September 11, 2013 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
After the North State Symphony‘s show with Amy Grant in Redding last week, conductor Kyle Pickett button-holed me for a discussion. Grant had sung “El Shaddai” near the end of the show, getting predictably warm-hearted applause. And the predictability was at the core of Kyle’s question.
“Is that kind of response real faith in God? Or is it the result of a great performer crafting her show well?”
Kyle wasn’t questioning either Grant’s or our audience’s sincerity. He was questioning the mixture of entertainment and worship. Good performances and devout worship are both emotionally powerful. But the worshipper’s emotions are supposed to come from a connection with God, not with a performer. Kyle put his finger on a longstanding issue for Protestant evangelicals: when does a skillful performance eclipse God’s presence? And when does human passion drown reverence?
He said, “You need to write an article on this.” That’s my cue.
For Protestants, this issue goes back to the Reformation.
The reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin did away with the distinction between “sacred” and “secular.” They taught that all aspects of life give glory God in Christ–all vocations, all settings, all human endeavor, not just church activities. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” This principle turns even a Christian’s “secular” pursuits into worship. This is why Grant sings “El Shaddai” in the same concert with “Big Yellow Taxi.”
But the reformers also taught a high view of corporate worship, fashioning a restrained liturgy to emphasize solemnity in the presence of a holy God. No “Big Yellow Taxi” as an offertory.
J. S. Bach often ran afoul of Pietist Lutherans because these two principles were (and are) in tension. A consummate performer and devout worshipper, Bach had no problem giving virtuosity free rein in church. But the Pietists wanted music kept simple to give free rein, as they saw it, to God.
The evangelicals who make up most of Grant’s audience have a solution to this tension. Ditch solemnity. Let the popular passions loose with all their boisterous sentimentality. Amy Grant, church, entertainment, worship–they’re all whooping it up at the same gospel party.
As an evangelical, I’m not thrilled with that solution. Entertainment often becomes a flippant substitute for doing business with God. To celebrate new life in Christ without attention to the fact that it came at the cost of his life is presumptuous. Because our sins are destructive to ourselves, others, and God’s glory, Christ’s forgiveness calls us to express something deeper than “Woo hoo!” True worship comes from an attitude of submission, while entertainment stops at pleasure.
Still, I did not feel that Grant’s “El Shaddai” encouraged flippancy in the audience. She directed the audience’s pleasure to the right source.
First, she was clear about being on stage to entertain. Great performers are able to touch deeper themes without being pretentious or manipulative by being straightforward about their purpose. “I’m here to give you pleasure.”
Second, Grant’s three decades as a celebrity have seen plenty of controversy. She has received criticism for both her career and personal decisions. From her perspective of the ups and downs of fame, to sing about one of the Hebrew names of God, who “age to age is still the same,” is to make a very personal statement of devotion.
Third, she used the craft of performance to focus attention on the words of the song. A manipulative performer would’ve pulled out all the stops–the full orchestra, back-up singers, a couple of chromatic modulations–to get the audience on their feet with a longstanding hit. Instead, Grant sang alone, accompanied only by acoustic guitar, communicating with directness and intimacy. This is how performers say, “Remember this one. Walk out with this song on your mind.”
Of all the things she could have said at such a moment, she chose to say that God is always faithful to us. It was a great use of performance skill—giving pleasure with truth.
What the audience does with such a moment is another matter. Experiencing Grant’s testimony, even identifying with it, is too passive. The glory of Christ calls us to go much further, and entertainment cannot take us there. To worship with integrity, we have to marshal all our skills to spotlight Christ.
To put it more directly, Amy Grant has offered her worship. Where’s ours?
October 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
The name “Jesus” has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that “Jesus” is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.
Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our “Jesus.”
We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive “Jesus” who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist “Jesus” who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting “Jesus” of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we’ve inveighed against the gnostic “Jesus” who had a child with Mary Magdalene — a savior for conspiracy theorists.
Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We’re right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can’t seem to reject the blank screen itself. We’ve profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we’d undermine our salesmanship.
For the last forty years at least the evangelical “Jesus” has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.
In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he’s way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn’t lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, “Dude!”
This “Jesus” can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for “Jesus,” maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice “Jesus” is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.
The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.
The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible’s words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can’t abide: “God’s plan isn’t all about you.”
But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.
Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus “did not entrust himself to them.” (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6.15)
So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he’s still commanding, “Follow me.”
September 19, 2012 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Interpreting art has always been a problem. Can a painting have a theme? When does a novelist cross the line between portraying wrong actions and endorsing them? Can you be morally or spiritually corrupted by listening to a song?
