2002), Hangman's Curse (2003), Woman, Thou are Loosed (2004), End of the Spear (2005), and Amazing Grace (2006). In all of this, the production of culture tends to be concentrated in commercial ventures that are often hugely successful.

There are exceptions, of course, yet overall this cultural productivity is characterized by at least three features. First, the works that are produced are almost exclusively directed to the internal needs of the faithful. This insularity is quite striking. The Evangelical world is not only difficult for outsiders to understand (consider the caricatures that abound) but also nearly impossible for them to penetrate. Evangelicals, in other words, offer little by way of a common vocabulary of shared life informed by faith but not exclusive to it. Second, this cultural productivity all tends to operate closer to the margins than to the center of the broader field of cultural production. Evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument. Magazines such as Christianity Today, World, or Books and Culture also do well in the Evangelical and Reformed world, yet they do not compete with or counterbalance their secular counterparts, and generally only First Things attracts an audience outside of this particular faith community. Christian television is almost all ghettoized in the small viewer hours of Sunday morning or to the backwaters of cable broadcasting. Noncommercialized art by Christians, as I said, small, vital, and growing through organizations such as Image, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and the International Arts Movement (IAM), but such efforts are small and constantly underfunded and, like the commercialized art (e.g., Thomas Kinkade), it is typically peripheral to the major galleries and reviews. What is more, this vast commercial empire does not operate in the major centers of culture formation (such as New York City, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles) but rather in medium-sized cities on the periphery (such as Wheaton, Illinois; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Orlando, Florida; and Virginia Beach, Virginia). Third, cultural production in the Evangelical world is overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular. Very much like its retail politics, its music is popular music, its art tends to be popular (highly sentimentalized and commercialized) art, its theater is mega-church drama, its publishing is mainly mass-market book publishing with a heavy bent toward 'how-to' books, in magazines are mass-circulation monthlies, its television is either in the format of a worship service or talk show, its recent forays into film are primarily into popular film, and much academic work is oriented toward translation- making the difficult accessible to the largest possible number. While there are exceptions to the rule, overall, the populist orientation of Evangelical cultural production reflects the most kitschy expressions of consumerism and often the most crude forms of market instrumentalism.

As it is with Catholics and mainline Protestants, individual Evangelicals can be found everywhere- in elite research universities, university presses, think tanks and the like- and there they make important contributions. But except for a few areas such as philosophy and American religious history, where they have had a significant presence and influence, their number tends to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence. Likewise, in literature, there are some talented novelists, poets, and critics in these communities, but here are again their number is few and they too tend to be fairly isolated in their respective fields. Much the same can be said about the Evangelical presence in architecture, the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) and the performing arts (e.g., theater, film, dance, music, and the like). In all of these arenas and others (such as journalism and advertising), there are individual exceptions- extraordinary, remarkable, talented exceptions- but they are exceptions, rather than a normal occurrence. These individuals are present in these spheres, it would seem, more by accident than by design; certainly more as a statistical aberration than through the deliberate cultivation of the churches."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!

This was our closing song in yesterday's Easter service. It just never gets old does it? Also, I thought I'd add a picture I took while hunting with my friend Dirk Grenemeier back in January.

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Darkness of Good Friday

I was deeply moved by this excerpt from Alexander Schmemann's book For the Life of the World:

And Adam, when he left the Garden where life was to have been Eucharistic- an offering in the world in thanksgiving to God- Adam led the whole world, as it were, into darkness. In one of the beautiful pieces of Byzantine hymnology Adam is pictured sitting outside, facing Paradise, weeping. It is the figure of man himself.  p. 18

Come share with us tonight at Grace Chapel in the darkness of Friday, at our 7pm Tenebrae service.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Seemingly "Secular Works," the Praise of God

"At the heart of the matter is whether work that is not specifically religious can be work done for the glory of God. Another equally important question is whether God calls men to trades and to vocations in this world as part of his unfolding plan or whether these common occupations are too mundane to be included in his will.

These are questions that theologians have grappled with throughout church history. The matter really comes down to how we determine what is holy: in other words, what in this world is set apart for God. In the early centuries of Christianity, the church was forced to continually define itself as distinct from pagan society and this established a simple line of division: the church, its ministers, and even its physical property were holy and everything else wasn't. This thinking continued into the later Middle Ages, but by then it became extreme. There was the world and there was the church and the two were seen as completely different and always at odds. So distinct was the church from the world that a man could literally step over a fence or a line drawn on the ground and find himself stepping from the holy to the profane. The problem became, though, that the daily lives of men were not considered part of the holy. They were part of the secular world, separated from the church and sometimes even from God. Daily work and family, laughter with friends, even the wonders of nature were viewed by many church leaders as separate from more lofty 'heavenly things.'

