- D.A. Carson
Music Monday: Preparing for Reformation Day
One of Martin Luther’s great contributions to the Church was the restoration of hymn-singing to the people of God.
A favorite album in my collection that I love to listen to this time of year was released by Concordia Publishing House; it’s called Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth. It combines wonderful sacred music with quotes from the Reformer about God’s magnificent gift of music.
• • •
IN THE VERY MIDST OF LIFE
Luther based this rendition on a popular Latin hymn from the 11th century. One can sense the turmoil and danger Luther felt in the tumultuous days of the Reformation — this is a common theme in his hymns and a reason he looked regularly to the Psalms for his inspiration. We also see the spiritual tumult in his own soul as he sought peace with God.
In the very midst of life snares of death surround us;
Who shall help us in the strife lest the foe confound us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only!
We mourn that we have greatly erred,
That our sins Thy wrath have stirred.
Holy and righteous God! Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all merciful Savior! Eternal Lord God!
Save us lest we perish in the bitter pangs of death.
Have mercy, O Lord!
In the midst of death’s dark vale pow’rs of hell o’ertake us.
Who will help when they assail, who secure will make us?
Thou only, Lord, Thou only!
Thy heart is moved with tenderness,
Pities us in our distress.
Holy and righteous God! Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all merciful Savior! Eternal Lord God!
Save us from the terror of the fiery pit of hell.
Have mercy, O Lord!
In the midst of utter woe when our sins oppress us,
Where shall we for refuge go, where for grace to bless us?
To Thee, Lord Jesus, only!
Thy precious blood was shed to win
Full atonement for our sin.
Holy and righteous God! Holy and mighty God!
Holy and all merciful Savior! Eternal Lord God!
Lord, preserve and keep us in the peace that faith can give.
Have mercy, O Lord!
• • •
LORD, KEEP US STEADFAST IN YOUR WORD
Tr. Catherine Winkworth
This has been one of Luther’s most popular hymns over the generations. It was written later in his life, 1841 or 1842, and the original words reflect his fear of an impending Muslim invasion in which he believed the papacy complicit. The first stanza originally included this line: “Restrain the murderous pope and turk.”
Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word;
Curb those who by deceit or sword
Would wrest the kingdom from Your Son
And bring to naught all He has done.
Lord Jesus Christ, Your pow’r make known,
For You are Lord of lords alone;
Defend Your holy Church that we
May sing Your praise eternally.
O Comforter of priceless worth,
Send peace and unity on earth;
Support us in our final strife
And lead us out of death to life.
• • •
Lord God, We Sing Your Praise
Tr. F. Samuel Janzow
Setting by Richard Hillert, published by Concordia Pub. House
Though this is a contemporary musical setting of Luther’s Te Deum paraphrase, it evokes something of the personal and household use of Luther’s songs. Here, you can get a sense of how Luther and his family and guests might have sung together as part of their household worship. Or, alternatively, how the congregation might have joined the choir antiphonally in the church’s worship service.
Lord God, we sing Your praise; Lord God, our thanks we raise.
Father eternal, true, all creation worships You.
All angels and heav’nly throngs serve Your glory with their songs.
All cherubim and seraphim with soaring voices sing the hymn:
Holy is God our Lord, Holy is God our Lord,
Holy is God our Lord, the Lord of Sabaoth.
Your glory, might, eternity fill heav’n and earth with majesty.
The twelve apostles raise their voice, the holy prophets, too, rejoice.
Armies of noble martyrs throng to glorify You, God, in song.
The holy Church throughout the world keeps Your high glory’s praise unfurled.
To God the Father on the throne, to You, only-begotten Son,
To You, the Spirit, comfort true, we bring our praise and worship due.
O King of glory, blessed One, You are the Father’s only Son.
From a virgin You took Your birth to save mankind in all the earth.
You trod on death for its defeat that Your own at Your throne might meet.
You rule at the Father’s right hand with equal glory and command.
You will come back to earth again to judge with majesty all men.
O Lord, then in the final flood save those You bought with Your own blood.
Bring us to heav’n to celebrate with all those who Your help await.
Save us, Lord, with Your healing glance, and bless Your own inheritance.
Watch over us and guard our day, raise us to glory, Lord, we pray.
To You our daily praise we bring, to Your name constant honor sing.
Guard us, O Lord, we humbly pray, and keep us safe from sin today.
O Lord, have mercy on us all, have mercy on us when we call.
Lord, turn us toward Your kindly face, our hope is only in Your grace.
Lord, on You we build all our trust, let us not perish in the dust. Amen.
Author Sharon Creech and her husband now live in Maine, “lured there by our grandchildren.” She writes, “Moo was inspired by our mutual love of Maine and by our granddaughter’s involvement in a local 4H program. We have all been enchanted by the charms of cows.”
So Moo is a book centered on the charms of both Maine and cows. Although it took me a while to be charmed, by the end of the book, I was. I don’t think this one is great literature or great poetry, but it is a nice little nugget of endearment. Twelve year old Reena and her family move from the city, probably New York City, to rural Maine. Reena and her seven year old brother Luke go to “help out” their elderly neighbor Mrs. Falala (Fa-LA-la) at her house which hosts a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake called , and most notably, cow, Zora. It’s a typical set up: a crochety, unapproachable, eccentric old person becomes the best friend and mentor to a child or children; in this case Reena and Luke are the children. It’s rather predictable, but sweet, too. The cow, Zora, is “ornery and stubborn, wouldn’t listen to anybody, and was selfish beyond selfish, and filthy, caked with mud and dust.” (punctuation added)
The book is written in part poetry, part prose, part prose poem. It could have used some more punctuation and fewer visual effects and typological devices and line breaks. The story was funny, the language and imagery were effective and vivid, but I was distracted by the entrances and exits into poetry and non-poetry and sort of poetic. I have a daughter who loves verse novels, partly, I think, because of all the space on the pages and because of the rich language. She is not much of a reader, but she has a rich vocabulary and enjoys words and language. However, I’m not sure if she would like this novel or not. It’s neither fish nor fowl, neither all prose nor all poetry. Maybe a good transition?
Read it if you want to gain a deeper appreciation for the charms of cows.
I’ve always liked Rube Goldberg devices.
Because it’s Friday, here’s a machine to turn your newspaper pages for you.
At least once.
“Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time.” ~Ursula LeGuin
Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.
Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.
After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.
There are many things that may cause someone to feel depressed--too much stress in our lives, corrupt people, evil abounding more and more, sickness, difficult circumstances, and so much other negative stuff. At our old church there was a man who cheered me, when I felt sad, with this song-- "The Joy of the Lord is my Strength." It can be sung with all ha, ha, ha's. You can't help laughing at yourself when you sing it. Here are some other things that I do when I am feeling down:
Max Muller, a pioneering 19th-century linguist at Oxford, read Darwin’s work and declared that the use of language was the gift that definitively separated human beings from the animal kingdom. It was, Muller said, “our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.” Nowadays, neo-Darwinians would dismiss mulish Muller as a “speciesist.”
Andrew Ferguson summarizes and reviews Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech for sympathetic readers. He condemns scientists who argue against non-scientists asking awkward questions they’d rather ignore and claim to deserve a respect they have yet to earn. “Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be.” (via Prufrock News)
They no longer teach axe skills in high school, but thankfully the Internet has it covered. This is a longer video than we normally post for the Friday Fight, but it will give you an idea of how demonstrators need to practice in order to fight each other safely.
Compare this to the fighting we see in these videos:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, epigraph to My Diary From the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson,
“Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” ~Werner Heisenberg, Across the Frontiers, quoted in My Diary from the Edge of the World by Jodi Lynn Anderson.
Twelve year old Gracie didn’t know that when her mother gave her a diary for her birthday, the coming year would be the most exciting and momentous of her life. Garcie lives in the prosaic town of Cliffden, Maine where “nothing terrible or exciting ever happens.” Baseball games, science lectures, school, watching Extreme Witches on TV, playing in puddles after a rain, collecting fallen dragon scales—these are the rather mundane things that make up Gracie’s life with her mother, a professional violinist turned homemaker, her father, an abstracted and absent-minded meteorologist, her older sister Millie, the beautiful, graceful one, and her little brother Sam, nicknamed the Mouse.
Gracie lives in an alternate universe version of Planet Earth. Gracie’s Earth is flat, and it is home to lots of creatures that are only mythological on our Planet Earth. Witches, dragons, (destructive) mermaids, pegasi, sasquatches, ghosts, and other myths are all real in Gracie’s world. And Dark Clouds come for people when they die.
When it looks as if a Dark Cloud has come for Sam the Mouse, Gracie’s family decides to outrun fate (or death) and try to escape to the Extraordinary World where dragons and ghosts and Dark Clouds don’t exist. Gracie’s dad is the only one she knows of who actually believes that the Extraordinary World really exists and that it might be possible to to get there from the edge of their world, but anything is worth trying to save Sam.
Okay. So “quirky” and “weird” are appropriate descriptors for this middle grade fantasy that is more of a family in crisis story than an adventure story. Gracie’s family crosses the continent in an old Winnebago, and they encounter monsters and wonders beyond imagination. They also learn to trust one another and to forgive each other. I thought the book was poignant and emotional at times, and the story was intriguing. However, the use of (fallen) angels as just another mythological-but-real-in-this-world set of characters marred the book to some extent. I wish the author had chosen some creatures other than angels to be her guardian protectors in this otherworld, since “one of these things is not like the others.” Angels may be mysterious, but they’re not mythological in the same way that witches and ghosts are.
Gracie’s world is also beholden to or ruled over by “the gods”, like Zeus(?), but they are barely mentioned in the story. At one point in the diary when Gracie and her family have been saved from certain doom by the quick thinking and action of a good friend and by fortuitous circumstance, Gracie writes, “‘Thank you,’ I whispered to no one in particular. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”
It reminds me of this song by Andrew Peterson:
Anyway, Gracie and her family are looking for a savior, a place of refuge, and maybe even for Someone to thank. You’ll be intrigued, if you read the book, to see whether or not they find what they’re looking for.
I think I’ve written about the old TV show, Tales of the Vikings, here before. It formed the spark that first roused my interest in the Vikings. Judging by the clip below, which recently appeared on YouTube, it was about as cheesy as I figured.
According to the link, there are six extant episodes available on CD now from this site. I had been given to understand that all episodes had been lost forever. So this is good news. Except that I’m reluctant to order from an unknown site.
I probably will, though.
Above is a short video explaining the animal selections for the political parties. Here is a blog about how Christians can be unified in spite of our differences.
Professor Tim Groseclose released a book in 2011 with his eight years’ of research into political biases in newsrooms and communities. He pushed for a way to quantify someone’s ideology–to slap a number on it–with as much accuracy as possible. As a result, he developed the political quotient (PQ).
” A person’s PQ indicates the degree to which he is liberal,” Groseclose explains. “For instance, as I have calculated, the PQs of Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) are approximately 100. Meanwhile the PQs of noted conservatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are approximately 0.”
The main point of his book is that most media outlets are liberal, far more liberal than their readers and viewers. Naturally, their PQ comes through in their reporting, and their perspective is moving Americans in a liberal direction. Get a rather detailed overview in this lecture to an audience at the Cato Institute.
Media bias, he says, is largely in what is not reported, “true statements they are leaving out, not false statements they report.” He illustrates this by recalling a report on voter limitations, saying nothing in the article was a lie, but there were several things that should have been stated to give proper context for the truth. Also what the press chooses to report on and what to ignore shows their biases (Van Jones being a communist, for example).
If it were possible to remove the influence of media bias on Americans, what would the result be?
In the preface, he offers this explanation.
In such a world, American political values would mirror those of present-day regions where the average voter has a 25 PQ. Such regions include the states of Kansas, Texas, and South Dakota. They also include Orange County, California and Salt Lake County, Utah.
To the liberal elite, such places are a nightmare. They are family-friendly, largely suburban, and a large fraction of their residents go to church on Sundays. “Ahh, don’t cross the Orange Curtain,” a Hollywood acquaintance once said to another Hollywood acquaitance, referring to a visit to Orange County.
In an episode of the Sopranos, Tony goes into a coma after being shot. He dreams that he is stuck in a hotel in Costa Mesa (a town in Orange County). He and the other guests of the hotel slowly realize that they are not free to leave. The hotel, many believe, was intended by the Sopranos writers to represent Purgatory.
To the liberal elite, that’s the way the world would be if media bias were to disappear—like Orange County, not quite hell, but a step in that direction.
I copied that section from PowerLine, which has the preface, introduction, and all of chapter eight in blog posts.
Update: Case in point, 60 Minutes is still arguing that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were not spies, largely by the evidence they don’t present.
