Archive for July, 2010

The Church: A New Culture?

July 29, 2010

Not too long ago, I sat listening to a fairly well-known conservative evangelical pastor speak to the matter of race within the church. His text was Ephesians 2:11-18, and the sermon was, in the main, excellent. His points regarding Christ humbling and disarming rival ethnic groups through the gospel were edifying and God-glorifying. He was right to state that current views on race have much more of a secular (Darwinian?) feel to them than a biblical one. He helped believers see that the gospel contains all the racial reconciliation man needs.

Where I began to register a sense of discomfort was when he began to suggest that the new man of Ephesians 2 is actually a brand new culture. The logic was: There was a Jewish culture, there was a Gentile culture, but since Christ has torn down the wall of partition and made both groups into one new man in the church, we as Christian churches have a new culture.

Now certainly there is such a thing as Christian culture. (Some might put that last sentence in the past tense.) Certainly Christian culture is a new kind of culture, relative to pagan kinds. It is true that the church is in many respects a new entity, distinct from Israel, and from ancient pagan culture. And it is true that within churches, a worldview and a set of loves and values increasingly take shape. Churches are largely responsible for receiving and communicating the culture that is Christian. But this is not the same thing as saying every local church is an instance of a new culture.

This notion would appear to be a rather glib and naïve view of culture. On the surface, it seemed as if the speaker believed that every local church can develop its own culture from scratch, independent of, and without reference to, the past. It seemed as if he believed that culture is rather like a kind of editorial process: something that can be put together rather eclectically, so long as the guiding norm is the Bible. And in fact, as I observe from a distance, it seems his ministry philosophy bears that suspicion out. Hymns, gospel rap, expository preaching, gospel hip-hop concerts, and sound doctrine are all blended together, in the name of new culture. It is as if some evangelicals believe that by declaring your church to be a new culture, you make it so. They seem to believe that culture is something that can be assembled at will, like a machine or a meal. They imply that they possess the power to filter out or co-opt cultural elements as if they are perfectly immune to their effects and meanings, simply because they are Christians. To this view, I’d suggest two corrective thoughts.

First, there is no such thing as a culture completely distinct from, and immune to, the cultures surrounding it. A local church does not begin its life with a blank sheet of paper, culturally speaking. A church is made up of people. These people come with decades of cultural influence. They have been influenced by the wider popular culture. They possibly have ethnic  cultural influences. If they come from other churches, they have been shaped by the views and tastes and values within those churches and their denominations and associations. In an electronic age, they have probably picked up some brand of Christian culture. Finally, they come with all the beliefs and sensibilities and loves imparted to them by their immediate and near families. The blend of people within your local church is made up of all this. You can no more insist that your church is a completely new culture than you can claim that all your people have precisely the same accent.

As much as the church is meant to re-shape and re-form the beliefs, views, loves, tastes and moral imagination of its members, it is naïve to think that one does this so successfully and completely as to constitute a completely brand new culture within the church. The past is not overcome in a day. Nor can one seal your people off from the wider culture, even if that were desirable. The local church is meant to be the messenger and purveyor of a worldview and set of affections that is thoroughly Christian, but it exists as a relatively small house in the shadow of a mountainous wider culture. For pastors to lead effectively, they need to acknowledge that their churches are not hermetically sealed off from the world merely because the gospel has made us into one new man. Pop culture, remnants of folk culture, evangelical or fundamentalist culture are in our churches, because our churches have people. They make up our church cultures.

Second, every culture builds with what it has been handed. A culture is never created from scratch. Every culture takes something of what it has received, and modifies, develops and changes the form to suit its worldview. (Indeed, the church built on very Jewish forms of worship and gathering). To illustrate this point, try to think up a new cultural form to use in church worship. You won’t be able to think of one, you will only be able to think of ways of modifying what already exists: music, poetry, the spoken word.

No church invents its culture. In other words, every church has a tradition. Every church takes some form of existing material, and chooses whether to use it as it is, or modify it, or omit it altogether. And this is where the church-as-new-culture idea gets dangerous. Being a new man in Christ does not mean that each church is starting the whole process of cultural formation anew, as if we are baking a new cake with every local church.

A right view of culture is going to understand that the process of receiving, modifying and preserving forms consonant with Christianity took many centuries. The sensibilities, tastes and affections of thousands of Spirit-controlled believers were involved in producing hymns, music, prayers, architecture, and ministry methods that seemed to best represent and preserve a Christian understanding of God, the world and ourselves.