Reformation leaders like Luther and Calvin, writing in the 1500s, knew that this was not what scripture taught. They instilled, instead, that God called men not just to offices in the church but to every kind of labor and trade. So in their thinking, the farmer was no less holy than the priest, the innkeeper no less ordained by God than the bishop. As Luther wrote, 'What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well-pleasing to him.'

The Reformers also taught that while God did not want men to be worldly in character, he nevertheless called them to be active in the world in order to fulfill his will. . . . the Reformers taught that holiness was a matter of conformity to the image of Jesus, which a man ought to exercise as openly in the world as possible. In other words, the Christian shoekeeper or candle maker served his God while he plied his trade as Jesus would- with skill, with excellence, with morality, and with joy. This would do more good in the world than a thousand monks hidden away in monasteries, so the Reformers believed. As Luther expressed in his usual blunt fashion, done to the glory of God, even 'household chores are more to be valued than all the works of monks and nuns.'

The Reformers, then, pulled down the artificial distinction between the sacred and the secular and sent men into the world to serve God by using their skills and trades in his honor. This Protestant ethos of work found its way into the lives of the Guinnesses through the deeply reformed faith of the first Arthur Guinness and certain of his descendants. Many of them understood that brewing could be done as a holy offering, as a craft yielded in service of God. They did not see themselves as secular, but rather as called. They did not see themselves as apart from Christian ministry, but rather as in the Christian ministry of industry and trade. They did not think of their brewing work as a menial way to pay the bills, hoping that they might compensate for such worldliness by giving occasional service to the church. No, they had absorbed the great Reformation ideal that everything a man did was to be done for God and that his calling and his vocation were usually the same thing. They understood that this transformed workbenches into altars and the labor of man's hands into liturgies pleasing to God. . . .

A banker can be called and as pleasing to God as Billy Graham may be when he preaches. A brewer can serve a valuable role in the kingdom of God as a missionary, a priest, or a pope. This is the truth of Christianity and this, too, is a core truth of the Guinness story. It explains much of the Guinness spirit; much of their success and the good that they have chosen to do in the world."

Inordinate Desires and Returning to Normal

When did Jayhawk basketball become so important to me? I wish I could answer that question. Maybe it was when I first attended a KU basketball camp in 1979 as a 3rd grader. Maybe it was when I attended my first game at the historic Allen Fieldhouse in 1980. Maybe it was when in 1986 as a 9th grader, almost all of the boys in my class got flat-tops, because the 1986 KU team that made it to the Final 4 were all sporting flat-tops; they got the flat-tops because the 1952 KU team that won the NCAA championship all had flat-tops as well. Maybe it was when in my 20s as a young Presbyterian minister, I learned that James Naismith (the inventor of the game and first coach at KU) was also a Presbyterian minister. Maybe it's always been important to me and that some people are born what they are? I don't know.

Recently my philosopher friend Steve Odmark (teaches philosophy at a college in the twin cities), along with his family, came to stay with us for a few days. We watched one of the games and then we talked about "inordinate desires." Steve commented that he thought my desires for KU basketball were inordinate, i.e. excessive, too much, etc. This was after we watched the NC State game and I was up pacing, wringing my hands, beside myself in moments, etc. I responded to Steve, "I agree that they (my desires) probably are (inordinate), but it's complicated too!"

I will say this- I prayed about it and told God He could do whatever it was He wanted to do with my desires, as I'm unable to change them nor am I fully convinced that such a deep love for an institution like the University of Kansas is a bad thing necessarily. Perhaps the grace and mercy of God is such that every March I grapple with the "inordinate desire" question [believe you me, it's not always easy being a Jayhawk fan- despite often being the favored team to cut down the nets at the end of the tournament, we've only won the whole thing 2xs in my 40 years you know? (1988, 2008)], but that the first weekend in April always comes to a close and regardless of the results (a loss of course to Kentucky last Monday night), life returns back to normal, and I get on with things. . . .

Oh, but wait . . . there's still the recruiting to follow. Let's go get Tony Parker and who knows? Maybe a long-shot at this point but Shabazz Muhammad as well!


Rock Chalk Jayhawk!