Vanguard One Middle School has a new student: Fuzzy, a state-of-the-art, highly intelligent robot with speech recognition language processing, facial recognition software, and fuzzy logic. Fuzzy is nearly human, but not quite. And Vanguard One Middle School is nearly under the complete control of other, more specifically tasked robots, in particular Vice-Principal Barbara who practically runs the entire school from her secret control center in Room 43.
Max, short for Maxine, is tired of Vice-Prinicpal Barbara and her constantly issued discipline tags (which are sent automatically and immediately to parents), but Max is also fascinated by the new student, Fuzzy, and the possibilities inherent in a robot student who re-programs himself in response to new data. While Vice-Principal Barbara is doing everything she can to execute the Constant UpGrade program (#CUG) and achieve the goal of a perfect school—ever higher test scores, ever fewer discipline problems, ever cheaper and more efficient to run—Max and Fuzzy are getting to know one another and become friends, as much as a human being can become friends with a fuzzy logic robot.
What a great story! While it lampoons the current educational culture of constant testing and computer idolization, the book also shows readers the possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge robotic technology. It just might be coming any day now to a school or workplace near you. Many years ago, Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey asked the question, “with artificially intelligent computers (or robots), will we continue to control the technology, or will the technology take over and control us?” This story is a variation on that theme, with humor, for middle grade readers. It’s not deep or prophetic or philosophical, but it does introduce the thought that technology may be both a blessing and a curse.
And it’s just a fun story. Enjoy the story. Then, if you want, spend some time thinking about the questions: What separates humans from artificially intelligent computers or robots? Could robots have feelings? Could they make you have an emotional response? Have you ever felt sorry for or angry with Siri? What happens if a computer is programmed to override its own programming?
Actually, these are more like five “right ideas” or five “right tracks” the “seeker sensitive” church growth movement started down before it veered hard into a fuller blown consumerism and became the attractional church. The yes, but‘s will be a reflex for most of my readers (as they are for me), and I have tried to anticipate them in my explanations, but for the most part, this really is a post about some good gifts the seeker church of yesteryear has given contemporary evangelicalism.
1. The Emphasis on Every Member Ministry
In its grossest manifestation, this approach to member assimilation simply equates membership with volunteerism in the programming, but in the beginning, the concern about active membership was a good one. The seeker church was seeking (pardon the pun) to recover from the “country club”-type membership of its parents’ church, where all you had to do was walk an aisle, sign a card, and commit to give money. The original focus of the seeker church as it pertains to membership was to hold members accountable for ministry in the church. Adding spiritual gift assessments to the membership process was a positive step in the right direction. And the emphasis of making sure people placed in integral offices of leadership in the church were actually gifted for those offices was a great recovery of a long-neglected biblical teaching. Before this evaluation of the church’s assimilation of its members to service, churches just plugged willing souls into open slots, an expedient ruthlessness of its own that did enough damage itself. Rather than make an ear out of an eye with ear aspirations, the seeker church movement at least brought with it a re-focus on Paul’s teachings on the spiritual gifts in service of the church.
2. An Emphasis on Community Through Relational Groupings
Yes, much of the way churches “do” small groups today is a boondoggle waiting to be more widely exposed. But let’s give some credit where it’s due. The death of community was not the seeker church’s fault before it was the whole Church’s fault. And whatever problems we may (rightly) see in the one-size-fits-all, artificial “small groups as community” programs, the notion that community is what church life is all about, that people must connect relationally and “do life” together, is not something the emerging or missional movements innovated. It was the church growth movement, borrowing from the house churches, parachurches, and the ’70s Jesus Movement that recovered the notion of relational community over against the traditional church’s persistent substitute of cliques and classes.
3. An Incarnational Rethinking of Evangelism
The attractional church emerging from the seeker movement has largely bailed on the gospel. But in its nascence, it had the good idea that biblical evangelism was less about revivalistic “repeat this prayer” ticket-punching and more about living lives of witness to Jesus. By dispensing with the weekly altar call guilt-trip, and by attempting to train its congregants in relational evangelism, the seeker churches evince an admirable trust in the Holy Spirit for conversion and a proper expectation of its members to carry the message of Jesus beyond the church walls and into their daily encounters with the lost. Somehow the consumeristic impulse proved too strong, and I’d argue that the attractional movement has largely inverted this beyond the “seeker service” and effectively and implicitly suggested to its attendees to trust the worship experience for the evangelistic heavy lifting. But in its pioneering days, the seeker church had a practically proto-missional approach to Christians’ neighborhood and work life.
4. A Recovery of the Value of the Arts
This is not precisely an ecclesiological development, and the emphasis on the arts has clearly exploded in many cases into full-on entertainment-driven Sunday morning church performances and regrettable secular marketplace doppelgangers in the Christian entertainment market. But coming with the development of the church growth movement was the recovery of the value of artistry within the church and by the church as more than just polemics and propaganda. Again, we can obviously debate the quality of the art being produced in the Christian market these days—which clearly pales next to the art created by Christians in previous ages—but the valuing of creativity, the interest in aesthetics, and appreciation of artistry as not being worldly or unseemly is a huge improvement over against the culturally combative fundamentalism of the traditionalist church.
5. An Insistence that Faith Is for All of Life
The execution has been terrible, especially as the dominant teaching mode focusing on moralistic and therapeutic how-to’s has basically produced a largely nominal Christianity that is culturally conditioned and practically indistinguishable from the world. But the motive was sincere, I think. The early emphasis by the church growth movement was that Christianity applied to all of life, not just to one hour a week within the church walls. The emphasis on “life application” teaching—which, again, gradually and awfully subsumed proclamational preaching of the gospel—was itself a response to a real problem: namely, that non-Christians were not seeing the beauty of faith lived out, and Christians weren’t living out that beauty. The problem in execution is that the seeker/attractional church thought the solution to this problem was more law, not more gospel. Ironically, their execution in addressing this problem has only further created more Christians living compartmentalized lives. But the original notion toward application actually came out of a desire for our faith to direct, inform, and affect our families, schools, and workplaces. The seeker church wasn’t wrong to troubleshoot this problem, and we should follow that cue.
Gibson stopped him. “What do you think will happen now?”
The fisherman considered the question for a moment. “In Mandarin, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”
“Is that true?”
The fisherman shook his head. “No, not exactly. It is just something that John F. Kennedy repeated because it sounded inspiring.”
I had read Matthew FitzSimmons’ The Short Drop, and enjoyed it. So I bought the sequel, Poisonfeather. But I’d forgotten what a really fine writer FitzSimmons is. Poisonfeather was a pleasure to read from front to back.
The villain this time out is Charles Merrick, a fallen Wall Street wizard (think Bernie Madoff but even nastier) now residing in a fairly cushy federal prison. He’s been in for eight years, and is due to be released soon. Many people were shocked at his short sentence, but there’s a secret explanation. Merrick knew the identity of a CIA mole working in China, which gave him leverage to do a deal with the feds.
Many people, some greedy, some Merrick’s victims, suspect he still has a lot of money squirreled away somewhere (they are correct). A large number have gathered in the moribund town of Niobe, where the prison is located, to intercept him when he goes free.
Among those people is Gibson Vaughn, former Marine and master computer hacker, hero of the series. Gibson has no personal interest in the matter, except that an old judge, who once did him a valuable favor, lost his own money and his family’s to Merrick’s schemes. Now the old man is suffering dementia, and his sleazy nephew – along with a redneck friend named Swonger – extort his help in getting their money back, against threats of abandoning the old man on the street.
Contrary to his better instincts, Gibson agrees to try. Along the way he forms an alliance with a local bartender named Lea, a beautiful woman who knows more than she lets on. There are lots of players on the board, and the book is like a neatly constructed mechanism of many interlocking parts, all clicking together in sequence. Particularly interesting is the character of Swonger, who at first appears a cliché, but gradually reveals surprising qualities, making him increasingly appealing to the reader. Author FitzSimmons also knows how to turn an elegant phrase: “At the liquor store, a tumbleweed dog aloof on its haunches watched him go.”
The only thing I didn’t like is that there’s a cliffhanger at the end. I’ll have to wait a year to find out what happens next.
Highly recommended. Cautions for language and violence, but not bad. This is a top-level mystery/thriller.
October 14 was the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Peter Konieczy of the University of Toronto offers three reasons why this was not a typical medieval battle. One reason was that the Normans and the English were evenly matched.
We can read some of the battle’s details in this post on a French poetic account, Estoire des Engleis – History of the English, by Geoffrey Gaimar. It includes a part about a Norman juggler who demonstrated his spear skills before the English army.
Konieczy also touches on how the Normans meddled with the Irish several decades later, never fully conquering them, and by 1180, “would leave the island unstable and divided.”
Fortune Falls by Jenny Goebel.
Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper.
These books were similar in many ways. Our female protagonist in each book is a bit of a misfit, even an outcast, with a poor self-image and an innate limitation that exacerbates that problem. In the book Fortune Falls, Sadie is an Unlucky who lives in a town, Fortune Falls, where superstitions such as breaking your mother’s back when you step on a crack, are true laws of nature. In Sticks and Stones, Elyse suffers with CAV, a condition that causes the words that people use to describe her, good and bad, to appear in bold print on her arms and legs. The bad words, like “loser” or “klutz” or worse, itch ferociously; the good words, like “adorable” or “cool” or “sweet”, feel warm and comforting.
So Sadie is looking for a way to transcend her bad luck or even change it into good luck, while Elyse is just trying to survive or avoid the bad words people throw at her and glean lots more compliments and good words. Both of these problems speak to fears that middle schoolers (and many adults) often have: What if I’m just a born loser? What if I never do get into the “cool kids crowd”? Do I really want to be cool? On the other hand, do I want to see myself, and have others see me, as a pathetic outcast for the rest of my life? It’s the basic “Who am I really?” question. (By the way, there’s a black cat that figures prominently in Fortune Falls, but said cat has a bobbed tail. Cover error!)
Sadie answers the questions both by finding a little luck along the way and by accepting her luckless self as she is. These two solutions conflict somewhat and really beg the question. Sadie says she’s OK because she managed to work within the rigged system and grab some luck or because she believes she’s OK, and that’s enough. Elyse answers the “who am I really?” question by accepting her words, both good and bad, and by deciding not to apply bad words to herself. I’m not sure the resolution in either story is adequate. Bad words can hurt, even if you’re determined to not internalize them. And bad luck, in a town like Fortune Falls where luck is a real thing, could really damage or even kill.
Both Sadie and Elyse have friend issues, issues with “mean girls”, and boyfriend issues—all in the sixth grade. Sticks and Stones, in particular, has a heavy, heavy emphasis on sixth graders dating, even though it’s pretty tame dating, holding hands, kissing, breaking up, going steady, not at all what I would like to see sixth graders worrying about. Stereotypical “mean girls” are in both books. In Sticks and Stones, Elyse’s best friend joins the mean girls clique for no discernible reason. Both books have lots of name-calling. A sort of/kind of therapeutically good ending doesn’t make up for all the angst (at 12!) in the middle. I think sixth grade is way too young for the boyfriend/dating thing to figure so prominently in the stories, but it’s more and more of a theme in middle grade fiction. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but eleven and twelve year olds are too young to have boyfriends and dates and jealousy over boys and breaking up and going steady. If it’s happening anyway in sixth grade, we need to discourage, not encourage, it.
Aside from the boyfriend/girlfriend nonsense, these are readable and serviceable, not for my library, but you may get better mileage than I did.
Our friend Anthony Sacramone has mostly “gone dark” on the World Wide Woof these days, but occasionally he pops up to trouble our peace. I was directed to this article which appeared at The Federalist today. In it he describes the Gregorian calendar reforms, in terms sometimes reminiscent of his glory days at “Dr. Luther at the Movies”:
Many people thought their lives were being shortened by 10 days and started doubling up on their retirement contributions. The pious worried that saints might not listen to prayers that came 10 days “later” than the traditional saints’ days (saints being a petulant and petty bunch). Everyone’s birthday moved to a calendar date 10 days later, ruining party plans like nobody’s business. Rents, interest, and wages had to be recalculated for a month that had a mere 21 days. Boy, people were stupid back then.
The stalwart Prots in Britain and the Colonies held out for the old ways until 1752, at which point everyone woke up 10 days late for work. And those dentist appointments it took so long to book? Well, these are Brits. What dentist appointments?
Forgive me, father, for I have punned.
Jared Wilson is a pastor-author who is focused on the gospel in ways the church may neglect. “You find a church’s idols by changing things,” he says in the interview below.
When I reread “Caterpillars”, for the first time in four decades, I very quickly regretted that I had chosen to do so at night. Gatiss, in his introduction, says that it is “perhaps a ghost story like no other”, and he’s not wrong: it’s the kind of story that leaves one feeling almost unclean, checking clothes and body for vermin.