Since we do not invent cultural forms, but are handed them, humility ought to ask questions like, “Why was this kind of hymn treasured by the church for centuries?” “Why did the process of the church’s growing understanding result in this kind of music, but not that kind of music?” “Why has the church resisted that approach to ministry, but pursued this approach?”

If we think of each of our local churches as new cultures, we might think that we have carte blanche to reject what we have been handed, as if we bear no responsibility to the church of the past. We might be tempted to act like we are authorities over the church of the past, since we are a new man. We might think that since we are supposedly beginning again with each church, we can cherry-pick hymns, music and other things to make up our new culture. This is naïve, and ultimately, untrue.

In this sense, I do not want to think of my church as a new culture, because it isn’t one. While the church is made of new creations, they come to us very connected to the old man, old world and old ways. And while we seek to preserve and communicate a culture that is Christian, we recognise that we are a very small drop in a very large ocean.

Instead, I want to think of my church as seeking to connect with a very old culture: Christian culture. While the church is a new thing, it has a very ancient pedigree.Churches are not independent new cultures. They ought to be oases, where the thirsty believer, traversing the desert of popular culture, can stop and drink in some of what makes up the very old and tried and tested Christian culture.

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Thou Unbeginning Light of Life

July 28, 2010

Thou Unbeginning Light of Life!
Thou Uncreated Fire!
No hands didst ever kindle Thee,
Or did Thy being sire.

No tinder doth Thy life demand,
No fuel Thy flame sustains;
Thou art Thine own eternal source,
Thy works are not Thy gain.

Creation didst not make Thee bright,
Nor cause Thee then to glow;
A mirror for Thy unmade light,
It serves Thy gleam to show.

Nor doth man’s praise Thy light increase,
As if thou needed aught;
Reflectors’ only boast can be
The brilliance of their source.

Thy brightness shall not fail to shine
Though time lose count of days;
From age to age Thou art undimmed:
Eternally ablaze!

If It Ain’t Broke…

July 14, 2010

I dislike the practice of re-writing the beautiful poetry of some of the old hymns, supposedly because people don’t understand the lyrics as they were written.  I’m glad to see Dr Doug Bookman defend that most re-written and butchered of beautiful old hymns – Come Thou Fount. You can read it here.

Prayer and the Affections

July 12, 2010

Private prayer is taught in Scripture and almost universally exhorted by the Christian world in books, sermons and even hymns. The fact that these biblical and extra-biblical exhortations exist testifies that we are prone to ‘faint’ when it comes to prayer. We are prone to ‘cease’. A kind of inertia within us creates drag and slows whatever momentum we seem to make in our private worship.

The modern exhortations seem to take two different approaches to grow and sustain prayer. To generalise and simplify, we might term these the discipline approach and the desire approach.

The discipline approach exhorts Christians to practise self-denial, rise early, keep prayer lists or journals, and otherwise plan, structure and supervise themselves in the training of prayer. There is sometimes a suspicion that people who do not pray with such precision are guilty of messy, vague and unclear prayers. Prayer is seen as obedience to the many commands to pray, and reluctance and discomfort are to be mortified as works of the flesh. Desire is often seen as a happy consequence of dying to self or gaining a good habit of prayer; its absence or presence is however regarded as fickle and unreliable as a motive or means. Sometimes, the disciplines are valued as ends in themselves.

The desire approach exhorts Christians to pray from a wholehearted, inclined and united heart, that comes to God as He is with our desires as they now are, and seeks to gain greater desire from the act of prayer. The Spirit’s filling and illumination are primary to desire, so that God is the source of our prayer, not our own willpower. Here there is usually an antipathy towards prayer fulfilled as a duty, and a suspicion that prayer which is performed as an obligation is prayer that is insincere. Discipline is not shunned, but it is seen in reverse order from the discipline advocates: desire becomes the engine for good habits. (Often, such people exhort us to ask God to change our hearts’ desires when they are cold, instead of applying more discipline. Consequently, people exposed to such ideas find their hearts’ coldness puzzling and discouraging, since they asked God for a change of heart.)

Certainly no one subscribes entirely to either one or the other, everyone recognises the need for both. However, people tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or another, placing either desire or discipline as primary to prayer.

If we believe the affections are central to the Christian life, we believe they are the driving force behind true religion. This, in turn, means that the affections must drive prayer. And viewing the affections as primary to prayer gives us a somewhat conciliatory position on the matter of desire and discipline.

