Monthly Archives: January 2012

Hebrews & the Cultivation of Christian Community

I’m using David DeSilva’s commentary, Perseverance in Gratitude, for a class on Hebrews.  Here’s an excerpt on fostering an imagination-enlivening and flourishing Christian community:

Hebrews shows us that we must be very intentional about establishing and preserving Christian community if we are to fulfill our calling to discipleship.  People cannot help but be influenced in their thinking, evaluating, and decision making by the opinions of others, and Western society has a way of bombarding its inhabitants with hundreds of messages daily about what it holds to be truly valuable, praiseworthy, and important.  Christians may still benefit from taking to heart the exhortations of the author of Hebrews about strengthening their alternative, Christian culture.  Believers need to gather frequently with one another, both in the formal settings of worship and informally for support and encouragement in pursuing values that do not always reflect the values of our society.  In their interactions with one another, believers are called to hold up as valuable both the ideals that God values and the actions that Jesus commands, discovering and discussing these together in study of the sacred texts, and encouraging one another to seek out ways of living them out. . .  Only with the strong support of others who are committed to the visions of humanity and community in the Scriptures can believers hope to remain on course toward their eternal homeland (p. 78).

N. T. Wright on God’s Judgment of His People

For various reasons and in different ways, Christian communities can become complacent.  Churches can grow weary of “always reforming.”  It starts with the assumption that we’re God’s favorites, that we’ve got it right, that we’re especially God-honoring when so many others have drifted from the truth.

We forget that this sort of self-assurance is quite common throughout the history of God’s people.  It leads to arrogance and it blinds us to our own corruptions.  We become lazy about festering prejudices and tolerate internal practices of injustice.

What’s frightening is that God is so committed to his mission to reclaim his world, that he will visit his people with judgment if they grow arrogant, smug, and self-assured.

Regarding the return of the God of Israel to his people in Jesus, N. T. Wright says this:

But this return, as Malachi had warned, would not be comfortable: “Who can endure the day of his coming?” (3:2).  Jesus came to pronounce, in sorrow, ultimate doom on the city and Temple that had corrupted and perverted its vocation to be the light of the world.  Perhaps the most terrifying thing in the whole gospel story is the realization that Jesus’s solemn warnings about the judgment that was to come upon Jerusalem and the Temple within a generation were drawn from biblical prophecies not simply of the destruction of Jerusalem, but of the destruction of Babylon.  Somehow, Jerusalem had lost its way so drastically; somehow the leaders of the Jewish people had gotten things so wrong in their collusion with Rome and in their corruption, oppression, and greed; somehow the Jewish people, Jesus’s own people, had gotten things so wrong in their determination to bring God’s victory to the world through military violence and armed rebellion—that the only word the last of the prophets can now speak is the word of judgment: “Not one stone will be left standing upon another.  All of them will be thrown down” (Matt. 24:2).

Simply Jesus, pp. 176-177.

Prayer for the Weekend

By your Word were all things created
By your Word were all things given
That all might live in your garden
Eat the fruit of the land
Drink your living water
Grow in strength and wisdom
Husband and wife
Brother and sister
Mother and child
God of Peace, sow seeds of hope in barren lands
By your Word love was established
In the beauty of each created thing
That all might look to the mountains
And in their majesty find you
In fertile fields and valleys
Crops and flocks would be tended
Vineyards planted
Communities grown
Laughter heard
God of Peace, sow seeds of hope in barren lands
By your Word humankind was given
The gift of true freedom
Lived within the safety of your love
And chose independence
By man’s word are established
Ruler and slave
Rich and poor
Full and starving
Weak and strong
By man’s word are established
Corruption and abuse
Oppression and torture
Selfishness and greed
Within your garden
Watered by your tears
God of Peace, sow seeds of hope in barren lands
You sent your Word into the world
To live a life of love
To heal the sick
To give sight to the blind
To give hope to the despairing
And your sent your Spirit
To enfold us in your love
To empower us to love
To imagine a new world
Where we eat the fruit of the land
Drink your living water
Grow in strength and wisdom
Husband and wife
Brother and sister
Mother and child
And to live the life of that world even now
As we long for it to overtake this brokenness
God of Peace, sow seeds of hope in barren lands

“Neo-Reformed” or “Neo-Fundamentalist?”

Roger Olson has a very interesting post on his blog from Mike Clawson, examining the phenomenon of “Neo-fundamentalism.”

According to Clawson, the more recent instantiations of fundamentalism

typically focus on contemporary social issues like gender roles or sexual orientation. And while they would still agree with earlier fundamentalists on issues of scriptural inerrancy or anti-evolution, their theological arguments more commonly focus on the nature of truth and Calvinistic soteriology. Institutionally, this movement is not arising from the older bastions of fundamentalism – Bob Jones University, Moody Bible Institute, or even Liberty University – but within mainstream evangelical circles – from Gordon-Conwell, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; from well-known and influential mega-church pastors in the Twin Cities, Seattle, and Southern California; and from massive worship festivals and ministry conferences popular with tens of thousands of evangelical college students as well as numerous pastors and lay-leaders. Leading voices associated with this trend include scholars like David Wells, DA Carson and Albert Mohler, Religious Right media-personalities like James Dobson, and well-known pastors like John MacArthur, John Piper and Mark Driscoll.