(via Prufrock News)
Rise of the Ragged Clover is the third, and I assume final, book in the Luck Uglies series. It’s been a good story from the beginning. Riley (Rye) O’Chanter and her family and friends fight against unnumbered foes, including the corrupt Earl Morningwig Longchance and his family, a multitude of Bog Noblins, the treacherous Fork-Tongue Charmers, and in this new book, Shriek Reavers and a River Wyvern. In an uneasy coalition with the Luck Uglies, outlaws who protect the town of Drowning, sometimes, Rye and her friends try to protect the weak and the innocent, but end up in dangerous and morally ambiguous situations over and over again until the final climax of the story has Rye face an impossible choice: let the Bog Noblins destroy Drowning or drown the town in a flood that might kill everyone anyway.
I really did like the story, but the moral ambiguity and ends-justify-the-means reasoning was too much for my sensibilities, which have admittedly been scarred by this election season. However, these are some of the nuggets of “wisdom” that Rye’s father drops, and I just couldn’t help applying them to our own national leadership crisis. This kind of advice (moral relativism) has led us to where we are now.
“Sometimes only the bad guys can save you. Sometimes it takes a villain to save you from the monsters.”
I can’t help it. I’m reading: “Sometimes we have to vote for the lesser of two evils. Sometimes only a strong, bad, guy is strong enough to shake things up and save us from a really evil and worse fate.” Consequentialism, blech.
” . . . a leader’s choices are sometimes impossible ones. The right decision may not be the best, and the best decision can be both right and wrong. So a real hero can only follow her heart.”
And what if “her heart” leads her to justify the killing of unwanted babies or what if “his heart” says he must kiss every girl he is attracted to? What if the hero’s heart is desperately wicked and deceptive?
“That magic, your unique abilities, they’re already within each of you. All you needed was something to believe in. And sometimes it’s easier to believe in a charm or a totem than it is to believe in ourselves.”
Again with the believe in yourself/follow your heart Disney-esque advice. And if you find it difficult to believe that you are a god and your heart is always right, make yourself a harmless little idol to convince you of your own omnipotence.
Finally in the end, Rye makes the right decision about her future, but again it’s just based on her feelings. She doesn’t feel like becoming a tough outlaw chieftain in order to bring about good for the town, the Luck Uglies, and her friends:
“I don’t want to use fear as a weapon and struggle for power. I don’t want to be the one to lead the Luck Uglies out of the dark if it means I must first step into the shadows myself.”
But the contorted, murky, and turgid moral reasoning that comes before that fine declaration is not what I needed to read in this contorted, murky, and turgid swamp of a political season. And the story itself is morally ambiguous, wth the bad guys sometimes seemingly not so bad, or least there’s always something badd-er for the villains to fight against and thereby become somewhat redeemable. I needed clear, bright lines between good and evil, lucid and rational ethical thought, and a real hero who trusts in some standard besides her own heart. I tend to believe that we all need those things, especially kids, especially now.
Maybe the timing was wrong for me to read this book. Maybe (probably) I’m loading way too much baggage onto a middle grade fantasy novel. If you enjoyed the first two books in the series, you’ll probably like this one, too. I would suggest that you read the three books in the trilogy in order. There are a lot of characters and creatures to keep straight, and I don’t think jumping into the middle (or the last third) of the story will work well for this one.
My review of the first two book in the Luck Uglies series (in which I was bothered by the moral ambiguity of the novels).
I have been amazed at the number of evangelicals who’ve been insisting lately that “moral values” have no place in considering who to vote for in this election. Aside from the fact that I don’t believe they even believe that—most will quickly move on to listing the moral disqualifications of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton—it’s an incredibly distressing and frustrating thing to hear. But it should be no surprise given the rate at which American evangelicals have learned to compartmentalize their “personal faith” from their vocations and public life while at the same time engaging a syncretism of their worship of God with their other objects of worship. (I talk a little more about this here.)
But we also see the effect of this compartmentalization in the way evangelicals have come to mimic the snarky “street smarts” of the conservative pundits, not all of them believers themselves. Greedy, lustful, predatory businessmen gain our support because “that’s just the way the world works.” “You’ve got to pick your poison.” “The world isn’t black and white.” “What other choice do we have than picking the lesser of two evils?” Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.
Well, I call shenanigans on all that. The space-time economy of the kingdom of God is the way the world really is — at least, it is the way the world is really meant to work under God’s sovereignty, and Christians are not at liberty to pretend their true citizenship is not there when the ways of the kingdom don’t seem immediately practical, convenient, gratifying, or otherwise successful. We are called to walk by faith, not by sight. And this means that Christians—assuming they really have received reborn hearts, transformed minds, and crucified flesh—trust that Jesus knows best about the way the world “really is.”
Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived. We have to get that through our thick skulls if we want to make a hill of beans difference for the kingdom in this world. So often we think of Jesus as spiritual in a way disconnected from reality. Jesus is religiously idealistic, we reason, but not (as they say) “street smart.” Jesus knows how things ought to be, but he’s not so incisive on how things really are. Jesus is a good teacher, but in the popular imagination pretty much a naïve one. Dallas Willard explains:
The world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness . . . And today any attempt to combine spirituality or moral purity with great intelligence causes widespread pangs of “cognitive dissonance.” Mother Teresa, no more than Jesus, is thought of as smart—nice, of course, but not really smart. “Smart” means good at managing how life “really” is . . .
— Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 1998), 135.
The reality is that Jesus knows exactly how things really are, and in fact knows how things really are better than anybody else. We may look over the ethos of the Sermon on the Mount and find the whole thing utterly impractical toward getting ahead in the world—or even toward winning elections—but one of the underlying points of the Sermon is that getting ahead in the world is a losing gambit to begin with. We come to Jesus’s teaching looking for tips on playing checkers, when all along he is playing chess.
There is good reason for this. As God, Jesus is omniscient. He knows everything. In Mark 1:22 we read, “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The sort of authority Jesus is wowing them with here is not the kind simply accumulated through years of study. Jesus taught with the kind of authority that suggested he had mastered the material, that he was in fact the material world’s very master. His authority comes not from education but from authorship. “He told me all that I ever did,” the Samaritan woman declares (John 4:39). Yes, sister, because he foreknew it all, declared it all, and saw it all.
It makes total sense, then—real, actual, logical sense—to believe Jesus. He is no fool who believes the man who knows everything. And he is no fool who refrains from worldly wisdom even when other Christians cannot see the advantage of it.
(A portion of this post is a slightly edited excerpt from The Storytelling God.)
Politics as usual. Patrick Kennedy is in the hot seat for underhanded deals. For more details click here to read a Town Hall article.
Here are some new books added to my private subscription library, Meriadoc Homeschool Library:
Adventures of Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman. An I Can Read book. This book includes three Morris the Moose books: Morris the Moose, Morris Goes to School, and Morris and Boris at the Circus. For some reason, maybe because Morris’s friend is named Boris or because the illustrations are kind of goofy and cartoonish, this series always reminds me of the old cartoon of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I’m going to have to get those out and watch sometime. In the meantime early readers should enjoy the antics of Morris the Moose and Boris the Bear.
Veronica on Petunia’s Farm by Roger Duvoisin. More of my favorite animal picture book characters. Veronica the Hippopotamus visits Mr. Pumpkin’s farm where Petunia the Goose and her friends give her a not-so-warm welcome.
Geraldine Belinda by Marguerite Henry. This picture book/easy reader by Ms. Henry, the author of all those horse book including King of the Wind and Misty of Chincoteague, is not about horses, but rather about a little with twenty-five whole pennies to spend. Published in 1942, the adventures of Geraldine Belinda Marybel Scott include a trip to the store all on her own, an adventure in acquisition and loss, and a resolution that teaches a lesson. One of Geraldine’s purchases is a little “colored doll”, cute as can be, but if the appellation “colored” bothers you, you should discuss with your young reader or listener.
Dan Frontier Goes Exploring by William Hurley. Dan Frontier stars in a series of books for young readers. This one is about second grade reading level. In it, our hero fights with the Indians and rescues a kidnapped girl, White Dove, from them. If that’s problematic, find another series, but this one is well-loved, especially with boys.
The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis. Michael’s great-great aunt Dew is a hundred years old, and she has a penny in her box for every single year of her life. Michael’s mother wants to throw away the old broken box and buy a new container for the pennies, but Michael and Aunt Dew are horrified by the idea. Newbery Honor book.
If You Lived in Colonial Times by Ann McGovern. Answers to a series of questions about colonial America, such as: Where did people buy their clothes? What did people eat? What did people do on Sunday? How did people get the news? Where did people take baths? What games did boys like? What did girls like to do?
If Your Name Was Changed at Ellis Island by Ellen Levine. Another question and answer history book, this time about immigrants through Ellis Island in 1892 and following. “Why did people come to America? How long would the ocean trip take? How did people learn English? What was the Staircase of Separation?”
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, adapted by Clarissa Hutton. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. I had to get this one because I love Brett Helquist’s pictures. And I think middle grade readers could enjoy an abridged version of The Three Musketeers. It’s one of my favorite adventure stories. Did you know that this book opens in the year 1625? It’s contemporary with the Pilgrims!
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. My copy of this wonder-filled Newbery classic disappeared somehow, so I was happy to find another one.
The Willow Whistle by Cornelia Meigs. About Mary Anne, a girl growing up on a frontier trading post, her friend Eric, a Norwegian immigrant who teaches her make a willow whistle, and their friend Gray Eagle, who becomes their mentor and rescuer. Some people won’t like the portrayal of Native Americans in this book, superstitious and quick to take offense, but I thought it was good story by a talented author.
Big thanks to Nashville artist Wayne Brezinka, whose fantastic cover for my Crossway book The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World has won an ECPA Top Shelf award for cover design.
The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association presents the ECPA Top Shelf Award to promote and recognize outstanding book cover design in the Christian publishing industry.
Top Shelf covers were announced and celebrated at ECPA’s annual PUBu.
The program focuses on the following DESIGN merits:
appropriateness for the market
level of conceptual thinking
quality of the execution
Covers are judged by three top designers in the industry.
Go here to see the other winners.
In these cases, you should definitely judge the books by the covers!
I am grateful for gifted artists who use their talents in service of the kingdom and in support of writing that seeks to exalt the glory of God in Christ above all. Congratulations, Wayne! And thanks for a great work of art.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance . . .
— 1 Corinthians 15:1-3
To be gospel-centered is to be Christ-centered. But as it pertains to the pursuit of holiness and obedience to God’s commands we may opt more often for the terminology “gospel-centered,” because without more qualifications, “Christ-centered obedience” can be misconstrued to imply simply taking Jesus as a moral example.
Jesus is our moral example, of course, but the power for enduring, joyful obedience comes not from trying to be like him, but in first believing that he has become like us, that he has died in our place, risen as our resurrection firstfruits, ascended to intercede for us, and seated to signal the finished work of our salvation.
Christ-centeredness properly qualified is truer than true. But many unbelievers have accepted (some of) Jesus’ teaching as the center of their self-salvation projects. Gospel-centeredness, however, tells us in shorter fashion what of Christ to center on: namely, his finished but eternally powerful atoning work.
Christ’s work is not all of Christ, but it is the doorway to all of him.
[T]he simple focus of my life is to be like Christ. That is why I must let the word about Christ dwell in me richly, as Colossians 3:16 says. That is why I must gaze at the glory of Christ, 2 Corinthians 3:18, so that I can be changed into his image. That is why Christ must be fully formed in me, Galatians 4:19. That is why if I say I abide in Him I must walk the way He walked, 1 John 2. I’m to be like Christ. This is the goal of my life.
So the goal of my life as a Christian is outside of me, it is not in me, it is outside of me, it is beyond me. I am not preoccupied with myself, I am preoccupied with becoming like Christ. And that is something that only the Holy Spirit can do as I focus on Christ. I focus on Him and the Spirit transforms me into His image.
— John MacArthur, Fleeing From Enemies [emph. added]
A commenter in the previous post asked this:
If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and if we don’t then we are also failing the first greatest commandment to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, and strength, then does that not mean that we are to choose to do the greatest good for our neighbor?
I think this is a great question, and since the gentleman leaving it is suggesting the most loving vote would be the one cast for Donald Trump, I thought I’d process through my response in a standalone post as a follow-up of sorts to the last.
This is a valid concern. We definitely should think of how our votes (or non-votes) affect our neighbors. As Christians, we ought to think how our postures toward politics and the electoral process demonstrate love for our neighbor.