On the one hand, the affections are, in one sense, the desires of the heart. They are the inclinations, the dispositions, the tastes, the sensibilities of the heart. They are what (and how) the person loves and values things and people. In this vein, we would say that desire is primary to prayer. Furthermore, we’d agree that the affections are not driven by an act of will. In fact, the reverse is true. We agree that the inclinations of our hearts are things which cannot be changed by direct control. Prayer which ignores the current disposition of the heart, and seeks to overcome it with sheer willpower, may fall into the trap of Colossians 2:23.

On the other hand, we assert that there are ways of shaping and driving the affections. (We disagree that it comes by merely pleading with God to give you more desire.) We have discussed previously how the affections are shaped by imagination, example and exposure. And this is where discipline takes its place. Only by disciplining ourselves to engage in the act of prayer, can we be shaped by it. Only by structuring circumstances to make prayer more likely, or more lively, or more specific, can our hearts gain a taste for it. And here is where I’d part company with die-hards in both groups.

I suggest in the matter of exposure, we ought to discipline ourselves to experience prayer more and more intensely than we do. (Prayer-lists, alarm-clocks, and journals may be helpful to these ends.) However, not to the point where prayer has become a bitter experience, for then we must overcome even more mountainous opposition to it the next time we attempt it. Self-denial is one thing; putting a hedge of thorns in your own way is another. Rather, we should coax ourselves out, aiming for a few minutes earlier, a few minutes longer, or a focus that is more intense than previously. We must realise that a taste for prayer must be nursed, not force-fed. Deny the flesh mercilessly, yes; but give your heart time to grow.

In terms of example, we can do no better than to be frequently reminded of Christ’s prayer life. The prayers of Paul give us insights into God’s priorities. For that matter, there is a place to be exposed to the prayers of others, seeing by example how other believers have addressed God. Reading books on prayer and accounts of the prayer and piety of past saints can shape us to desire prayer more. However, let us beware that we do not parrot one man’s discipline, hoping it will produce in us overnight what took many years to shape in him. Rightly used, example will shape our affections towards prayer. Discipline will make sure that we are not far from the examples of godly pray-ers and prayers.

Finally, what of the religious imagination in prayer? It would seem to me that when David prays, as recorded in the Psalms, he more often than not addresses God through metaphor (“my Rock”, “my Shield” “my Shepherd”). He is concerned to get his heart to apprehend what God is like, before his understanding makes requests of God. I would suggest this is right. We are not to ‘visualise’ God. However, we are to seek to apprehend who He is, by what He is like. When our hearts are gripped by who He is, they gain spiritual momentum to maintain the act of praying, and they pray aright. Here discipline would insist that our wandering thoughts focus on biblical metaphors, and maintain a steady focus on them. Once again, not until it is painful and plainly distasteful, but longer than our Google-scan minds are used to.

A.W. Tozer said, “The presence of God is not imaginary, neither is prayer the indulgence of a delightful fancy. The objects that engage the praying man’s attention, while not material, are nevertheless completely real; more certainly real, it will at last be admitted, than any earthly object. The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal. The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity. Let it dominate the church long enough and it will force her to take one of two directions: either toward liberalism, where she will find relief in a false freedom, or toward the world, where she will find an enjoyable but fatal pleasure.”

Our failures are usually twofold: we either attempt too much, and failing, we withdraw for days or weeks, or we do not pray because our desires are not present, and we think it more sincere to not pray. Either one is a failure to see desire and discipline correctly. You cannot overcome your heart’s tastes by ‘cramming’ prayer. You cannot wait for your heart to love prayer on its own.

For our affections to be ordinate in the matter of prayer, discipline has its place to expose us to more and better prayer, to study examples of prayer, and to meditate carefully and seriously on God as revealed in Scripture. When discipline attends to these circumstances, desire may slowly and steadily grow.

Why Conservatism is Hard to Swallow (But Still True)

July 8, 2010

Those of us who have embraced what we understand to be some of the tenets of conservative Christianity remember well our initial objections and discomfort with its analysis of modern Christianity, and its suggested course of action. Loving others as ourselves would mean reminding ourselves of the painfully slow way in which we came to these convictions. I suggest there are several difficulties that the average Christian experiences in coming to conservative convictions. (Not that these are not blameworthy, or matters to repent of, but I call them difficulties to highlight their obstructiveness.)

