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Novelty and Idolatry June 13, 2014

When Paul and Luke first came to Athens, Paul was moved to preach the Gospel there “as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Luke, almost as an aside, succinctly captures the root problem: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (17:21). These two reflections go hand-in-glove; the Athenian obsession with novelty fed their idolatry. I fear this same lesson (though often missed) applies today in our popular practices of theology.

What hath Athens to do with today’s Church?

The city Paul and Luke described seems positively stable compared to the pace of change (in fashion, technology, politics, economics, entertainment, morality, etc.) we experience in the West. There are few pleasures we savor more than “something new” to “shake things up” and give us a “fresh perspective”. “What have you done for me lately” may as well be our credo, as the accumulated wisdom of the ages is uncritically cast off as outmoded and old-fashioned.

As with so many other aspects of our culture, this proclivity seeps into the Church. To be sure, some “new blood” is helpful and necessary—refreshing our passion to reach the nations, shedding inefficiencies in how we manage our resources, etc.—but the temptation to go too far is always at hand. When we are fully caught up in the new-for-the-sake-of-new, it is easy to seek “original insights” into our faith, to discover “new readings” of Scripture, or to find “fresh applications” for God’s standards to life that may or may not reflect His design.

The pressure to continually improve and distinguish one’s methods and message is greatly intensified for all of us in the harried habitat of the information age. Pastors and teachers are not exempted from these “adapt or die” anxieties. Faithfulness to the Gospel, however, demands consistency rather than novelty. The most damning epithet that can be applied to any theology is “innovative”.

Paul greeted the morass of belief in Athens not by giving them yet another new idol, but by boldly proclaiming the ancient and unchanging truth of “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). He pointed the men of Athens back to “the God who made the world and all things in it,” who “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts. 17:24), and in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, Paul did not share something new, and certainly not of his own invention, but something old in a new place.

In the same way, the Gospel has spread across the globe and is still being carried into myriad hard-to-access corners still in darkness—faithful servants who heard the truth went to new places to speak the blessed old words. For nearly two thousand years this has gone on, the same message taking root in the nooks and crannies of the nations. For most of this time, if preachers heard of the work of others at all, it was by writing or listening to oral reports. There have been “innovators” across the ages, to be sure, but the pressure ran in the direction of orthodoxy and conformity rather than toward self-expression and differentiation.

Now, any given pastor can be influenced by any other (or host of others) through the Internet and mass media*. His congregation likewise no longer is limited to his teaching alone, but has access to thousands upon thousands of sermons from thousands of pastors (orthodox or not) from all over the world. Insofar as this ever-expanding web of influences steers believers to deeper understanding of Scripture and greater commitment to their local body, this is a development to thank God for.

Too often, however, what actually happens is that pastors see this network as competition for their own influence and (in the case of other local pastors with a large media footprint or satellite campuses of megachurches in nearby cities) for keeping their own church’s members. Many of these same members use the high-exposure preachers to critique their own local pastor’s style and substance, and some check out from the local church altogether, relying on screen time to effect a disembodied pseudofellowship that meets their felt needs at the expense of the self-sacrifice and sanctification that church membership demands.

In the face of this, some despair, some hold the line with a watchful eye for the health of their congregations, and many seek to regain footing for their ministry by building their own media “brand” that can establish their sway beyond the walls of their church (and perhaps recall members that previously left or even pick off a few from the “competition”). Following that route requires breaking through the “noise”—either by being recognized for skill in preaching and teaching or by “innovating” their message.

Therein lies the problem. The solution is plain, but painful to our pride: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Posted by Justin Lonas

*Recognizing the irony that a) this musing is posted on (gasp) the internet, b) that I indeed hope thereby to minister to those beyond my own local church, and c) that things posted out here in the ether tend to live forever and acquire a life of their own…I feel the need to point out that a) there are many, many fine pastors who are a blessing to many through media ministries undertaken in humility and a spirit of service, b) that I personally benefit tremendously from these men, and c) that name-recognition and broadcast reach do not inherently equal “celebrity” or “influence-peddling”. That is all.

Moviegoing and Ministry April 9, 2013

Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.

Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.

Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.

In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.

This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.

The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.

Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?

These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.

The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.

Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.

As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts.  In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.

In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.

Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Technopoly, Sourdough, and Worship January 31, 2013

Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.

Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, neither Postman nor I are strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.

In particular, reading Postman has illuminated three things for me.

First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics,  alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.

Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm, this is expressed in the idea that everything looks like a nail to a man wielding a hammer. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought–even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any technological means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because the establishment can have no other gods before it.

Second, Postman shows how, the more and more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ over the course of decades? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.

Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology–there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.

The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (that is, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.

As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.

The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me–if tomorrow the worldwide power grid crumbled, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same.

The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others–I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.

A little lesson in this came to me over this past month. For Christmas, my wife contacted an old friend of mine–a baker–and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making. Since then, I’ve spent part of every weekend corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table.  Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in this culture is not an option.

It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial–it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity  or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).

Posted by Justin Lonas

N. B. – For a good reflection on technological issues from a Christian perspective (that also takes into account the current digital revolution), I highly recommend Tim Challies’ The Next Story.

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