Like this commenter, you the reader undoubtedly know that a religious leader once asked Jesus the deceptively complex question, “Who is my neighbor?” The response from Jesus, even though a story (Luke 10:30-37), is rather instructive. If we can apply it to our political situation today—and I agree with this commenter’s implication that we can—I would reason through it in relation to Trump’s candidacy like so:
- Donald Trump has consistently and unrepentantly accepted endorsement from white nationalist groups and echoed the rhetoric of white supremacist voices. This has given many non-white Americans a lot of valid cause for concern. Indeed, many of the black, Latino, and Asian voices I listen to have expressed some frustration that it took profane sexual words to prompt public outcry from some evangelical leaders, as if the constant race-baiting from Trump—which is not new but a consistent pattern over many years—is no big deal. If I support Trump, then, I tell my non-white neighbors that their concerns about dignity and racial justice are “no big deal” to me. Ergo, voting for Trump wouldn’t be loving to them.
- Donald Trump has said multiple incendiary things about both American and foreign Muslims, as well as refugees and immigrants. I have my own concerns about Islamic terrorism and insecure borders, and I believe these concerns can be valid, yet the lines of religious discrimination, racial hatred, and rejection of the alien and stranger are constantly getting crossed in Trump’s rhetoric, all of which violates biblical commands. If I support Trump, then, I support discrimination against my Muslim neighbors. If I support Trump, I by proxy support rejection of the foreigner seeking exile from persecution and pestilence.
- Donald Trump has said for many years now, including well into this campaign season, many disgusting, profane, abusive, and misogynistic things about women. I cannot repeat many of them. He brags about his affairs, he supports and invests in pornography, he boasts about sexual assault, he frequently comments on women’s looks and biological functions. If I support Trump, then, I fail to show love for my female neighbors. In fact, if I support Trump, I support the very ethos that fuels the abortion epidemic in the first place and fail to show love to the most vulnerable among us, including the poor, victims of sex trafficking, and of course, the absolutely most vulnerable among us—unborn children. (Incidentally, this also means I can’t vote for an explicitly pro-choice candidate, like Hillary Clinton for instance.)
- Donald Trump joked with Howard Stern that his cut-off age for sexual partners was probably 12 and that he would sleep with his daughter if he weren’t her father. He told Stern that it was okay to call his daughter “a piece of ***.” Joking about pedophilia and incest demonstrates just about the worst kind of character, just shy of actually engaging in these perversions. If I support Trump, then, I support the kind of character that finds the worst depravity imaginable humorous, and I fail to love victims of childhood sexual abuse and incest because I’m saying to them that their trauma is “just words,” just macho joking around.
- Donald Trump finds little support with younger evangelicals, particularly of the gospel-centered variety, a subset of whom have read and supported my work and have, for better or worse, indicated they have profited from my ministry. I have acquired this support through a consistent message of gospel-centrality that has worked itself out, in part, by rejecting pragmatic morality and political idolatry. To sell out that message now would be to sell out those who have encouraged me and supported me up to this point and to betray them with a philosophical 180 that reveals I was “just talk” all along. I fail to love gospel-centered Millennials if I support Trump, because I squander their good will and tell them their support for me was in vain. Further, I risk disillusioning them about the church and confirm for them their suspicions that older evangelicals care more for political power and influence than missional faithfulness from the margins.
So when I put all that together, I’ve got to come away with these two questions:
1. “If I vote for Trump, am I loving my neighbor?”
2. “Who is my neighbor?”
Well, to answer the first one in light of the second, from my perspective, if I were to vote for Trump, I would indeed be loving my neighbor—that is, if my neighbor were a middle-aged white Christian man.
Voting for Trump might be loving my neighbor—if my neighbor looked just like me. But I think that’s the very definition Jesus meant to rebuke the legalist for.
And I think there’s a reason Jesus made the heretic (the Samaritan) not a victim in the story, but the hero. And I further think there’s a reason why God calls us to seek not our own good, defining our neighbor by our own self-interest (Luke 10:29), but to find our good in the good of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).
But I say to you, “Love your enemies”
— Matthew 5:44
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
— Romans 13:10
Or, to put it another way, “Do the ends justify the means?”
Or, to put it in more biblical terms, “Should we compromise what we know is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise if we think the result may be something good?”
Or, to be more specific, “Should we support a morally repugnant and unqualified person if we suspect some good may result from it?”
What is a Christian to do if casting a particular vote requires not just holding one’s nose but also closing one’s ears and covering one’s eyes and hurting one’s sisters and further fracturing relationships between races and violating other principles of Scripture related to keeping counsel of fools or hating our enemies? There are Supreme Court justices at stake, after all.
Perhaps there are better things than winning. Like an appeal to a good conscience before God (1 Pet. 3:21).
God used King David, an adulterer. (And, if we’re factoring in one’s views of abortion, also a murderer, by the way.) This is undoubtedly true. But the reality that God can use anybody and anything is not itself a commendation of endorsing anybody and anything. Biblically speaking, the truth is that the ends do not justify the means.
Let’s think about how the whole king of Israel thing happened. The people of God demanded a king (1 Samuel 8). A political messiah. Someone to solve their problems and mete out justice. Why did they do this? Fear, mainly. Envy of other nations, also. God gave them what they wanted. He can use anybody. But he makes it clear that this desire is not godly. It’s not always a good thing when God “gives us what we want.” It’s not always a good thing to get what we want, even if our motives are sincere. No, it’s never a good thing to compromise godliness and cast our lots with evil even if we suspect something good may result. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to us is for God to give us what we want. “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
Evangelicals—ok, let’s be more specific: “old guard,” mostly white evangelicals—stand at a great precipice. They see the kingdoms of the world and they are afraid. They fear losing power. They fear losing control. They fear for their children’s safety and the future of their nation. They mostly desire something good. And here stands someone evil promising it to them. Just bow down a little bit. It’s not the end of the world. Everybody makes compromises. God can use anything.
God is sovereign over all. He appoints kings and princes. He rules over the rise of nations. And also the falls. God is even sovereign over the Devil! He is sovereign over the installation of wicked rulers. But he usually allows this to bring judgment, not peace.
Or maybe the position is not so grand. Maybe it’s humble, and we are just tired and hungry. We are starving for something good. In our anxious and famished state, the soup seems more immediately gratifying than the birthright.
In Romans 3:8, Paul addresses an accusation against him: “And why not do evil that good may come?” He calls this slander. And he says it leads to condemnation. Why? Not simply because it offends him. But because it offends the gospel and its divine Author.
If we truly trusted the sovereign Lord of all who can use anything, we would abstain from the endorsement of the morally disqualified—no matter their political party and no matter their promises—because God can use a non-vote as easily as a held-nose vote. And which, in fact, would display greater faith? I mean, if we’re using the Bible as our guide, does it appear to be a pattern that the Lord prefers to use the strong and the mighty and the big to accomplish his plans? Or does it seem like he seems to specialize in the people who can’t win?
Given the choice between a vote for a qualified underdog or a conscientious objection and a vote for the kind of leader the Bible calls wicked, which shows a greater faith? Which act of faith would display the clean hands without which no one can see the Lord?
The ends do not justify the means. And in our current quagmire, the ends are not even assured. They are barely even promised. They are more accurately held out as blackmail, as leverage.
Perhaps siding with an evil and hoping for the good is not our only option. Perhaps there is a third way. Maybe it’s siding with the good and trusting God’s best.
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones.
— Proverbs 3:5-8
I believe what we need in our day is not to presume the ineffectiveness of the Holy Spirit working through the preached Word but to repent of our decades of pragmatic methodology and materialist theology and to reclaim the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of salvation for anybody, anywhere, any time. The United States desperately needs churches re-committed to the weird, counter-cultural supernaturality of biblical Christianity. And this means a re-commitment to rely on the gospel as our only power.
Creativity and intelligence can certainly adorn the gospel of grace, but there is no amount of creativity and intelligence that can waken a dead soul. Only the foolishness of the gospel can do that (1 Cor. 1:18). Not even sacrificial good works and biblical social justice can wake a dead soul, for the law has no power to raise in and of itself. Only the foolishness of the gospel can do that. And it is a shame that there are an increasing number of churches(!) that are blanching at the foolishness of the gospel these days. But Paul knows that the hope of the church and the world is the alien righteousness of Christ announced in that scandalous historical headline. “For Christ did not send me to preach the gospel with words of eloquent wisdom,” he says, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Paul knows that too often our creativity and intelligence don’t adorn the gospel, but obscure it. In some church environments, even though unwittingly, they replace it. But the apostle encourages us not to be ashamed—intentionally or even unintentionally —of the gospel, for it is the only power of salvation we’ve been stewarded. There. is. nothing. else. “I have resolved to know nothing among you except for Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
I know some reckon that steady gospel preaching and revival prayer do not amount to much compared to human ingenuity and industriousness. But the Holy Spirit can do much more than we think or ask. Let’s not run ahead of him. Let this, from Maurice Roberts’s sermon “Prayer for Revival,” be our prayer as well:
It is to our shame that we have imbibed too much of this world’s materialism and unbelief. What do we need more than to meditate on the precious covenant promises of Holy Scripture until our souls have drunk deeply into the spirit of a biblical supernaturalism? What could be more profitable than to eat and drink of heaven’s biblical nourishment till our souls become vibrant with the age-old prayer for revival, and till we find grace to plead our suit acceptably at the throne of grace?
The Lord has encouraged us to hope in him still. O that he would teach us to give him no rest day or night till he rain righteousness upon us!
Pack a lunch.
By now, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the firestorm resulting from NorthPoint Church pastor Andy Stanley’s teaching on the Bible and its suitability for (initial) apologetic/evangelistic engagement, most notably found in his recent teaching series but also in a conversation with Russell Moore at the most recent ERLC conference. He has been called everything from a liberal to a heretic, and not all of the criticism has reflected biblical wisdom and charity. Two of the better critical offerings came from Southern Seminary’s David Prince and Midwestern Seminary’s Rustin Umstattd. (There are many more. Google is your friend.)
Stanley has formally issued a response to the responses at Outreach Magazine. It’s this latter statement I want to spend some time interacting with, as I think his previous statements have been well-parsed and I find that—even after this attempted rebuttal and clarification—there are some glaring problems with Pastor Stanley’s approach to the Scriptures that not many are addressing. Certainly he isn’t addressing them himself. I am not certain he is even aware of them. Here, then, are three nagging problems I still have with Stanley’s use of the Bible:
1. Affirming the Bible’s inerrancy is not the same as trusting its sufficiency
I can’t speak for other critics, of course, but I for one never doubted that on paper Stanley would affirm inerrancy. Indeed, in his Outreach comments, he reaffirms his agreement with the Chicago Statement.
So for anyone out there who is still a bit suspicious, I affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Heck, I studied under the man who co-authored the whole thing.
He is referring here, of course, to Norman Geisler, and I found this shared exchange between the two rather telling in a way Stanley probably doesn’t intend:
“Andy,” [Geisler] said, “I understand what you are saying but not everybody does. You need to put something in print so they know you hold to inerrancy.” I assured him I would. But I also assured him the they he referred to wouldn’t change their opinion because I’ve been in this long enough to know my take on inerrancy is not really the issue. He laughed. “I know, but you need to put it in print anyway.”
Stanley is right, I think. Inerrancy isn’t really the issue. At least, formal, theoretical affirmation of inerrancy is not the issue. Sure, one can quibble with his statements appearing to undermine the Old Testament accounts of the Jericho wall, and so on, but he is right that it is not his formal commitments that are problematic—it is the way he applies (or in this case, doesn’t apply) them.
As David Prince recently tweeted, “Affirming inerrancy in principle, while rejecting its sufficiency in practice, is like saying your wife’s perfect while having an affair.” This is exactly right. To put it in parlance Stanley’s tribe may be more inclined to consider: as the apostle James says, “Faith without works is dead.” If you say you have faith, but your deeds do not show faithfulness, your faith is under question. Further, affirmation of inerrancy without the practical application of sufficiency is dead. If you believe the Scriptures are totally reliable, why would you obscure them?
Further—and this is by far the biggest error of the entire attractional church enterprise—this approach to teaching/preaching presumes that the Bible is not living and active, that the gospel is not power, that the book is in fact kind of an old, crusty thing that really should be saved for after people have been softened up by our logic and understanding. In other words, Stanley believes the Bible needs our help, that his words are more effective than the Bible’s at reaching lost people. Which is just a way of saying that God’s Word isn’t good enough. A formal affirmation of inerrancy with a practical denial of sufficiency is actually an informal denial of inerrancy.
2. Sharing the gospel necessarily entails leaning on the gospel’s power.
I would be shocked if Stanley believed that anybody was ever argued into the kingdom. Surely he would agree that the best apologetic arguments and logical explanations have never been able to do what the good news of Christ’s finished work can do. Which is what makes it even more fascinating to read Stanley (and others) bending over backwards to explain that the Bible needs to come later in an evangelistic conversation. I can’t speak for all critics, but I agree with Stanley that apologetic/evangelistic conversations can take a variety of forms and begin in a variety of ways. We can ask questions, find common ground with our lost friends, and so on. But there’s never any doubt in my mind that it’s the good news of what Jesus has done that actually saves people. So it’s increasingly strange to hear people whose entire model of “doing church” is built around reaching the lost continually relegating the news of the gospel to codas at the end of sermons or only for special services altogether.