I’m quite familiar with this sub-culture within evangelicalism, but I hadn’t heard it described as neo-fundamentalist until Scot McKnight did so a few years ago.  I agree with Scot and Mike that “neo-fundamentalist” better describes this movement than “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed.”  There’s doubtless much more to be said, but here are just a few reasons why I say this.

First, there’s a strong anti-creation impulse that runs through this culture.  I remember hearing one of the above-mentioned people making the flippant remark that Christians shouldn’t worry about stepping on the grass or killing dolphins since it’s all going to burn in the end.  That sort of remark represents a deeper depreciation of creation and culture as expressions of worship.  Further, one could make the case that John Piper’s call for Christians to delight in God tends to come at the expense of creation rather than in and through creation.  While some elements of a Calvinistic soteriology are prominent within this culture, what is lacking is a broader and deeper Reformed worldview.  Most crucially, the tendency to emphasize redemption from creation runs counter to the Reformed vision of God’s redemption of creation.

Second, the movement’s militant posture toward the wider culture is manifest also in its lack of genuine engagement with other viewpoints–even evangelical ones–and its inability to enjoy mutually beneficial conversations with other Christian traditions.  This may be due to the movement’s exaltation of certain figures as “authoritative voices,” but there’s a strong impulse of suspicion toward fellow Christians who aren’t within the camp.  Again, this runs counter to the Reformed vision of seeking to grasp God’s truth wherever it may be found.  Further, it fails to heed the call to be “reformed and always reforming,” which happens through intellectual humility, self-reflection, and genuine conversation with others.

Just one example of this Reformed vision of vigorous learning and robust intellectual engagement: N. T. Wright is at Calvin College all this week, speaking at both the January Series and the Symposium on Worship.

I may be slightly understating things to say that N. T. Wright hasn’t been charitably engaged by many within the “neo-fundamentalist” sub-culture.

As I said, this movement does indeed draw upon certain elements of a Calvinistic soteriology, but it is largely disconnected from broader Reformed traditions and deeper Reformed theological resources. 

For at least these reasons it seems more appropriate to describe the movement as “neo-fundamentalist” rather than “neo-Reformed.”

Cool Whip & the Benefits of Technology

After yesterday’s post, Sarah reminded me that without Cool Whip, my favorite dessert would be impossible:

Thank you, technology.

The Dynamic of Technology & the Nature of Relationships

In thinking critically about how the dynamics of social networking technologies shape us, it’s worth keeping in mind what Albert Borgmann calls “the normative pattern of technology.”

Borgmann notes that technology has the dynamic of replacement.  A technology replaces one thing with another.  And it usually replaces a richly textured and layered thing with an opaque thing in the name of convenience or disburdenment. 

What complicates the situation is that there’s usually something lost in this exchange that is hidden or concealed.  The problem is that we’re usually so taken with the benefits that we don’t notice the price we’ve paid.

Borgmann cites Cool Whip as a playful example of this dynamic of replacement.  Before the advent of Cool Whip, people needed to make their own whipped cream to serve on top of desserts. 

There were skills involved in producing whipped cream.  In a bygone era, housewives needed to be able to utilize various kitchen tools, have a working knowledge of how ingredients worked together, and to know the process of transforming cream into something to plop onto a piece of pie.

Such knowledge would be passed down from mother to daughter in the context of family life, fostering familial bonds in the countless subtle ways that traditions are transmitted and memories created.  Borgmann calls this a tradition-rich, contextual, and commanding reality.  When a grown woman takes out certain mixing bowls and serving dishes, she recalls time spent with her mother.  She sees through these items to the many layers of rich and weighty realities and wonderful memories associated with them.

Cool Whip, on the other hand, is easy.  It replaces the mess and burden of having to make whipped cream, and it doesn’t spoil so quickly.  We can just go to the store and pick it up.  When we’ve had enough, we can put it back in the refrigerator and use it again. 

Borgmann calls this sort of thing an opaque thing, because it has only a surface reality.  When you look at Cool Whip, you don’t see any layered or tradition-rich realities.  You don’t think about who made it or what it took to produce it and bring it to your grocer’s freezer.  There’s no knowledge required about how to use kitchen tools or mix ingredients.  Neither do you recall the time you spent making the cream while laughing with your mother and catching up with relatives while preparing dessert for the rest of the family. 

Cool Whip is inherently tradition-less

What’s happened is that in the interest of disburdenment (it’s so easy!), a richly-textured thing is replaced by an opaque thing.  A weighty and meaning-ful thing is replaced with a shallow and meaning-less thing

That’s the normative pattern of technology.

We could also consider the technology of writing.  With the advent of writing, humans had the ability to keep records and preserve for future generations the history of their people. 

But consider the cost.  Whereas formerly children sat around older family members to hear stories of ancestors, strengthening bonds of familiarity and affection between young and old, that’s no longer necessary.  Over time, community bonds weaken.  Old people lose their value.  The disburdenment comes at the cost of cohesive community and much else.

