Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Doc, Gospel, and the Gospel May 30, 2012

Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Doc Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award)  and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.

Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he seemed like a genuinely humble and grateful man–the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.

Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. I don’t know if Doc trusted Christ for his salvation or not, but I sincerely hope so. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about the Gospel and the Church are any indication, my hope may be well founded. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: ”When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”

Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.

I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of God’s Word and modeled in the faithful witness of believers. We can appreciate the music as the creative spirit of the image of God, but we should also never forget that the message of all the best gospel songs needs to be delivered in person and expounded to take root.

If Doc was indeed a follower of Jesus, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to seek her Creator. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, thankfully, on our own merit. Ironically, perhaps, it is this knowledge of the end of our faith that makes the redemption of our culture and the salvation of our fellow men our greatest goal.

“Uncloudy Day”

O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

Refrain
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.

O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.

Refrain

O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.

Refrain

O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.

Refrain

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Value of Civic Religion May 3, 2012

True faith in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be confused with religion–we all know the clichés. In fact, I believe much of the trouble with reaching the lost in so-called “Christian cultures” has to do with the fact that faithless religion can inoculate souls against the power of the Gospel.

In America especially, however, we love the idea of a public shared faith. We want our political and civic leaders to at least call themselves religious, to give a “shout-out” to God at public gatherings. We’d be happy to have prayer back in the public schools, even if it’s not required to be to the God of the Bible. The assumption behind this is that acknowledgment of the supernatural will help keep our darker natures in check and raise the level of collective morality in our communities and public affairs.

It’s only natural for Christians to bristle at the vilification of belief in God in society, but too often, the civic religion of the public square for which we settle conflates belief in any range of deities with general values and ethics, and the resulting mush is something that no one could love, but that few could be offended by. Such “religion” is hardly an asset to the Gospel. Or is it?

Sure, a civic religion that sees it as good citizenship to be a part of a church can promote apostasy in churches desiring to lure influential businessmen and politicians in attendance. But it could also drive “upwardly mobile” members of the community into a place where they will encounter the saving grace of Jesus Christ through a clear presentation of the Gospel for the first time.

A civic religion that places peer pressure on business owners to donate to local charities, churches, and outreach events (whether or not they do so from a heart longing for the salvation of the lost) could make light of the Church’s calling to make disciples. But it could provide needed funds to vibrant ministries that would otherwise languish.

A civic religion that sees Protestants, Catholics, and concerned nonbelievers come together to fight abortion certainly could muddy the theological waters and damage the witness of the exclusive Gospel in the community. But it could also foster the development of crisis pregnancy centers and adoption agencies that will faithfully proclaim Christ as they seek to love the downtrodden and prevent them from turning one sinful choice into a far greater one.

A civic religion that brings 1,500 community leaders into a room for a prayer breakfast (as we have here in Chattanooga each year) could be simply an opportunity for glad-handing and networking with like-minded citizens. But it could provide a legitimate opportunity to call local churches to remember that “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). It could also provide a platform to offer a clear Gospel call to each of those in attendance.

Clearly, civic religion should not be goal of the Church. Clearly, it could damage the Church and diminish the light of Christ in our culture. Clearly, our focus should be on faithfully proclaiming salvation through faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, as taught by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. But let us be careful before we throw all such public “faith” under the bus. It can be (and has been) used greatly by God as a framework that opens doors to the introduction of the true Gospel into the hearts of many.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Captured by Heart February 15, 2012

These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.

At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”

To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.

Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.

This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.

If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.

In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.

Posted by Justin Lonas

2011 Booklist December 27, 2011

Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.

Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card

This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.

Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.

Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.

Truman, David McCullough

I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.

Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell

I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.

How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas

Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert

Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e., that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), DeYoung and Gilbert issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation. What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous. Read my full review HERE.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek

Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.

Desiring God, John Piper

I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.

A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller

I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Book Review-What Is the Mission of the Church? October 20, 2011

What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, 2011, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433526909, 283 pages, $15.99, softcover.