It’s beyond bizarre that in NorthPoint and other churches like it that are predicated on reaching the lost, every week you find not a steady does of gospel but a steady dose of how-to’s (law, basically) that not only can’t save anyone, but can’t even be carried out in a way that honors God unless and until someone’s heart is captured by the gospel.
Stanley spends many paragraphs hand-wringing over the new post-Christian era in America—a phenomenon, I’d argue, his mode of evangelicalism has been highly influential in producing—attempting to lay the case that his approach to preaching and ecclesiology is best-suited for turning the spiritual tide. Here is one statement from this excursus:
I’m not sitting around praying for revival. . . . I grew up in the pray for revival culture. It’s a cover for a church’s unwillingness to make changes conducive to real revival.
Well, it can be. But “not sitting around praying for revival”—apart from being a strawman—can also be a cover for a church’s embrace of pragmatism. Stanley goes on to say this:
Appealing to post-Christian people on the basis of the authority of Scripture has essentially the same effect as a Muslim imam appealing to you on the basis of the authority of the Quran. You may or may not already know what it says. But it doesn’t matter. The Quran doesn’t carry any weight with you. You don’t view the Quran as authoritative.
This is really important. Don’t miss what Stanley is unintentionally revealing here. He is saying that the Bible has the same effect on the lost as the Quran. There is zero room here for the actual reality of the Bible as God’s living Word. There is zero room here for the supernatural reality that the Bible carries a weight with lost people they don’t often expect it to! But this inadvertent nod to materialism and pragmatism is certainly expected from those with a proven track record of treating the Bible like an instruction manual rather than as the record of the very breath of God. If we truly believed the Bible was the very word of God, inspired by the Spirit and still cutting through to the quick, dividing joint and marrow, we wouldn’t for a second save it for special occasions. And we certainly wouldn’t equate its potential effectiveness with the Quran’s.
I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people behind the Scripture. To be clear, I don’t believe “the Bible says,” “Scripture teaches,” and “the Word of God commands” are incorrect approaches. But they are ineffective approaches for post-Christian people.
This is a big assumption that places Scripture under the authority of “what lost people want.” Certainly Jesus and Paul did not find that “according to the Scriptures” lessened the effectiveness of God’s word for pre-Christian people. I’m not sure why we should expect God’s Word would be less effective for post-Christian people unless we believe the Holy Spirit is at some great disadvantage because people are smarter than they used to be or something.
Stanley’s approach puts the post-Christian in the driver’s seat; they are the ones with the authority, really. This doesn’t mean our preaching shouldn’t address questions and objections skeptics and doubters have. It simply means you don’t let the questions move you off reliance on the gospel’s power. (Tim Keller’s preaching is a good example of that which is undeniably gospel-rich and yet directly applicable to key concerns and challenges lost folks have.)
Later in the Outreach piece, Stanley cites Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 as a defense of using anything to reach people. But this of course is not what Paul says. He says “all possible means.” The hitch here is on what one deems possible. If we take what else Paul has said about sharing the gospel, it is quite difficult to conclude, as Stanley appears to do, that “anything goes.” This is a standard line in the attractional movement: “We’ll do anything to reach people for Jesus”—anything, it appears, but rely on the sufficiency of the Word of God.
No, when Paul says “all possible means,” he is speaking to his personal adaptability, not the gospel’s. In any event, I am not sure what point Stanley is trying to drive here, as I don’t know anybody who would deny the appropriateness of missional adaptability and contextualization. To me, this is another example of Stanley showing little understanding of his critic’s actual concerns or their own methods. Our concern is not about missional contextualization but about the place of the Word of God in the mission, and the place of God in the church (which I’ll get to in a minute).
If I may reiterate here an agreement I have with Andy Stanley (and nearly every other attractional church leader): we want lost people to know Jesus! We want the unsaved to be saved! We agree on this. And we also want to employ whatever is actually the most effective means of accomplishing this.
Stanley earlier said, simultaneously offensively and defensively, which is a neat trick:
Close to half our population does not view the Bible as authoritative either. If you’re trying to reach people with an undergraduate degree or greater, over half your target audience will not be moved by the Bible says, the Bible teaches, God’s Word is clear or anything along those lines. If that’s the approach to preaching and teaching you grew up with and are most comfortable with, you’re no doubt having a good ol’ throw-down debate with me in your head about now—a debate I’m sure you’re winning. But before you chapter and verse me against the wall and put me in a sovereignty-of-God headlock, would you stop and ask yourself a question: Why does this bother me so much? Why does this bother me so much—really?
Well, he’s just said we can’t use the Bible to argue that the Bible’s authority (sufficiency and potency) are “good enough,” so that’s convenient. He doesn’t want to hear “chapter and verse.” So that’s telling. But I’ll start with this: I did not grow up with the kind of gospel-centered expository preaching Stanley is denigrating here. In fact, I pretty much grew up in the kind of teaching Stanley has been part of pioneering. I was trained to preach and minister actually in the very model he’s espousing. I ate, slept, breathed this stuff and 15 years ago would have been right there alongside him saying everything he is saying. What I’ve discovered, actually, is that, contrary to Stanley’s approach to Scripture, the Bible’s words are powerful. They don’t need my help. And if we will proclaim Christ from the Bible clearly, passionately, and copiously, it will actually have the effect we all agree we want—people being saved by Jesus and growing in their walk with him.
I also submit that it is quite fascinating to discover that you will hear more good news in one of these “traditional”* churches doing gospel-centered expository preaching than you will in the attractional “5 steps to be a better whatever” churches every Sunday. I mean, let’s suppose we actually care about lost people hearing lots of good news. This leads me to my final critique here:
3. Reducing the Bible in or removing the Bible from your worship service is how you show you don’t know, biblically speaking, what a worship service is.
If I may speak to another issue I believe central to the more recent debate about the sufficiency and reliability of the Bible in worship gatherings and in evangelism and apologetic conversations with unbelievers: I think if we trace back some of these applicational missteps to the core philosophy driving them, we find in the attractional church a few misunderstandings. The whole enterprise has begun with a wrong idea of what — biblically speaking — the worship gathering is, and even what the church is.
In some of these churches where it is difficult to find the Scriptures preached clearly and faithfully as if it is reliable and authoritative and transformative as the very word of God, we find that things have effectively been turned upside down. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word “outsider” to describe unbelievers who are present in the worship gathering. He is making the case for our worship services to be intelligible, hospitable, and mindful of the unbelievers present, but his very use of the word “outsider” tells us that the Lord’s Day worship gathering is not meant to be primarily focused on the unbelieving visitor but on the believing saints gathered to exalt their king. In the attractional church paradigm, this biblical understanding of the worship gathering is turned upside down—and consequently mission and evangelism are actually inverted, because Christ’s command to the church to “Go and tell” has been replaced by “Come and see.”
Many of these churches—philosophically—operate more like parachurches. And the result is this: it is the sheep, the very lambs of God, who basically become the outsiders.
This is by design in the attractional church. In an exchange on Twitter with a NorthPoint attendee a few weeks ago, he was making the case for treating the worship gathering like an evangelistic conversation with the lost and said to me, “Imagine you are in a coffee shop with an unbeliever…” I said to him (basically), “I don’t have to imagine that. I’ve been in that coffee shop and other places like it numerous times.” The point we agree on is that evangelistic conversations in coffee shops (or wherever) don’t need to sound like sermons. But it’s also this: the gathering of the saints for worship doesn’t need to sound like a coffee shop conversation with a lost person. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the worship service is. And of course this misunderstanding only breeds more errant practices, like the idea that you can conduct a worship gathering (or two or three) without any Bible in it. As if our very existence does not center on the power and authority of the Word of God. “Sorry, God, this morning we’re going to be ‘leveraging the power’ of stories.”
Stanley cites the example of Peter preaching to the Gentiles in Cornelius’s home, which in fact is a good example of one of one of those coffee shop-type evangelistic conversations. But it’s not a worship gathering. But in his example, Stanley still fudges a bit. He uses this exchange as proof that Peter does not appeal to the Bible’s authority, but in fact he does, just not in those words. You only need to look at the cross-references for Acts 10:34-43 to see how much Bible is present in Peter’s evangelistic presentation, and of course there aren’t much clearer demonstrations of “thus saith the Lord” than the synonymous “All the prophets bear witness” in 10:43.
Of this line (in v. 43), Stanley says, “It reads as almost an afterthought.” We’ll have to agree to disagree on that.
In any event, I note two things: Peter is not not relying on the Scriptures in his exchange, but this exchange is not an example of a Lord’s Day gathering of the church. There is not really a biblical precedent for turning the gathering of believers into a “seeker service.” (I know, because I used to think there was and I looked.)
In his last example, Stanley cites Paul’s preaching in the Areopagus. It’s a powerful scene, of course, but, again—it’s not a worship service.
Look, if all Stanley is saying that the phrase “the Bible says so” is unnecessary and sometimes unhelpful: okay. But I think he’s saying more than that. I think he’s saying that, effectively, we have biblical precedent for turning a worship service without a Bible into a gospel presentation without a gospel. And I think he’s wrong.
In his Outreach article Stanley subtly suggests that his critics don’t actually know any “post-Christians.” This is another standard self-defensive response, sort of the new “I like my way of evangelizing better than your way of not evangelizing.” Or a new take on the strawman about Calvinists, that they don’t evangelize. But it’s lame. And out of touch. Like Stanley’s strange rant about selfish parents in small churches, it demonstrates no awareness of the gospel-centered movement and its incredible commitment to church planting and multi-faceted approach to missional community. So it’s time to lay down the defensiveness. As Stanley himself notes, the spiritual state of the United States is not great. The number of professing Christians is in decline—even as the number of attractional megachurches increases. Are approaches like Stanley’s the frontlines of actual revival? No. In fact, as they continue to marginalize the Scriptures and treat the gospel like grandma’s wedding china, they are actually part of the problem.
I believe what we need in our day is not to presume the ineffectiveness of the Holy Spirit working through the preached Word but to repent of our decades of pragmatic methodology and materialist theology and to reclaim the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of salvation for anybody, anywhere, any time. The United States desperately needs a church recommitted to the weird, counter-cultural supernaturality of biblical Christianity. And this means a recommitment to rely on the gospel as power.
An Appeal to Andy Stanley and Others Like Him
I’ve been inside this model and was a huge advocate for it. I know what it’s like to feel criticized by “traditional” church people who “don’t get it.” So I also know that for all the innovation and relevancy we espoused, we were also closed-off to considering criticism. My appeal to the attractional church folks is this: set aside the defensiveness and the idea that you’ve got it all figured out, just for a minute. Listen and consider. Don’t write off anybody who objects to your methods as legalistic or pharisaical or stuffy or eggheads or unloving or old-fashioned. Unstop your ears. Consider the possibility that sincere motives don’t baptize bad methods. And don’t be afraid of the question, “What does the Bible say about this?” It is not irrelevant to this debate.
I would like to turn your own challenge back around:
Are you willing to take a long, hard look at everything you’re currently doing…? Are you ready to be a student rather than a critic? We don’t have time for tribes. We don’t have time for the petty disagreements that only those inside our social media circles understand or care about. We’re losing ground. The most counterproductive thing we can do is criticize and refuse to learn from one another. So come on. If you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, that’s all I need to know. And in light of what’s at stake, in light of who is at stake, perhaps that’s all you need to know as well.
I would only offer this: When it comes to bodily resurrections, our Lord quotes in his parable this:
“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” — Luke 16:31
Our worship shows whether we truly accept God’s Word as our authority and submit to it.
— John Calvin
* Stanley and others in the attractional tribe frequently bring up the label “traditional” as a kind of scare-label, a boogeyman to use against their critics, ignoring the fact that the traditional church is really kind of gone already and most of the kinds of churches where criticism for the attractional model might come from run the gamut in worship styles, building aesthetics, and Sunday attire. But it’s easier for attractional leaders to be defensive by dismissing their critics as stuffy pharisaical institutional people.
I was honored to close out the third annual For The Church Conference at Midwestern Seminary this week with a message from John 21 titled “The Pastor as Shepherd” (the fifth of five sessions making up the conference theme, Portraits of a Pastor). Video of my message is embedded below, or you can visit here to see an index of all the messages.