As Borgmann says, technology usually conceals what is lost in the process of replacement.  I just wonder if Borgmann’s discussion of technology’s dynamic of replacement can be a helpful resource for our reflection on how social media technologies affect human relationships.

If so, how?  What’s being exchanged and what are the costs?

Trinitarian Relational Dynamics & Social Media Friendships

In her book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle discusses the changes to friendships brought about by social media.

She argues that internet social networks offer the hope of intimate friendship along with control over the dynamics of that friendship.  That is, we can simultaneously hold friends close and keep them at bay.

I was thinking the other day about this dynamic in terms of Trinitarian-oriented friendships.  Theologians speak of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perichoretic terms.  That is, the Father is always welcoming and enfolding the Son and the Spirit, providing divine hospitality.  And the Father is always going out and entering the Son and the Spirit in order to know and delight in them.

Human relationships are meant to imitate intra-Trinitarian relational dynamics so that to some extent flourishing friendships are those characterized by entering and welcoming, increasing authenticity, and mutual delight.

These dynamics are at odds with those fostered by social networking technologies.

Like Turkle, I would not say that the solution is abandonment or rejection of these technologies.  But there seems to be good ground to at least use them with a critical awareness of the dynamics inherent in their use.

Identity Formation

Welcome to Midtown Christian Community.  Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who died but now lives and reigns from heaven. 

Jesus Christ is our life, and he is on his way to restore the world, to restore and heal us, and to bring us into his eternal kingdom – a kingdom that is not characterized by division, hatred, frustration, pain, exploitation, rage, destructive relationships, bad deals, crushed hopes and shattered dreams, or oppression.  NO!  When Jesus returns, these things will be gone forever!

Jesus is on his way to establish his kingdom that is characterized by peace, by life, by goodness, laughter, wonderful music, good food and good times with friends that leave you both satisfied and wanting more, being known by loved ones who delight in what they find out about you, swimming in clean rivers, climbing up waterfalls and exploring in lush forests, sitting out underneath the stars by a camp-fire laughing hysterically with good friends.

These are the things that we long for.  Something in all of us tells us that our current experience isn’t how it’s supposed to be – there’s something more and there’s something else.  We aren’t designed for this enslaved existence.  Sin and Death have corrupted and perverted God’s good world.

But Jesus is on his way to take it back and to restore all things so that we may dwell on the earth with God as we were meant to, enjoying God, enjoying one another, and enjoying God’s good world.

So we say, with the Spirit, “come, Lord Jesus.”

As a sign that we will enjoy that future kingdom, God has given to us this group of people—this gathering.  He has created us as brothers and sisters, and God himself is present by his Spirit.  By God’s Spirit, we can enjoy a taste of what the restored creation will be like.  So we gather in the name of King Jesus to laugh, to share our burdens and joys, to enjoy good food with good friends, and to cry out for God to restore his world soon, for the glory of His name and the good of his people.

It’s the Little Things

The big football news coming out of Indianapolis over the last few weeks was the firing of some key figures in the Colts organization.  The team owner fired Bill Polian, the team vice chairman, and more recently dismissed Jim Caldwell, the head coach.

Amidst all the news and comment that followed, one thing stuck out to me.  Peyton Manning, the Colts QB, said this about Bill Polian:

Personally, my goodness, so many thoughts. He was one of the last guys to leave my wedding with Ashley (his wife). This is very, very tough.

Of all the things that Manning could have mentioned, he highlighted something that seems so inconsequential.  But it wasn’t insignificant to Peyton and his wife.  It obviously meant a great deal.

I mentioned Manning’s comment to my family at dinner the other day and we recalled the times when, in the midst of painful loss, a friend stopped by with flowers or some other thoughtful gift, and offered a brief, kind word.  Those are seemingly small things that aren’t small at all.  I know that my wife and I will never forget them.

The bonds we form by thoughtful gestures of serious friendship in pivotal moments are anything but insignificant.

Social Media Technologies & the Language of “Addiction”

You may have heard people utilize the language of “addiction” to speak of their use of smart phones, either to connect to social media or to text.  I remember hearing for the first time a few years ago a colleague refer to his “Crackberry” and knowing immediately what he meant.

With the Lenten season approaching, many will be going on “technology fasts.”  They likely do this sort of thing from a sense that their use of these technologies or their reliance on social media is out of control.

Sherry Turkle argues that the language of “addiction” is inappropriate when it comes to social media technologies.  Putting things in terms of “addiction” implies that the solution is to quit, cold turkey.  If you do actually have a crack-cocaine problem, you should stop immediately!

Turkle notes, however, that these social media technologies will continue to be part of our world.  She says it’s better to consider carefully how we might use them fruitfully rather than simply to avoid them.

Further, she notes that the language of “addiction” doesn’t grapple seriously with the complications and complexities of how these technologies affect our humanity.  Putting things in those terms may be a convenient way to avoid doing the hard work of reflecting on how newer technologies affect the way we think, how we connect with our own emotions, how we fantasize, and how we relate to others.

What do you think of her point?  Have you set rules or boundaries for your use of social media or your smart phone?  Have you considered a “technology fast?”