Among evangelical Christians these days, there is a groundswell movement toward cultural transformation—not simply to reach the world with the Gospel of Christ but to do the work of renewing communities and creation as a whole to make ready for the new heavens and the new earth. This philosophy goes by several names with different shades of meaning: social justice, kingdom building, missional ministry, shalom, etc.

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written What Is the Mission of the Church? to address this “mission drift” and call the Church to remember that its specific priority is the proclamation of salvation—the redemption of mankind from the righteous wrath of a holy God through the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ.

Though their aim is to correct a popular level misconception, the authors rightly critique the theologians and pastors who have propagated exegetical and hermeneutical faults to drive the movement. They are careful and nuanced in their argument, but pull no punches when expositing the key passages used as source texts for the other side of the debate (Gen. 12, Lev. 19, Isa. 58, Amos 5, Matt.25, etc.). The level of scholarship employed and the winsome tone of the book make their case a strong one. The book is not meant to be a polemic against an opposing viewpoint, but rather a plea for all believers to let Scripture, not culture, determine the focus of our efforts in this world.

DeYoung and Gilbert are not attempting to undermine the good work done by believers in various venues, rather they criticize such alternative interpretations of the Church’s core mission as “putting hard ‘oughts’ where there should be inviting ‘cans’.” That is, they warn against confusing the good things that Christians may be individually called to do with the overarching goal that the Church gathered must pursue.

They carefully define “mission” as the central priority of the Church to which all other activities point and provide support. They point out repeatedly that the Church is given its mission specifically by Christ, and that its mission is distinct from (though part of) the overall mission of God in restoring a fallen creation—our mission is not exactly the same as God’s mission, and we shouldn’t take that unobtainable responsibility on ourselves.

Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e. that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), the authors issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation.

 What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous.

Target: Pastors/All
Type: Missions/Ministry
Take: Must Read

Posted by Justin Lonas

God and Economics May 18, 2011

In Christian circles,  there are  a lot of little phrases we use to encapsulate large swaths of theological truth for the benefit of concise conversation. Detractors call this “speaking in code” or “Christianese”, and they do have a point.  We have  a great  tendency overuse our favorite idioms to the detriment of their meaning and the confusion of unbelievers. On balance, however,  such expressions as “the kingdom of God”, “the Great Commission,” “God’s will”, “God’s plan”, or “new Covenant” are helpful aggregations of meaning and many are directly biblical. Sure, they need to be unpacked and explained to new believers, but their distillation of complex truths helps us  grasp the  basics and grow deeper in our understanding of God and His  Word.

One of my favorites in this category is the phrase, “God’s economy”, as in, “Spending 20 hours a week to share the Gospel at the  inner-city mission seems like a waste of time in earthly terms, but, in God’s economy, it makes perfect sense.” We use it to convey the idea that there is a separate (from the world) system of resource allocation that is directed by and focused on God. It’s a great, succinct phrase packed with significance.

There is a sense in which this idea is not just extrapolated from Scripture, but present in verbal form. “Economy” is essentially a Greek word, a transliteration of  oikonomia (the law or order of a house), and many manuscripts contain a variant of this word in 1 Timothy 1:4. The NASB renders this verse: “nor pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomia) of God which is by faith.” Older renderings, like the KJV, follow the sources of the Latin Vulgate, giving the last part of this verse as, “…godly edifying (oikodomia lit. “house-building”)  which is in faith.” So God’s economy, biblically, is the notion of His oversight of his household. In this, we are stewards, as Jesus teaches in parable form in Luke 16, and we will give an account for our management of His resources. In the same manner, essayist Wendell Berry describes the  kingdom of God as the overarching  ”great economy” to  which all lesser economies are subservient.

I’ve been contemplating this notion of late because I’ve been reading a lot in the secular discipline of economics. This study fascinates me because economics seems to be one of the truly “honest” social sciences. That is, properly practiced, it attempts to do no more than analyze human behavior, particularly in the allocation of resources and the responses to incentives, rather than prescriptively telling people what to think. Among the themes that jump out from the pages of Hayek, Sowell, and, yes, even Levitt & Dubner,   the strongest is the conclusion that the laws of economics (essentially 1] that resources always flow to where they are most valuable and 2] that people, corporations, and institutions respond to cost-based incentives in their decisions) supersede almost all other motivations for the choices we make.