Christian mission has always thrived by surging in the margins and under the radar. When we somehow get into positions of power, the wheels always come off. This is pretty much the way it’s always been. I once heard Steve Brown relate this story on the radio: “A Muslim scholar once said to a Christian, ‘I cannot find anywhere in the Qur’an that it teaches Muslims how to be a minority presence in the world. And I cannot find anywhere in the New Testament where it teaches Christians how to be a majority presence in the world.’”
Indeed, as Christianity spread throughout the first few centuries as a persecuted minority people, the conversion of Constantine paved the way for its becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the end of the fourth century. That’s quite a turnaround for some backwater sect splintering off an oppressed Palestinian Judaism. But as my old religion professor in college, M. B. Jackson, used to say, “When everyone’s a Christian, no one is.” And once Christianity became the official religion, the church lost its prophetic voice and its vibrancy.
Many religions, like Islam for example, seem to thrive on conquest and power. Christianity grows best under hardship. There are more Christians in China today, for instance, where free expression of faith is illegal, than the total population of the United States. Christianity is in decline in America, and Christendom is already in ruins in Europe, but in the East and in Africa, where it is new, a grassroots movement, and/or under persecution, it is spreading like wildfire.
I sometimes wonder if God has set the growth of Christianity to work this way to keep in the forefront of our minds the treasure and glory of heaven over and above the treasure and glory of earth. Jesus sets the tone for Christians’ quiet mission this way:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:1–4)
Unlike other religions, where good works are central to success, Christianity proclaims the glory of Jesus Christ and his work, and the good works of his followers become the beautiful dust stirred up in our following him wherever he goes. Christians are not earning their salvation with their good deeds; they are working it out (Phil. 2:12).
Since Christians believe that the work of salvation is already accomplished by Jesus, and there is nothing left for them to do to contribute to this work, they are now free to unselfconsciously love and serve others without worrying about recognition or reward. They will be vindicated in heaven, even if they are violated here.
Christians are called to good works. This is how people know we are Christians. But they also know we are Christians—and not charitable Buddhists—because we don’t make good works our boast.
(This is an excerpt from Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes it Compelling)
I never set out to “join a movement.” I hadn’t even set out to jump on on a new church strategy bandwagon. I was simply in recovery mode and discovered a larger context that helped make sense of my growing unease with church as it was.
Let me back up.
I learned from Tim Challies that today marks the 10-year anniversary of Collin Hansen‘s landmark Christianity Today article “Young, Restless, Reformed”, which later became a book with the same title. The article featured some now better-known figures in the YRR (or gospel-centered, neo-Reformed, neo-Calvinist, whatchamacalit) camp like John Piper, Josh Harris, Mark Driscoll, et.al. I remember where I was when I first read the article.
Wait- let me back up again.
About twelve years ago I was suffering from the ruins of a life built on private sin and outer falseness. Everything was broken. (I tell most of this story in the last chapter of my book The Prodigal Church.) I was depressed; I was suicidal. I was begging God for some kind of help, any help. And one night the Holy Spirit intervened in a special way, a unique way. I had an experience I have since referred to as gospel wakefulness. I did not get a vision for a new church methodology at a conference; I did not become awakened to Reformed theology. I had come to see God’s grace like oxygen and suddenly realized I’d been suffocating in my current life (and church).
It was this experience that began to create a strong dissonance in my church fellowship. As my wife and I both became more sensitive to the good news of Jesus Christ in our lives, the absence of this good news from our church life became more and more pronounced. We felt like aliens. Everything was so upbeat and peppy — the music was “rockin’,” the creativity was turned to 11, and the messages were inspirational — but we were starving. I had tasted and seen the glory of God in the gospel and was heartbroken to feel like my community was having this withheld from them on a regular basis.
I was still in that church and leading a young adult Bible study one evening at a friend’s home when I looked down at the coffee table to see that issue of CT. The cover had a picture of a guy wearing a Jonathan Edwards T-shirt, which I thought was weird, but the cover story title caught my attention: “Young, Restless, and Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback and shaking up the church.” As I started reading the article, I suddenly felt like my world was opening up. I had been a Calvinist for a while — “converted” in college, actually — so it wasn’t that part that really intrigued me. And a few of the leaders discussed were familiar to me. In fact, the preaching of John Piper and Mark Driscoll had been especially helpful to me during my depression. It wasn’t a new theology or new people to learn from that Collin’s article gave me — it was a feeling of not being alone.
I was in a huge church but felt utterly alone. Nobody saw what I was seeing. Nobody listened to what I was hearing. It was a strange feeling. And while the YRR piece named the tribe, so to speak, for me, it was about not feeling like what I had experienced was isolated. As I said, I hadn’t been looking to join a movement. If anything, I was grateful to discover I might have been a part of one without knowing it! The CT article was a doorway into sensing that the gospel renaissance that God worked in my life and was working in my ministry was actually something he was doing on a larger scale.
And he continues to do it. I confess there have been times where I’ve been exceedingly frustrated with my tribe. I still think we struggle too much with fear of man, especially as it pertains to “celebrity worship,” but I actually think we’re doing better. It’s one of the severe mercies, I suppose, of some rather notable “falls.” I think we’re getting a little grayer. I think we listen better now. I think we have benefited from international expansion and contribution, ethnic minority leaders, and the test-driving of our theology and praxis in local churches and communities, church plants, and in the open marketplace of ideas of the blogosphere and social media.
I also think, ten years later, the younger members of our tribe seem less restless than we did when we started. For all the flack the millennials take in the wider culture, the millennials I meet in the gospel-centered tribe seem more mature, more settled. They love the gospel and the local church and seem less enamored with big names and big ideas than my generation (X) was, as we were still not fully weaned off what the Boomers fed us.
The gospel-centered seminaries are on the increase. The gospel-centered churches continue to multiply. The gospel-centered tribe continues to feast on the gospel, and it can’t help but have grown us up a bit, settled us down a bit, reformed our hearts and minds a bit.
There will always be room to grow. And perhaps, 10 years later, we still don’t know if this is just a fad. I suspect not, but of course, “but by the grace of God” and all that. But we have seen the emerging church emerge into thin air. Their writers and “thought leaders” have joined Glengarry Glen Ross, disappeared into obscurity, or are off surfing with Oprah or whatever. The mainline’s decline continues more swiftly than most. And while professing Christianity in the west is on the decline across the board, a movement built around the gospel still seems wise. And still feels like home.
Semper Reformanda, friends.
And Collin: thank you.
Young(ish), Settled, and Reformed
For those who care about such things, I thought I’d share some of my upcoming speaking dates. If you’re in any of these areas and able to attend, would be great to meet you.
September 26-27, 2016 – For The Church Conference. Kansas City, MO. At the third annual FTC conference — themed Portraits of a Pastor — I am tasked with presenting on “The Pastor as Shepherd.”
October 3-5, 2016 – Spurgeon Fellowship. Western Seminary, Portland, OR. I will be speaking 4 times at this event on the topic of pastoral ministry and the gospel.
November 3-5, 2016 – Doxology & Theology Conference. Louisville, KY. Hosted at Southern Seminary. This year’s D&T Conference is held in honor of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I will be preaching a plenary session on “Faith Alone” and leading a breakout on gospel-centered worship.
November 14-15, 2016 – Acts29 Europe Pastors Conference. Belfast, Ireland. Details still TBA.
January 27-28, 2017 – Ready Conference. Kansas City, MO. I’ll be speaking at this student conference hosted at Midwestern Seminary along with Trip Lee, Owen Strachan, and John Mark Yeats.
“I have loved you,” says the LORD.
But you say, “How have you loved us?”
“Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the LORD of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.'” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!” (Malachi 1:1-5)
There is past tense and then future tense. There is “I have loved you” and there is “Your own eyes shall see . . .”
God through Malachi is addressing a half-hearted, spiritually corrupt covenant community. They have predicated their polluted religion on all that God is not presently doing. They are struggling financially and politically. They are muddling through while their enemies seem to prosper.
And God doesn’t say, “Hey, look around. Everything’s great!” No, he knows that “looking around” is exactly their problem. He beckons them to look back and then to look forward.
This is a great reminder to us about how the gospel empowers us for daily living, even when we are in a bind or a grind. When our world appears to be falling apart, when we can’t see our way out of the predicament or the grief we are in, the gospel bids us look back to what God has done in Christ on the cross and out of the tomb for his own glory and for us. “I have loved you” this says to troubled souls. And then he bids us in the gospel to look forward to the blessed hope of Christ’s glorious return, our gathering together to him, our resurrection, our placement in an eternal wonderland where there are no more problems.
This is the already and the not yet of the gospel. This is the fantastic remembrance of what God has really done in history to save us and the fantastic anticipation of what God will really do in history to save us.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received [past tense], in which you stand [present tense], and by which you are being saved [present-future tense], if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.
— 1 Corinthians 15:1-2
Went on a bit of a Twitter run yesterday with some thoughts on the essential defining characteristics of the church model I call attractional, followed by some constructive alternative hallmarks of gospel-centered churches. Hopefully they will bring more clarity to thinking through the relevant issues in evangelical ecclesiology. These are important times to get this sorted.
Unfortunate hallmarks of the attractional church:
1) Sermons driven by what Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism”
2) Functional ideology of pragmatism. (Not “what’s biblical?” but “what works?”)
3) Truncating of the gospel or relegation of the gospel to background/afterthought
4) Equation of bigness with success, contrary to numerous biblical examples otherwise
5) Treating membership solely or mainly as a means of assimilating volunteers
6) Wide open back door for those needing to be discipled beyond conversion
7) Reduction of the Bible to a source for good quotes
8) Claiming relevance/innovation while insulating from critical challenges to assumptions.
Hallmarks of gospel-centered churches:
1) Trust not just in authority of Scripture but sufficiency of Scripture
2) Sermons that emphasize “It is finished!” over “Get to work!”. Jesus is the star, not a bit player
3) Meaningful membership encompassing whole-life discipleship, pastoral care, and church discipline
4) Emphasis on members as missionaries & emphasizing “go and tell” over “come and see”
5) A total trust in the gospel to be the power of transformation that no amount of inspiration can be
6) Regular commitment to the Lord’s Supper
7) Reliance on robustness of the gospel to apply to the believer, justification & sanctification
8) Church as community of saints, not merely a worship service or resource center for programs
(I’ve expanded on all this stuff and a lot more — and offer some constructive correctives — in The Prodigal Church)
On August 15, 1977, a man named Jerry Ehman came across a radio signal from deep space that confounds scientists to this day. Ehman, a volunteer for SETI — an organization dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — was monitoring the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University. Looking over the printouts of what that Big Ear had been hearing, Ehman could see all the typical background noise of outer space: the standard movements of satellites, the signals emanating from earth refracted off of space debris, and the like. But then something stood out. There was an anomaly. A big one.
6EQUJ5. That was the sequence on the printout indicating a strong, unique signal from outer space. It did not match the background noise. In fact, it looked much like you’d expect a radio signal from an intelligent source to look. It came from the region in the sky where the constellation Sagittarius is found, and its frequency appeared to match the “hydrogen line,” a promising trait for SETI researchers who figured intelligent beings might use the most common element in the universe to broadcast a signal.
Blown away by what he’d discovered, Ehman took a red pen and circled the 6EQUJ5 sequence on the printout, writing “Wow!” off to the side.
Scientists have never found the source of the Wow! signal. They have never heard it again, despite consistently listening in over the years to the same region of space with radio telescopes much more powerful than the Big Ear. They have so far heard nothing like it. And yet the Wow! signal continues to captivate, stirring curiosity and fueling hope that somewhere out there someone is listening to us, that someone is sending out a signal.
Why does the search for extraterrestrial life entertain us so much? Since the earliest days of UFO sightings and the burgeoning genre of science fiction in the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, what itch does yearning for outer space scratch?
One of my favorite movies is Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though overshadowed by Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterwork —- a little movie called E.T. the Extraterrestrial — Close Encounters follows similar themes but on a much larger scale. In E.T., Spielberg uses the science fiction conceit really to speak to the ideas of fatherlessness and family. In Close Encounters, he speaks to man’s universal search for meaning.
As the aliens get closer to revealing themselves to mankind’s official spokespeople in a stunning climatic scene at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, key characters inexplicably find themselves making replicas of the tower or seeing visions of it. Richard Dreyfuss starts with his mashed potatoes at dinner. Eventually he’s pulling up the landscaping to make a minitower in his living room. A little boy shares these compulsions. A scattered group is drawn together by their inner yearning for this extraterrestrial contact. It seems to speak to something missing in their lives, to promise an answer to everything that is unsettled in them.
When the aliens do finally arrive, for these aching souls it is like heaven has finally come to earth. Dreyfuss’s character goes with them in their spaceship to lands unknown.