These questions are more emotional when they involve cinema, partly because of its sheer popularity over the last 80 years, partly because of the visceral power of the medium itself. Christians want to engage films spiritually, but they get tripped up by the moral quandaries they find.
These are important issues, but they make a poor starting-point for a spiritual discussion of film — or of any art. Before we dive into Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, I want to explain why I will address the moral and spiritual issues last.
It is a rare work that has both greatness and a “message.” Great artworks focus questions pointedly and show experiences palpably. They do not provide many answers. By contrast, works that convey a message are not usually art, but propaganda. Before we can approach the issues raised by films, then, we have to think in a more filmic way.
In evangelical entertainment today, sadly, there is almost no art. The expectation of both producers and consumers is that “Christian” books, music, and films will have a “good message,” and the message itself removes the works from consideration as serious art. Evangelicals rush to give answers almost as a matter of principle. If they thought more carefully about art, they might see the value of provoking the right questions.
There is a more specific problem for Christians who want to engage “secular” films.
For pastors, using a film as a sermon illustration has become a popular way to make a point, with certain films like The Matrix (1999) or The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) attracting almost permanent enthusiasm. The retelling of films as spirituality tales is a branding device for some authors. Medieval allegorizing is even recommended by some academics as a hermeneutic for engaging film spiritually.
Such uses of film seem less like dialogue than monologue. Not every self-sacrificing character is a Jesus figure.
Vertigo has incited a great deal of moral discussion, but has been especially open to agenda-driven interpretation.
One of the most influential concepts of feminist film theory, Laura Mulvey’s idea of the “male gaze,” was formulated using Vertigo as an illustration. Mulvey famously psychoanalyzed the film in terms of Freudian scopophilia. It has also been read as an allegory of existential psychology, and an opportunity for theological study of human motivations. More whimsically, critics have used it as a point of comparison with Shakespearean characters, and even as a metaphor for Kim Novak’s entire film career.
Vertigo starts to look like an inkblot test.
There are ways to address the spiritual issues raised by this film that go beyond the brain candy of allegorizing, or reading the film in terms of a favorite construct. We can embrace the complexity of what Hitchcock created, and we can let the rich layers of meaning guide us to the issues.
But we have to do good work first.
John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005).
Robert K. Johnston, “Transformative Viewing: Penetrating the Story’s Surface,” in Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline, ed. Robert K. Johnston (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 304-321.
Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
Kirk Schneider, “Hitchcock’s Vertigo: An Existential View of Spirituality,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 33, no. 2 (1993): 91-100.
Neil P. Hurley, “Mutability of Motivation: Hitchcock’s Films,” Theology Today 35, no. 3 (O 1978): 326-328.
Wendy Lesser, “Hitchcock and Shakespeare,” The Threepenny Review, no. 11 (October 1, 1982): 17-19.
Vincent L. Barnett, “Dualling for Judy: The Concept of the Double in the Films of Kim Novak,” Film History 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 86-101.
March 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
For American evangelicals, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become a tall tale. We retell the story with gusto, but by Easter afternoon the resurrection fades to legend.
Evangelicals historically saw Christ’s rising from the dead as the volcanic core of the Christian life. He conquered death not just by rising, but also by pouring his life into his followers. To a person was hostile to God, the essence of spiritual death, Christ restored love. He replaced rebellion with willing obedience. Christ’s presence was the hot energy that transformed a believer’s motivations.
In other words, evangelicals used to emphasize Jesus’s teaching in the Bible about the new birth, that human beings must have a resurrection of God-loving energy and that nothing else can save us.
In the late 20th century, however, evangelicals’ concept of the new birth degenerated. The phrase “born again” came to describe a ticket to heaven, eternal life guaranteed by a single prayer. We focused on getting people to pray that prayer, and with some success. Many got their ticket.
But we had trouble motivating ourselves to spiritual vitality. Those who prayed that prayer — who in fact prayed it repeatedly, grasping for security with God — were rarely taught that the new birth radically changed their identities. We generalized about “a relationship with Jesus” as if it were a life-upgrade, a fix for whatever made us unhappy, rather than life itself.
So Christ’s resurrection became a mere story.
I meet countless believers who know that Christ’s power is not extinct, but who only see glimpses of it. The trivial new birth taught by churches has drained their vitality.
I hear three such trivialized versions of the Christian life.
Many believers describe being born again as a cathartic emotional high, a personal, authentic experience that gives meaning to life. Following Christ to them means striving to recapture the high — and failing. Their church has taught them existentialism with the name of Jesus attached on a post-it note. No one should be expected to build his life on such sand.
Others see the Christian life as maintaining a good family: striving to be a good wife or husband, striving to keep bad influences out of the home, striving to raise good children — and failing. These believers have been taught moralism. Week after week in church, they have heard five steps to good communication, seven steps to good time management, and a wearying list of other “practical” suggestions for getting their act together. Christ’s role in their spiritual life is to forgive their accumulating sins. And that’s his only role.