These principles are quite  effective at describing why the esoteric goals of legislation are never met, but the often hidden incentives such laws create always come to fulfillment (e.g. welfare programs incentivizing non-work over employment, etc.). They help us understand why prices rise and fall, why businesses come and go, and why nations have gone to war over trade. They are so uniformly observed across history, geography, and culture that Hayek goes so far as to call the market system a “marvel” on par with gravity, inertia, or life itself. When we consider that even things like time, emotions, and energy can be thought of as resources whose cost must be considered, a whole array of human interactions come under the descriptive power of economics. It enables us to wrap our minds around myriad human choices in the same way that mathematics gives form to the mysteries of the physical universe; neither discipline creates the phenomena it describes, but each makes the  unknown into something observable and measurable.

But is that all there is to this life, responding to incentives according to our self-interest? What does economics have to say about the soul and its relation to God? Does “God’s economy” fit into categories of supply and demand? Certainly God is above human wisdom; the best understanding common to us “under the sun” doesn’t have the capacity to contain God’s plans and desires (as Job 28, etc., tell us). Scripture is filled with examples of the faithful submitting to God’s wisdom and showing the world’s ways to be utterly subservient to Him (David  defeating Goliath; Hannaniah, Mishael, & Azariah  surviving the furnace; Daniel  preserved in  the lion’s den; Esther pleading her case before the king; the virgin birth of Christ; etc.). God is clearly glorified when we put our faith in Him and act on it, even when doing so flies in the face of earthly realities.

Even so, something about economic theory won’t let me leave it at that. If Hayek is right in calling the price system a marvel of creation,  might it be that God  allows the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (in Adam Smith’s terminology) to govern the free interactions among men  just as the laws of nature govern the interactions of matter? If that were   the case, then the self-interest of mankind (though, like everything else, perverted by the fall) would have to be an intentional, created part of the human soul. So much of what we think of as righteous living and following after Christ, however,  seems to be based on altruism, seeking others’ best, which is the antithesis of self-interest. There is the rub, to be sure. It would be inconsistent for God to have created us to operate from self-interest only to demand altruism from us in order to stay in relationship with Him.

When we look at the appeals God makes to us for obedience, particularly in the Gospels, we notice a curious pattern: God calls us from an angle of self-interest! Take the following, for example: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Even a passage that would seem to contradict that message reaffirms it: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 24-25).

The self-interest in these passages is not of the same kind that motivates us to find the best price on items at the supermarket or to avoid actions that bring us harm. This is a self-interest in eternal terms that is revealed to us only through the Spirit of God, but it is still self-interest. God’s call is difficult but not ultimately altruistic because He appeals to our desires for rest, joy, reward, life, etc., to motivate us to seek Him. The incentives God provides only make sense in His economy, but under His authority they are powerful incentives, powerful enough to draw us from worldly wealth and wisdom to a temporal life that forsakes all other self-interest. God created us to seek our best interest, but He alone can satisfy that longing. When we heed His Spirit’s leading, we recognize that the only way to fulfill our deepest desires in God’s economy is to forsake every incentive of the lesser economies and pursue God alone. As John Piper puts it in Desiring God, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Our redeemed self-interest in God’s grand plan makes possible every act of unconditional altruism that Christ calls us to in this life.

This is a marvel indeed.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

The Cracks Are Showing March 15, 2011

The Christian blogosphere (and larger publishing world) has been hopping for the past two weeks with the controversy surrounding emerging church pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. This has been essentially a  discussion about the doctrine of eternal punishment and the question of what happens to those who exit this life without Christ. In my view, at least, it’s been a very needed debate about something very important to orthodox theology that is so often ignored because of its very uncomfortable, unsettling nature.