Of course, for many, many people, interest in science fiction and little green men and rockets to the moon aren’t a reality at all. But I still think the inner human ache for the search for life in outer space is universal. We may seek to satisfy it in different ways, but we’re all really trying to solve two fundamental human problems: loneliness and insignificance.
Deep down, though many do not realize it or admit it, human beings carry a deep-seated need to know and to be known, a need to feel worthy, to be part of something bigger, as if all that is around us is more than it seems. This is a collectively human problem, not just an individual one. We feel lonely as a species, not just as people, otherwise the community offerings all around us would do the trick. And being in community with people is extremely helpful and necessary. But our hearts still yearn for more. This is why we find it so hard sometimes to live with each other.
Humanity also faces the problem of insignificance. Consider how each generation, at least in the United States, identifies so strongly with cultural milestones like WWII or Woodstock. It isn’t simply that we want to be thought great as individuals—though we do—but that we also want to be known as a great people. Tom Brokaw even wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. We identify strongly with our generations, our colleges, our states, and of course our nations. But these collective identities don’t ultimately satisfy either. So what is the last frontier for man to be seen as great, to feel a part of something grand, universal, and important—not just in the world but the universe? Well, outer space, of course.
Volunteers around the world today have set up their computers to take part in a vast SETI network, harnessing their collective strength to provide a great big listening grid aimed at the heavens. Every day these noble souls diligently scan computer screens and paper printouts looking for that next Wow! But what is it, really, that they are looking for?
I think we are all really looking for connection and significance, and we’re all looking for them in ways we can’t quite get a grasp on with the ordinary stuff of earth.
But the good news is that the answer really is out there.
God’s plan to bring lasting, satisfying connection and significance to mankind, to cure the angst for more that we all feel deep inside, to make us feel less like aliens and less like searching for them — is found in this thing the Bible calls grace. Grace is God’s modus operandi in the world. Not everybody gets all the grace God has to give, but everybody who wants it does, and everybody else gets some grace just for being a human creature trying to get by in the world. (Christian theologians call this “common grace.”)
Living our lives driven by appetites, seeking to gain as much pleasure or comfort or power as we can, does not solve the deep need for significance. It might medicate us against it for a while, but it just doesn’t last. Alternatively, living on the religious duty treadmill, trying to earn credit with God through personal righteousness, basically just trying to be “good people,” doesn’t solve our deep need for connection.
But the signal is coming from deep space. It transmits on lots of frequencies, some stronger than others. God is doing something with us. He is meaning something with creation. The message of grace — unmerited favor — hits the universal need with a specific message. And it bids us turn our gaze to the heavens to see God’s impressive strategy for the whole world.
The problem of loneliness and insignificance is actually a lack of glory. The glory of God solves those problems (and a million others besides). It actually cracks the code of human existence and the future of creation. See, God has not been silent. He has declared these realities. He actually tells us what he’s going to do with everything! Like a Wow! signal straight from heaven, Habakkuk 2:14 announces, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
This is God’s endgame for everything. Glory. He wants his glory to fill the earth, to drench it, really, making all the dry places alive again and all the dull places shine again.
This is the secret of the universe. The “thing” that makes sense of everything is the glory of God brought to bear by the grace of God. And God’s modus operandi, his plan to reveal this secret, is the proclamation of the message the Bible calls “the gospel,” the good news that the glorious God has sent the radiance of his glory to restore men who have sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). As Martin Luther says, “For what is the Gospel but a declaring of the glory of God and his works?”
The gospel is the Wow! signal from deep space that changes everything.
(This is an edited excerpt from The Story of Everything: How You, Your Pets, and The Swiss Alps Fit Into God’s Plan for the World)
I wasn’t surprised by the big reaction to my recent post “Top 10 Things I Wish Worship Leaders Would Stop Saying” because I know that the subject is a particular hot button for evangelicals. And while I think too often we inappropriately insulate our preferences/traditions from criticism, I am of course sensitive to the request for a more positive, proactive help. I’ve actually written quite a bit on worship, both online and in print—The Prodigal Church and my Gospel Coalition church resource Gospel Shaped Worship are the most notable examples—but new readers triggered by yesterday’s blog post are not likely to be familiar with that work. I was already planning on writing the list below but decided to hasten its appearing. Here’s to hoping this list reaches the same audience as the last.
I love it when worship leaders . . .
10. Lead more than perform.
I am grateful for talented vocalists and musicians serving as worship leaders, but I’m especially grateful when our leaders don’t treat their position as a showcase for their gifts but as an opportunity to shepherd the flock. I love it when worship leaders choose songs that lend themselves more to congregational singing than band performance and lead in such a way that it’s easier to follow along—appropriate keys and pacing, not over-improvising, following the printed or projected lyrics, and so on. And speaking of shepherding, I love it when you . . .
9. Approach the worship gathering with a pastoral sensibility.
The worship gathering shouldn’t be some bland, un-creative exercise in avoiding anything remotely artistic, but I’m grateful for worship leaders who think primarily about what the flock needs more than what the flock wants—because they are not always the same thing—and seeks to steward the music time and other worship order elements with Christ’s glory at heart and Christ’s church in mind. (And pastors, this is why often the most gifted singers/musicians in your church are not the best candidates for worship leaders.)
8. Let theology drive their decision making.
Too many worship services are driven by a consumeristic or pragmatic ethos. Too many worship leaders (and their pastors and creative teams) over-busy themselves asking, “What else can we do?” as if the worship gathering is a blank artistic slate for creative expression. But as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “You were so busy asking if you could do something, you never bothered to ask if you should.” This is why I’m grateful for worship leaders who know how to evaluate songs for theological soundness, biblical coherence, and doctrinal clarity. And I like it when this commitment to theology is reflected in a fearlessness about old songs and a discriminating taste about new songs. But I also love it when you . . .
7. Think about the service beyond the songs.
And I don’t mean simply videos or whatever. I am grateful for worship leaders who think about the worship order as a whole, who think about the story a worship order tells. Every church has a liturgy, even if they don’t like that word or they’ve never even heard of that word! Your worship elements and their order communicate something about God about his Word and about your church. I love it when it’s clear the worship team hasn’t just busied themselves picking good songs but has also thought about the progression of song content in relation to the different elements of the service (confession, prayers, communion, sermon, and so on) and how all the pieces together point to God in Christ as our hope.
6. Aren’t afraid of silence.
Not every space has to be thick with sound and visuals. I know silence between songs can sound like awkward transitions, but not every square inch of the worship service has to be “produced.” Is that fuzzy synthesizer ambiance in between songs and during prayers there to create a mood? Why? What for? I love it when worship leaders “embrace the real.” One thing my church’s worship leader does—after the sermon has been preached and before he leads us in the closing song—is give us a time to silently reflect on the message. It’s not a long time, but it’s long enough to start to feel awkward to those who are new to the practice. But there’s no ambient music. No vocal prayer. Just silence. You can hear those scattered coughs. Kids whispering. A Bible hitting the floor. The rustling of paper. But mostly just stillness and quiet. In our daily lives we are awash with noise. We are hurry-sick. Even when we’re alone, we’re taking in the “noise” of the internet or something else. I think it’s wonderful to take this into account in our worship services, not feel inclined to mirror the constant noise of the world, and give us some time to hush. It’s good for our souls.
5. Pray for real.
I love it when worship leaders are God-conscious and their prayers sound like they’re actually talking to their Father. Sometimes it is easy for worship leaders to lapse into “stage prayers,” where the prayer is simply filler, a way to introduce the next song, or full of verbal tics that don’t make it sound like the leader is well-versed in prayer outside the worship service (“FatherGod we just love you FatherGod and we just FatherGod just want to just…”). When you “pray naked,” even in your skinny jeans, I am inspired and encouraged to bring my true self before God. I am led to cry out to God myself when it sounds like my worship leader is crying out to God.
4. Prioritize the Word.
Feelings are great. It is unChristian to deny the importance of feelings. But it is unChristian to prioritize (idolize) our feelings. Our life is not to be dictated by our feelings—even spiritual feelings—but by the inspired, infallible Word of God. So I love it when worship leaders choose songs that reflect biblical truths, echo the full-hearted human experience of the Psalms and other biblical texts, and read or recite Scripture in their introductions and transitions. I love it when worship leaders being the gathering not with a rockin’ song to loosen (or wake) everybody up, but with a Scriptural call to worship. This is a reminder that our worship gathering is a response to God’s active work in the world and his specific summoning of us through the gospel of Christ. I also love it when worship leaders remind me that the worship time doesn’t end when the songs do, and that the preaching of the word is both the continuation of—and the apex of—the worship gathering.
3. Lead with serious joy.
I always feel like I’m on a cruise ship or at a cocktail lounge—not that I frequent either one of those places!—when the worship leader is up there constantly cracking jokes and treating his banter like practice for his improv class. You don’t need to treat the service like a funeral, of course, and about the only thing as annoying as a constantly silly worship leader is a constantly humorless one—but I love it when worship leaders capture both the gladness and the gravity of responding to the Lord’s call to worship. So instead of taking on the personas of gameshow host on one hand or “I’d rather be alone in my room with my principles” artiste on the other, I love it when you are both happy in and humbled by the holiness of God.
2. Don’t try to out-preach the preacher.
Okay, this is just a minor point, but I’ve heard this additional critique from enough folks in response to the previous post to know that it’s not just my own “pet peeve.” I love it when worship leaders shepherd the congregation well by introducing songs by giving theological context, praying in transitions, reciting Scripture, and of course using non-singing time for equipping the congregation. But sometimes you guys just talk too much! This is especially notable after a sermon, when a worship leader will sometimes try to re-preach a particular point. The subtext sometimes appears to be “Let me take a crack at this, because the preacher whiffed it.” Worship leader, I love it when you leave the sermon to the preacher (and when the preacher leaves to the songs to you).
1. Point me to the gospel.
This is why I’m there, whether I remember it or not. This is what I need. I need the announcement of the historical work of Christ on the cross and out of the tomb more than I need oxygen! So I’m very, very grateful when your song choice, banter, worship order, and everything else makes it clear that the grace of God given to sinners through Jesus is your reason for being. I love it when you take care not to distract from the gospel, whether by content or creativity. I love it when you take care that your artistic efforts adorn the gospel and don’t obscure it. And I love it when you rehearse the gospel with us. It is the greatest gift you have, and it’s the greatest gift you can share.
For all those who labor faithfully in these things—including many, many friends of mine who serve their churches so well this way, some perhaps in the face of weekly criticism and complaints—I am eternally thankful for you. I love you.
10. Are we ready to have fun this morning?
The answer is, “Probably not.” The truth is, when this is your welcome at the start of the music time, it tells me where your head’s at. Nobody goes to church to have a bad time, of course, and I’m sure plenty of people go to “have fun,” but is this the point of worship? Is “having fun” where you want hearts directed as you lead people to exalt God? No, it’s where you want hearts directed when you’re just trying to “crush your set” or “rock it out for Jesus” [see #5]. “Are we ready to have fun?” is just slightly worse than this next common opener:
9. How’s everybody feeling?
If I wanted to stretch to justify this statement, I could say that what you’re asking the congregation to do is self-reflect on their spiritual condition and present their real, whole selves honestly and submissively to the glory of Christ as you lead them in adoration of him. But my guess is that 9.9 times out of 10 what you’re really trying to do is get people to say, “Woooooooo!”
8. You can do better than that!
Or some other form of nagging about how we’re not singing or participating to your liking. It’s never really on my mind at a church service to think of ways to impress the worship leader. Similarly shaming is:
7. I can’t hear you!
Well, maybe turn the volume down. We can’t hear us either.
6. [Introducing a hymn] Here’s an oldie we dusted off.
Please don’t apologize for leading us in the rare song that is theologically rich and doctrinally solid. Apologize for not leading us in them more often!
5. “Rockin’ worship.”
Please stop. I know you’ve got a good drummer and amps that go to 11, but referring to church music as “rockin'”—or using the phrase “rockin’ it out”—is somewhere in the category of fanny packs and duck-face selfies.
4. Lord, we invite you to be here.
This is the worship leader’s equivalent of “asking Jesus into your heart.” I think I know what the phrase means, but it reveals something about our thinking related to worship. For instance, is it true that God is summoned by our worship? Or is it actually the other way around? He calls us—we then respond in worship. God isn’t a genie and worship isn’t like rubbing a golden lamp. Nor is he a cosmic butler to be summoned. Don’t invite the Lord into a space like he doesn’t already own it and isn’t already there.
3. God showed up.
Again, I think I know what is meant by this phrase. It can be a way of saying “we felt emotionally touched during the music time,” which can be an okay thing—it would be weird for Christians to never feel engaged emotionally in worshiping God—but it can also be a way of equating emotional reactions with God’s presence in an unhelpful way, in a way that inadvertently communicates to people that when they don’t feel good, God must be absent.