Still others describe the Christian life as activism. Many older evangelicals strive to recapture America’s political system and restore the culture they once knew. Younger evangelicals, reacting against their elders, often strive for progressive causes. But political striving fails too. These believers have been taught different forms of ye olde throne-and-altar religion, that Christ builds his kingdom through governments. Christ role for them is to get the right people in office.
These forms of striving — existential, moral, and political — have three things in common. Each replaces Christ with an idol, a totem of sanctified obsessions. Each fails to supply Christ’s power, leaving the soul dessicated. And each consigns Christ’s resurrection to legend: an inspirational diversion from the cares of life, but not ultimately relevant to our pressing work.
For evangelicals now, the most important thing about Christianity seems to be our responsibility to solve our own problems. Some dress that message up in therapeutic lingo. Others now supplement it with a grab-bag of medieval mystic practices. But it’s the same old bad news: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Churches must restore the emphasis on genuine power. Christ is risen. In him we also have been made alive.
I notice that discouraged believers still distinguish between the follies of churches and the power of God. In discouragement, they persistently hope in Christ, knowing that his subterranean heat remains fierce even if the ground looks cold.
They should take comfort. Easter is not empty.
March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The last couple of weeks have seen a change of tone among Democrats about President Obama’s requirement that religious institutions be forced to provide “contraception” in their health plans, and about his “compromise” that the institutions themselves don’t have to pay for it but that insurers still have to provide it.
Democrats think this is a brilliant move — and they may be right.
There are outright lies in the president’s formulation of this policy, in addition to the standard tactical truth-benders.
It is a lie that this policy only concerns contraception. The president’s rule covers the abortion pill. Abortion is not contraception. His first policy was that religious institutions must provide abortion coverage. Now his “compromise” is that everyone must pay for it in their insurance premiums.
The president’s tactical gambit is that, if people swallow the lie that the issue is contraception, then they will also believe that the only people in America who oppose his rule are Catholic bishops. The president is hoping that evangelicals like me will assume that the only problem here is Rome’s opposition to preventing conception.
This is not a Roman Catholic issue, as if “only a bishop” could possibly oppose this rule. When asked not about “contraception” but specifically about the abortion pill requirement, Americans oppose the rule, and it’s not close.
Well, let’s be blindly generous. Let’s pretend that the word “contraception” is not a cover-up, that the president is not pandering to anti-Catholic bigotry, and that Americans do support free abortion by prescription. There’s still this little issue of rights.
Here’s Nicholas Kristof on religious liberty in a recent column: “The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can. But we ban polygamy, for example, even for the pious. Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to act.”
Again, let’s adopt the spirit of blind generosity.
We’re going to accept the equating of belief in polygamy with opposition to abortion as if it were completely natural. We’re going to ignore the fact that this controversy is not over a “freedom to act” but over a freedom not to act — that is, my right not to pay for abortion pills. We’re even going to ignore this interesting assertion: American life is founded on the principle that “we” will “try” to “respect” religious beliefs. This is a brief counter-factual exercise. We’re just going to focus on the words, “Your freedom to believe [a religious teaching] does not always give you a freedom to act.”
That formulation might be acceptable to those who do not value religious liberty. But let’s see if it still works when applied to other freedoms.
“Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to speak.”
“Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to vote.”
“Your freedom to buy property does not always give you a freedom to keep it.”
“Your freedom to invest does not always give you a freedom to keep the profits.”
“Your mere existence in utero does not always give you a freedom to be born.”
The president and Mr. Kristof are free to believe that rights owe their existence to governmental fiat. They have the right to reject the real “basic principle” of the United States, that liberties come from God. But in our country — and it still actually belongs to us — they do not have the right to subvert the Constitution by administrative law.
The president may get away with this. His tactic may be as brilliant as many Democrats claim. Life will go on and future battles over religious liberties will be fought on very different ground. But let’s not pretend this is politics as usual.
April 26, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. “The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.”
The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.
Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God’s every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God’s nature.
Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, “Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain.”
Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity’s evolution.
Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God’s character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?
Let’s probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).
Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ’s blood to be the “propitiation,” the appeasement of God’s justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” That is, God’s justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.
Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God’s nature. But to call God’s nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do “remedial” sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.
In other words, Christ’s death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God’s plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God’s wrath. It paid the ransom.
No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.
The argument from God’s mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used — indeed, has been used — to attack Christ’s atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn’t have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.
I have never been impressed with modernism’s treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today’s notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.
Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. “‘The Sopranos’ never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.”