Our humanity recoils when we read passages like Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” Do we really want to serve that God? If what He says is at all true, we ought to be deathly afraid. God is not threatening us, but rather reminding us of our earned destiny without His interposition of grace through the shed blood of Christ. In context, that particular passage contains Christ’s words to the disciples when he sent them out to bear witness. It is an exhortation to boldness–don’t shrink back from those who threaten you because the fate of their eternal soul is in God’s hands. Be bold for your sake and theirs. Just from that snapshot, we see very clearly how central the truth of hell is to our joy in the sacrifice of Christ and our zeal for evangelism, in short, the Gospel.

That said, this post is not intended to be a review of systematic theology. Others have written better and in more depth about the subject. Rather it is to call our attention to the fractures in that theology that has historically tied Christians together. Kevin DeYoung encapsulates this angle of the current storm (and why it matters) in the midst of his extra-long review of Bell’s book:

“The primary intended audience [for Love Wins]  appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (á la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the ‘growing number’ who have become aware that the Christian story has been ‘hijacked’ (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the Gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, ‘I would never be a part of that’ (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.

“Over and over, Bell refers to the ’staggering number’ of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others””and they are in the worse position””will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.

“But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a ’staggering number’ of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.

“Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions””back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.”

When I was growing up, it was a lot easier to believe that everyone who called himself a Christian, went to church, read the top-selling Christian books, attended the big Christian conferenecs, etc. believed pretty much the same things. We all read the Bible, we all fought against abortion, we all thought the world of Billy Graham and Steven Curtis Chapman. Sure there were different denominations, but that had more to do with preferences in worship and the “secondary stuff” than theology, right? Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t that simple even then, but it felt like Christians were such a unified group.

What Bell seems to be proposing is that that unified group was too insular and exclusive, missing the bigger picture of what God was up to. What DeYoung points out is that the “unity” we thought we had didn’t really exist. We put aside some very significant differences (some bordering quite literally on “life and death” issues) to confront a larger secular culture, and in the process we diluted what it really meant to be a Christian to the point where it was nearly impossible to define. Today, more and more, the cracks are showing, as we begin to realize that many of the people we thought “got it” need to be re-taught some of the hard truths of Scripture (as we all do, often) or perhaps to be told the Good News in its totality for the first time in their lives.

We’re wired to dislike conflict, but if what comes of this kerfuffle is a renewed focus on the truths of Scripture and a renewed proclamation of the whole Gospel (including the hard parts) to Christians and non-Christians alike, then God will be glorified. If that’s what it takes for revival to come, I’ll take the conflict over that false sense of unity every time.

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Persistence of Memory February 23, 2011

Tim Challies today shared a thoughtful post on the nature of human communication across three epochs of history (for his purposes, he referred to them as “cultures”, as the first two epochs survive in pockets around the world today): Oral, Written, and Digital. He made the point that at creation, there was no written word. The Words of God were passed along to other people verbally until Moses wrote many of them down in the Pentateuch. The memories of individuals were the key repositories of all useful information. After writing systems developed and  became widely accepted, the page (stele, tablet, scoll, etc.) became the storehouse of knowledge, leading some philosophers, notably Socrates, to be suspicious of writing because of its threat to the supremacy of memory. The final era, in which we live, he called the digital world, where information is primarily  trusted to computer systems. He asked readers to consider how life and communication  today differs from that of our forbears in the previous eras. What follows is a slightly  fleshed-out version of  my comment in response to his post

Socrates may have  warned that writing would be the death of memory, but I don’t think it was entirely. It was more a blow to forgetting. As the collected stories, laws, and traditions of a society were transcribed and gathered into libraries, they were preserved for posterity, even if at the expense of the readiness of access that internalized memories provided. After the proliferation of writing, nothing of import could completely slip from the realm of existence except through disasters (fire, flood, etc.). The role of memory was still important in the age of writing because of the difficulty of moving large quantities of written material. That is, a debater or speaker couldn’t drag an entire library to the lectern with him. He depended upon his memory from careful reading and rereading of relevant writings. Writing expanded the pool of available knowledge, but did not diminish the role in society of the man who could marshal that information at will.