First,  many Christians are bigoted towards individual autonomy. To a person raised in a democratic country, saturated with pop culture and existing with a general dislike of anything requiring cultivation (because it is inaccessible to him, and he has been taught to believe he has the right to and can immediately reach all things he really needs), some of the ideas of conservatism seem unpalatable. For such a person, the concept of one’s affections being partly dependent on moral imagination, which is in turn dependent on how you have been cultivated – by your family, your church and your culture at large- this idea seems impossible to him. It conflicts with his view of God as democratic. He has no category in his mind for children bearing the consequences of previous generations’ abandonments of piety. His notions of democracy simply rule out God limiting our understanding of Him based on our, and our father’s, stewardship of knowledge, history and worship. His view of God has Him giving everyone of all times an exactly equal chance, with exactly equal opportunities, and what has gone before or will come after is irrelevant. No loss is suffered by the present generation for the failures of the past ones. All we need is nominalistic doctrine.

Second, we have come to expect pragmatic and cure-all solutions and fixes. Conservative Christianity asserts that the problem of a bankrupt ambient culture and the church’s disconnection from historical Christian culture is not something that can be fixed with a few programs.

Most will admit that Western Christianity is in a bad way. However, most everyone defines the problem differently. Every outwardly successful ministry touts its particular emphasis as the solution for the universal Body of Christ, and defines Christianity’s problem as being a weakness when it comes to their strength (e.g. expository preaching, better church order, a focus on doctrine, doctrinal deconstructionism, people-centred ministry, thorough-going Calvinism, church marketing techniques etc.). Yet, for all that, the problems of obsession and fragmentation persist.

While all will admit to some flaws, most will defend some kind of status quo. Specifically, the status quo in their denomination, movement, or church. For it is just like 21st century Christianity to say the problem with Christianity is that more people aren’t in my movement. Thus, when conservatism’s critique asserts that peculiarities of various movements are not the solution, this offends those who are certain their take on Christianity is key to it all. Moreover, how could all those sincere people be wrong? Numbers and sincerity – the two interchangeable proofs of orthodoxy. The notion that we are in need of another Reformation seems wildly exaggerated to most.

Connected with this matter of the absence of quick-fix solutions is the apparent pessimism of the critique. Since the unreflective spirit of our age will equate pessimism with hopelessness, many believe these conclusions are a form of unbelief. Pessimism, as if we needed to explain it, is not hopelessness. There is always hope, since our God is Sovereign, and has already proclaimed and claimed His victory. Pessimism is the realistic outlook on a ruined culture, greatly incapacitated (through its own choices) when it comes to true piety. God will triumph. Our pessimism is as to whether or not we will worship while mortal as some of our fathers did. The rugged optimism of the American mindset balks at the idea that forces beyond your control, before your birth, have shaped a religious environment which you can do very little to improve, at least beyond your narrow sphere of influence.

Third, some see conservatism as an attack on Sola Scriptura. Our epistemology has led us to believe in the myth of the ‘ brute fact’, and our theologians have bought into it as well. We are certain that Christianity has brute facts contained in discursive doctrine, which, once discovered and taught will lead to salvation and sanctification if believed. To hear that ordinate affections are necessary to know and judge rightly seems to some to suggest we are questioning the authority of Scripture itself. In fact, careful readers will realise it is the very authority of Scripture which is being fought for here.

A final reason why conservatism’s ideas are difficult to take is that the very things we discuss as desirable are in a sense required to read and understand these concepts in the first place. Some form of cultivation is required to read on the essential nature of cultivation to faith.  Some measure of ordinate affection leads to a desire for ordinate affections. It seems that, “To him that hath, more shall be given, To him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.” 

For all that, the fact that we now hold these convictions is proof that the argument is worth making, and worth repeating.

The God of Fun

July 1, 2010

When we think about the affections, we are thinking about what our hearts value: their desires, inclinations, dispositions, and tastes.

One value which we seem to seek to shape in our children is the value of fun. Fun is an unquestioned, undisputed right of children. When we think of children, it seems we regard fun as the greatest good.

Fun, fun, fun. Learning at school must be fun, and curriculi are now judged on how much fun they make the learning process. School holidays must be fun, and a veritable industry of holiday activities and entertainments now exists. Sports must be fun, and it is the supposed inherent fun of beating others at games that I suppose makes sports so central to our culture. Eating breakfast must have fun pictures on the box, fun toys inside and fun sugary food to boot. Observe the mountain of toys in the average Western child’s bedroom. What he or she needs most is fun, and Mom and Dad will buy it. Brushing our teeth must be done with fun-shaped toothbrushes, and fun-tasting toothpaste. Bathing must include toys, so that fun may be had in the act of cleaning oneself. Pajamas must have fun pictures on them, and so must the blankets. And at the top of this fun-list is television. Television producers have been masters at satisfying and creating the appetite for fun. Immediate, interesting, amusing, startling, comical, rambunctious images keep the fun going. And a child without a steady diet of TV has no fun, you see.