Rob Bell’s notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. “But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?”
April 19, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.
As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.
Time, the American century’s literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell’s teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.
I’ll write another post about Bell’s book, Love Wins. I don’t want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won’t draw any conclusions about Bell’s teachings based on Meacham’s piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.
My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.
How does Time present Bell?
He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as “a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following.” The message in this package seems to be, “Don’t mess with Bell. He’s way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him.”
How does Meacham frame the theological issues?
Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell’s ideas. Of Bell’s suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, “If heaven, however defined, is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?” Meacham accurately says that Bell is “more at home” within the “expansive liberal tradition” of Harry Emerson Fosdick.
R. Albert Mohler notes, “This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake.”
So, hat-tip to Meacham.
What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?
The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, “All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest.”
The invitation is pointed. Meacham’s theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father’s Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell’s Christianity is “less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions.” Adopting Bell’s attitude will get evangelicals the “seat at the table” they have coveted.
Further, the invitation is backed by power — the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, “Is Bell’s Christianity … on an inexorable rise?” Then he quotes Bell himself: “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.” Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.
The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time‘s invitation to evangelicals. You know you can’t hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.
The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome’s culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon’s blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor’s permission to rule.
This is Bell’s moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus’ followers do not deny the other gods their place.
What is Rob Bell’s creed?
October 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
by Matthew Raley
With election day less than a week hence, I confess that I think the campaign is a crashing bore.
If there were a prospect that the nation’s course might change, I suppose the elections might be interesting. But I am struck by the continuity of federal policy over the last three decades. It’s incoherent but stable: Low taxes (compared with 1933-1980), deficits, free trade, low interest rates, growing government, and willful blindness to the coming bankruptcy of entitlements have been hallmarks of the period since the last significant political U-turn, Ronald Reagan’s signature on Kemp-Roth in 1981.
President Obama, the biggest potential change agent since Reagan, has followed most of the policies of his predecessor — the standout exceptions being health care and Supreme Court appointees. His stimulus measures have been magnitudes larger than George W. Bush’s, but not different in principle.
A Republican Congress will not do anything beyond limiting President Obama’s options. It might pass Paul Ryan’s budgets as written, and they still won’t become law. No one is projecting veto-proof Republican majorities.
So voter fury in this campaign feels like the protests of impotence. Populist exploitation of their fury is straight out of old playbooks. Boring.
Only one thing interests me now: will American evangelicals take a long look at themselves and recover the Gospel?
Americans are deep in the cluelessness of hypocrisy. We can rage against Washington all we want. But there’s no federal law mandating that household debt should reach 129% of household income, as it did in 2007. The average guy raised his debt burden statistically higher than Greece’s all by himself, with money and assets over which he was entirely sovereign. Power to the people, anyone?
We can rage against Wall Street’s greed and dishonesty. But the ethics that allowed people to sign for adjustable rate mortgages and balloon payments, and that fudged the details of their credit-worthiness were Main Street ethics that took advantage of the distance of corporate banks from decision-making to fund larger and larger house purchases. Well before the peak of the real estate frenzy, I withdrew a mortgage application after discovering that my broker had lied point-blank to secure approval. Wall Street greed? Get real.
Evangelicals are ranting that if power were returned to the average guy his sterling character would renew the nation. It’s time to dig up the planted axiom.
None of this excuses Washington for its various lunacies. But it does raise the question of whether our nation is still great — great in the sense that its citizenry still has the moral strength to govern itself.
If, as I suspect, it does not have that strength, then national renewal would look something like this:
Americans who claim to believe the Bible would study the book of Proverbs, especially noting the principle that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1.7). They would note in detail and without excuses their own folly, and accept the rebukes of wisdom. Then they would grieve how deeply they have offended God, not having cultivated the fear of him they owe. In the midst of this grief, they would recall that God forgives, and that his Son Jesus Christ has paid for their offenses.
And, ceasing their proud striving with others, they would seek reconciliation with God on that basis. Martin Lloyd-Jones put it this way in 1959: “You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of . . . , and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it, and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God.” (Revival, Crossway Books, 1987, p 19)
If evangelicals led the nation from a Gospel-driven humility, a dependency on Christ’s grace and power, something would indeed change. Evangelicals would change. And that would be fascinating.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.
The list of problems in churches is familiar.
For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that’s when the preaching is comprehensible at all.
Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people’s lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can’t deal honestly with our failings and that church isn’t safe.
Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to “values” without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises — joy and thankfulness.
Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today’s evangelicals.
The book’s strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God’s grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals’ guilty consciences.
But I found the book unreadable.
I think the authors’ decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.
And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what’s wrong with “preaching.” The fact that most preachers couldn’t give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.
If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.