In the digital era, however,  even that stronghold of memory is being supplanted by the instantaneous recall of information from any number of the plethora of web-ready devices available today. Why bother to have committed a passage of a book to memory when you can pull it up on your iPhone in the middle of a conversation? Why study geography when you can affix a GPS device to your windshield to guide your every turn?

The digital revolution does not have to  be interpreted as  an inherently problematic development of culture–it allows a broader knowledge base to come into play in every discussion than was ever possible previously. However,  I see  three main frustrations/dangers associated with our computer-assisted communication of  today.

1) Sorting: The volume of information available far outweighs our ability to properly and carefully utilize it. 2) Laziness: Essentially what I described in the paragraph above. When we don’t have to rely on memory and other personal skills, we lose those skills. 3) Fragility: Whereas in the previous two epochs there was some level of permanence to information (the odds of every tribal elder with a good memory dying at the same time or of every library in the world burning down on the same day were quite slim), the necessary interconnectedness of the digital world makes it susceptible to systemic failure. That, in light of the previous two problems stated would render a digital culture largely helpless to recover (or even recognize) what it had lost.

The bottom line is that we were created to be communicators. Humans speak, and that fact in and of itself sets us apart from the rest of the natural world. God spoke us into existence and has spoken to us from the beginning. Whatever form our words have taken through the millenia, the centrality of the message shines through. Poor speech, poor writing, and poor digital content come and go, but truth endures. It is that core which we dare not forget.

Posted by Justin Lonas

The Gospel in Parentheses December 30, 2010

One of the most prevalent trends I’ve noticed in the written word these days is the proliferation of parenthetical remarks, clauses, qualifiers, and asides of all types. I see this a lot in my own work as well. It leads me to wonder what happened to our collective ability to speak straight and say what we mean in plain English. If everything we say has to be crafted in such a way as to require explanation, are we saying anything at all?

The use of parentheses, commas, dashes, colons, and the like to set off related yet distinct thoughts is nothing but proper grammar, but these markers can easily be used to shade the meaning of sentences just enough to make a writer’s thoughts impossible to pin down.  When one says, “The  Church in America has no interest in community outreach,” he is making a bold statement that is open to criticism and refutation. It is the opening salvo of an argument in the classical style. When he says, however, “The Church in America, by most counts, has little to no interest in community outreach,” he has maintained just enough give to take the edge off his statement and preemptively parry any attempt to take issue with it. His meaning is blunted, but he still gets in his punches without actually stepping into the ring.

Often, this style is employed not to attack, but to ward off the unjustified attacks of politcal correctness. We gut whatever we are trying to say in order to avoid the ever-present criticism of honesty that our society now accepts as normal. An example of this phenomenon might be a sentence such as this. A direct sentence might read, “The Bible clearly teaches that marriage between a man and a woman is designed by God and that homosexual relationships are both unnatural and sinful.” In effort to make this statement less of a bitter pill of truth to those who would disagree with it, it gets transmogrified into, “Most conservative scholars agree that Scripture holds up marriage between one man and one woman as the ideal (though many polygamists, such as David & Solomon,  rank among the Bible’s praiseworthy characters), and that homosexuality was to be avoided.” The second statement, though factually correct, lacks the force and completeness of the first, but would assuredly not raise the red flag of controversy for most groups.

The danger in this habit is this: in our efforts to shift blame, avoid declarative statements that might offend some, or subtly attack and undercut opponents, I fear we may compromise our own ability to stand firm in the proclamation of the Gospel. If we qualify everything we say to make it unassailable and palatable to all comers, then we will necessarily remove or cover over the stumbling block of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel is unequivocal. We do not preach “grace, but” or “atonement, if” when we proclaim “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); to skirt His name or even  tuck its power  in  behind the lessons of His earthly actions is to misrepresent the whole truth in a fundamental way.