Perhaps I am not exaggerating when I say that our culture regards fun as the greatest good when it comes to children. Fun is the supreme goal for children. I am not sure at what point this supreme value loses its centrality, but at some point, the bored young humans are introduced to the truth, “Life’s not all about fun, you know!” This cynical statement is a rather heartless and violent introduction to reality, since nothing in all the child’s existence could have revealed this fact. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the child is to have fun.

I don’t know all the origins of this fun-as-supreme-value ethic. I suspect much of it began with Romanticism’s idealising of the child as the paragon of innocence and virtue, and therefore thinking it deserving of a childhood of uncomplicated play. However, as a parent and pastor, I am concerned with how this idea will shape the religious imagination of my children, and the children in my congregation. I’m worried about how teaching our children to love fun above all else will become a major stumbling-block to their worship. Because the fun-ethic has not escaped church life.

Observe what we ask our children when they come out of Sunday School. “Did you have fun?” Indeed, that’s what we expect from our children’s programmes: fun. The materials must be colourful and fun to look at. The activities must be interesting and fun to do. Fun games need to be played. The songs must be full of movement, comical gestures and catchy tunes. They must be fun to sing. The lessons must be funny, zany and fun to listen to. And we judge them a success if our children return with the ultimate value statement: “That was fun!” When someone has a talent for fun-making, we remark, “He’s really good with the children!” Yes, if a child thinks church is fun, they will like it. And hopefully, we reason, they’ll become Christians.

The problem is this: at what point, and in what way, do we graduate our children to the understanding that God is not fun? The fear of the Lord is not a “fun” experience. Singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” is not fun. One thinks of words like sobriety, awe, hope, or adoration to describe the experience, but fun is not one of them. Preparing sermons is not fun. I enjoy doing it, and am greatly enriched by the intense study of God’s Word. But it isn’t fun, like Tetris, or playing fetch with my dog. Nor is listening to a patient explanation of God’s Word. Illuminating, encouraging, disturbing, challenging, provocative, perhaps, but not fun. Prayer is not fun. Intense concentration, focus and meditation on God’s revealed character is penetrating, revealing, satisfying, exhilarating and exhausting. But it is not fun. And the Lord’s Supper is never fun. Daunting, intimidating, heart-rending, welcoming, refreshing, but never fun. Worship is not fun, and yet we think fun is the key to creating little worshippers.

We face several large obstacles to overcome the fun-ethic.

First, our culture simply takes it for granted. It is the way we do things. Therefore, to question it is to disturb the way the machine runs.

Second, pragmatism guides our methods. We want our children to be in church, and to worship, so we figure that fun ought to be brought in to hook them on church. This is not different from using rock and pop music, promising your best life now, or offering a car raffle in the foyer of the church. We think that ends justify means.

Third, we create and sustain this appetite in so many ways outside of church.  I grew up in the fun culture, and pass it on without thinking. But what did children do before the world smothered them with its overflowing, laughing box of fun in the last two centuries? They found things to do and make. They learned things. They helped at home. Where they could, they read. They played music with their families. They worshipped at church. And they played. In other words, they were little humans preparing for their adult lives. We, on the other hand, consciously look for ways to entertain and amuse our children, to keep the fun levels high.

If the affections of our children seek fun above all else, they have inordinate affections. And it is up to those who shape children to think about how to shape what they value.

We are always shaping our children’s affections, by what we love, and what we expect from them. If we expect them to not only play, but work and serve, they learn that fun is not central to life.  If we insist that they must learn, even when that learning is not fun, we teach them what learning is like in real life. If we send them out to amuse themselves with sticks and rocks and mud and dead birds, like children always have, we shape them to find and create enjoyment, not wait for it to be given to them.  And more to the heart of the matter of the affections: if we teach them to be motivated by the truth, goodness and beauty of things and actions, we teach them to value things for what they are, not merely for what they supply. If we remove fun as the governing arbiter of value, we prepare them to love things for what they are worth, not merely for what kind of ephemeral thrill they provide. If we insist that they learn to live with their boredom with worship, we teach them to postpone their judgement on what they do not yet understand. In other words, we prepare them to be worshippers, not consumers. 

And perhaps we will see them still worshipping in twenty years.