2. Let’s give God a hand.
Translation: I would like to hear some applause.
1. Turn to your neighbor and _____________.
There’s really nothing wrong with this approach, but as a socially awkward introvert, this kind of instruction is a huge heaping bowl of panic attack soup.
Related: Top 10 Things I Love That Worship Leaders Do
Today at Midwestern Seminary we are hosting our new student orientation. After the typical lull of summer, it’s great to see the campus bustling again with students new and returning. For those starting college or seminary education, I know it can sometimes be intimidating or overwhelming. And for those who don’t feel a little intimidated or overwhelmed, you may need to prepare yourselves, lest you get caught off-guard by the challenges of your studies and the seminary culture. Maybe the following few words can serve in this regard. Respectfully submitted:
1. Attend and serve in a local church.
Seminary is not a sabbatical from discipleship. If you’re attending school away from home, the temptation can be great to go on ecclesiological autopilot, and the sad fact is that many Bible college students and seminarians do. So while they spend most of their days for two to four years thinking about theology, worship, discipleship, and church ministry, they do so totally disconnected from the only God-designed context for these things. Don’t let your studies be purely theoretical. Biblical studies are bogus without the spiritual formation they are meant to foment.
Join a church and get involved. Serve in the kids or youth ministry or on the tech team or as an usher or greeter or parking lot attendant. Get your armpits sweaty with regular ol’ church work. It’s good for your heart and can help you stay grounded as your studies alone might keep you wrapped up in your own thoughts. Being involved in church community also helps you learn to love people, which, oddly enough, some seminarians need help with. Remember, the Lord has not called us to build empires, plant cool organizations, or strategize missionally apart from a faithful love and care for the sheep. The church is people, not a Big Idea. If feeding sheep is not your primary motivation, your seminary education will be worthless.
2. Spend 10x as much time listening as speaking.
You’re learning a lot. You’ve got a lot of ideas and strategies. Your theology is getting deeper and stronger. And of course you know exactly how to fix the church’s problems. The only problem is you really have no idea what you’re talking about. There will be plenty of time later to fix everybody. Right now, while you’re young and inexperienced, it’s not time to hand out pastoral advice, write gigantic thinkpieces on The State of the American Church, or argue with every Tom, Dick, and Harry about every strand of theological minutiae you can think of. Just sit there, and open your ears. Don’t stop talking. But don’t talk more than you listen. You don’t have all the answers. You aren’t here to “fix” your church, your pastor, your professors, or anybody or anything else.
3. Chase the right things.
Holy ambition is a good thing. It is sometimes great for young Christians to have “stars in their eyes” as it pertains to following Jesus on mission. But too many young seminarians are thinking more about platforms, fame, notoriety, followers, book deals, speaking gigs, and so on than they ought to. Chances are, you shouldn’t be thinking about these things at all, except to help steer clear of idolatry. “How can seminary help me advance my career?” is not the first question you should be asking. Instead, ask “How can seminary help me be a faithful citizen of God’s kingdom?” How can your studies help you embody John 3:30? How can this special time in your life help you lean into the Lord and pursue personal holiness? Keep your eyes on the right prize. If you will be faithful in little, the Lord may then trust you with much. On that note:
4. Do not despise the day of small things.
The spirit of Zechariah 4:10 will haunt you day by day. Seminary will get old. You will just want to move on, already. You want that ministry position. You want to be selected for that group or team. You are ready to get beyond reading the books you reckon beneath yourself or behind your advanced learning. You want to bite off more than you can chew. One thing you will learn when you serve in a ministry role over time is that a lot of the things you do are things you have to do but don’t want to do. Ministry is unfortunately often driven by the tyranny of the urgent. There are emails to answer, voicemails to return, forms to complete, calendars to organize. In my last pastorate, I had ten books published and a speaking engagement every month, and I still had to photocopy my own handouts, set up tables for deacons’ meetings, and pick up stray bulletins in the sanctuary after services. How does this translate to your seminarian life? How about making sure you turn assignments in on time, keep your room or apartment clean, show up to your appointments, let your “yes be yes” and your “no be no,” and not think yourself as generally above the routine tasks and duties of ordinary life?
The strong seminarian is the one who acknowledges his weakness. If you try to do theological education in your own strength, you fail, no matter how good your grades are. It is more likely, however, that this experience will expose your weaknesses, reveal your idols, exacerbate your insecurities, test your patience, challenge your intellectual and emotional capabilities, and push you way beyond your comfort zone. What a wonderful opportunity, then, to take every little thing to the Lord in prayer! What a great opportunity to embrace the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, upon whom you are always relying anyway. Don’t shrink back from the challenge of your studies or the difficulty of distance from home and family. Press in with the Lord’s help by praying without ceasing.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
— Luke 17:20-21
In Jesus’ day, the Jewish world was fractured into factions, each of which sought to usher in or live out the kingdom of God in its own way. The promised land was owned and ruled by Rome, and everybody had a take on how God might overthrow the oppressive occupation and establish the kingdom of heaven.
The Sadducees sold out theologically and collaborated with the pagan rulers for political and financial benefit. The Pharisees sought to live peaceably within the cities, in Rome but not of Rome as it were, obeying the laws of the land but seeking as diligently and rigorously as possible to apply the Mosaic law to every minute detail of life in the hopes their works might merit them deliverance. The Essenes hightailed it out to the wilderness, became hermits, embraced gnosticism, withdrew and battened down the hatches. The Zealots kept taking up arms, wanting to usher in the kingdom of God through the power of the sword.
When Jesus’ cousin grew up into this tumultuous landscape and answered YHWH’s call upon his life, he went out to the Jordan River, the historic borderline of deliverance for Israel, the line Joshua had led them across from desert wandering into the Promised Land. And when he got to the Jordan, John didn’t begin conspiring. He didn’t amass arms, begin a grassroots political campaign, urge rigorous law-keeping, or preach any of the other myriad ways his countrymen were seeking to establish the kingdom. He simply said the kingdom was at hand and if anybody wanted in he would be more than happy to dunk them in the river.
“Repent!” he called. And “Repent!” his cousin, our Lord Jesus, called after taking the reigns of John’s burgeoning kingdom community.
The way into the kingdom life is the same way out of worldly life—death. As baptism illustrates, the way into the kingdom is the way of death, burial, and resurrection.
Go to a new place, this action commands us. Leave the old one. Abandon it and its ways, its self-idolatry in the guise of spirituality.
Today’s Essenes are the gnosis-exalting hip churches and the law-exalting fundy churches, each preaching legalism of a different sort and rendering different sorts of people untouchable. They advocate withdrawal from either “church people” or “the world,” as if true kingdom enlightenment exists in an ecclesiological utopia hermetically sealed off and protected by either their cultural savvy or their cultural avoidance.
Today’s Pharisees are people like me, desperately trying to please God through our stuff, our merit, our actions, sincerely wanting to apply God’s Word to our life but always slipping down the slope of applying our life to God’s work. We trust our behavior, our church programs, our well-turned phrases. Today’s Pharisees are the promoters of the entertainment-driven, self-help preaching, program-trusting whitewashed tombs we arrogantly call churches.
Today’s Sadducees are the politicians who use churches, Christians, and the language of Scripture to achieve power. And they are the ones who help them, believing if the right man were in the right role, God would “heal our land.” They believe the kingdom of God can be spread through politics, networking, the right policies, the right strategies, the right legislation. They are the churches who sell out to celebrities and powerful personalities.
Today’s Zealots are anybody and everybody who thinks the kingdom comes with signs to be observed: elections, placards, T-shirts, debates, attendance, programs. Or worse: bombings, shootings.
All of it, idolatry. All of us, idolaters.
And Jesus says to us every day, all day, as he said all day every day then, “Repent!”
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
— Matthew 16:24
*dusts off the blog*
United by Trillia Newbell and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Two books on race, from very different perspectives–Mr. Coates writes for the Atlantic and is an atheist; Mrs. Newbell works for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Both are brief, very important reads for anyone who is working through the tangles of race and culture in America.
Pass the Mic and Code Switch
Like the above books, but podcasts instead. Pass the Mic’s run by the Reformed African American Network, Code Switch is produced by NPR.
Onward by Russell Moore
Important for the American church as we’re losing political capitol, which Dr. Moore and I both argue is not really a bad thing.
Christ and Pop Culture
I will hammer on about this website until the day I die or it dies. Home to some of the best writing on faith and culture on the Internet.
Quick to Listen and The Calling
Two podcasts produced by Christianity Today. Quick to Listen is about hot topics in the news; The Calling is interviews with people who lead in the Church and sometimes their church.
A podcast recommended to me by my friend Chris which takes seemingly boring topics and shows you how interesting and mind-blowing they are. The episode that hooked me is about the Chumbawumba song “Tubthumping.”
Not having “It’s Quiet Uptown” stuck in your head
I’ve had this song stuck in my head all week and I’ve been low-key sad as a result.
You Are What You Love
James K.A. Smith wrote these two really excellent books called Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom that are about how we’re formed by our habits and practices, and what Christian educators and churches can do to counteract the ways the world tries to shape us. The only thing is, those books are super-dense and pretty academic (he makes a lot of references to Kant and Wittgenstein, for example), so he wrote a more accessible, more application-heavy version called You Are What You Love and it’s so, so good.
I got this email this morning and I'm about ready to boycott Penzey's. - update: I sent an email letting them know that as soon as they stop shoving their politics down my throat, I'll start shopping with them again.
It reads like this
In our celebration of the one-year anniversary of Marriage Equality we've arrived at Garlic/Yellow and Parsley/Green recipes. If you missed our previous Cayenne/Red and Now Curry/Orange recipes click here:Guacamole, Butter Chicken and Cumin Rice with Saffron or Curried Potato Salad with Craisins. As part of our celebration, now through June 27th with any $5 purchase you can get a free half-cup jar of your choice of any of our featured Rainbow Spices (up to a $6.95 value).
And yes, Marriage Equality is totally about cooking. What separates humans from everything else that came before us here on earth is our million-year symbiotic relationship with cooking. Once we were animals. We could see the benefit in looking out for ourselves, and looking out for the herd, but that was about it. Through tens of thousands of generations of mealtimes spent together around the fire, we became something more. Those trillions of meals created a much larger circle around the fire, and in that process so much more was set in motion.
Without cooking, we would never have come to understand how much we all benefit when we take care of everyone, even those we do not even know. The gift of cooking is the gift of our humanity. Without cooking, there would be no religions teaching us that how we treat others is every bit as important as how we treat ourselves. Without cooking there would be no governments ensuring that even the least privileged among us also have a pathway to success.
Cooking is the best thing ever. And now, through cooking, we've arrived at this day where everyone has the right to be married, where everyone has the right to be a family!
Well, there you have it. Every time you cook, keep in mind that you made gay mirage possible! Through evolution.
I haven't known what to pray for many years. I sit near my bed each night and stare at a wall. I conjure up a couple of words that I don't usually mean. But, today, I start to understand what they mean by the groaning of the Holy Spirit. My prayers are without many words. Just an aching of the heart. A leaning in toward God. Whispering the names of those I love. Begging for relief. Because, I need prayer more than ever right now. I need to believe that God is real. That He is here. And that He is working. That's what prayer is. It's a desperation for God. An acknowledgement of some sort of faith. I have no idea what you're doing, God. But if I don't trust you are doing something all I have is despair. And so I pray. Because I have not much left.
The number of days
in between these brutal frays
grow too few
we can't get some relief
it threatens our belief
that hope is here
that God is real
that love can heal
I am crippled by my sadness
I am paralyzed by the madness
I've forgotten the face of gladness
It eats at me
like a disease
my eyes glued to a screen
is darkness our new reality?
I can't get some relief
my joy stolen by a thief
What a mystery
Surely not just my history?
Can it be my present and future
can it close these wounds as a suture
I should number my days
but I am numb in my ways
I should stand and fight
but that demands some might
I am so fragile
with shaken faith for quite awhile
All I can do is keep breathing
Lacking in motivation
to do anything of meaning
Sleeping through the light
Blinded by the night
I hate this state that I relate to
sedated by my own fears
I admit I'm hiding, I'm not
crying for change
or justice for the slain
but I can't take the berating
and hating and fighting
Sad for the lives I never knew
that left this earth too soon
Sad for the meaningless arguments
That lead us not a step toward agreements
but push us farther into isolation
so much for a united nation
Sad for my personal enemies
Oh me of selfish tendencies
the demons that are stored inside
that I keep alive
because it's easier than to try
No easy way out
But surely there is something
we can do about
these evil acts
lay off the facts
the statistics, the data
look in the faces
they are not nameless
and weep, that's a
brother, a mother, a friend
ask for this to end
And Lord, help my unbelief
You are my only relief