As Christians, we are to be a people of truth and love. Our “yes” is to be “yes”, and our “no”, “no”. To shade the truth  undercuts our love, for “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14) in proclaiming the truth. What kind of love is there in a Gospel without redemption or a faith without hope? Preach the Gospel, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2); let the pure truth of Christ’s immeasurable love for lost sinners shine forth, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Posted by Justin Lonas

My Top Seven Books of 2010 December 16, 2010

These days, it’s customary for writers of all stripes to take a moment in December to post their list of the best 5-10 books they’ve read over the year. Since I’m a sucker for tradition, and I love to read, I can’t help but follow suit.

Some of these are new, some are not, but all made some impact on my life and thought this year and are worth a read. Here they are, in no particular rank:

A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir
Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, 2010, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., ISBN 9780310327035, 187 pages, hardcover.

Hansen and Woodbridge shatter the notion that the Western Church is in decline by recounting our shared history of revival. This book encouraged me greatly both in its content–the power of the Spirit to pierce the hearts of men should never cease to amaze us–and in its approach–teaching a new generation of believers to marinate themselves in the history of the Lord’s work among His people. History of all sorts is a passion of mine, and we undercut so much of our faith and practice by assuming the present somehow supersedes the past and preempts the future.

Home Economics
Wendell Berry, 1987, NorthPoint Press, New York, ISBN 9780865472754, 192 pages, softcover.

I’ve long been a fan of Berry’s essays on life, culture, agriculture, marriage, etc. This is yet another collection that I recently discovered, and it has all the hallmarks of his style and substance. I never thought there was much of a spiritual significance to farming, topsoil conservation, and self-sufficient living until I read Berry. He is a master at showing that conservation (which is not, and never has been, a synonym for environmentalism) is as much about man as it is about the world he inhabits. Read any of his works (Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community is a favorite), and you’ll gain an appreciation for the wondrous order of God’s great creation that eludes too many of us, particularly city-dwellers.

John Adams
David McCullough, 2001, Simon and Schuster, New York,  ISBN 9781416575887, 751 pages, hardcover.

As I said, history is a passion,  so I’m sad to report that I left this fine volume on my shelf for years after my father gave it to me for Christmas. I was completely blown away by Adams resolute character and McCullough’s masterful storytelling. The story of America through Adams’ eyes rekindled my absolute  appreciation for this land, whatever troubles befall us today. Also, biography is a mirror of the soul, and I feel like I know myself and my motivations better for having encountered Adams. This book set the standard for popular history. I liked it so much I started in on McCullough’s Truman, which I would also recommend.

Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best: The Blandings Short Stories
P. G. Wodehouse, 2001 (stories written between 1920-1950), Penguin Classics, London, ISBN9780141185743, 182 pages, softcover.

One of the great temptations of life is to take oneself too seriously. Spicing your reading list with some of Wodehouse’s works will do wonders for your inflated ego. Often unfairly accused of being too frivolous, Woodhouse is quite a serious writer–by cutting the legs out from under the pretension and self-aggrandizement of his curious characters, he allows us to laugh at ourselves through their larger-than-life foibles. As a writer, I can’t help but to revel in his masterful use of the English language–very few others have attained the level of precision in description that his works overflow with.

On Writing Well
William Zinsser, 2001 (first edition published in 1976), Harper, New York, ISBN 9780060891541, 336 pages, softcover.

Speaking of writing, I picked up Zinsser’s classic this summer and was surprised to find that it wasn’t a textbook (who knew?). What I discovered was a patient, clear statement about the craft of putting words together for the benefit of others. I was humbled by the number of his “unforgivable sins” that I commit in each article, and I feel that my own style has begun to improve under his proxy tutelage. This makes the list because it reminded me that you can always learn more about your chosen discipline, and the moment you think you’ve arrived, you condemn yourself to failure and irrelevance.

Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience
M. David Sills, 2010, Moody Publishers, Chicago, ISBN 9780802450296, 227 pages, softcover.

Sills makes the case that the greatest need in the global missions enterprise today is for faithful teaching of Scripture and doctrine to new believers, specifically in the area of training indigenous pastors. He argues that the “completion” strategy (reaching the most people in the shortest timeframe) tends to be short-sighted (despite its focus on hastening the second coming of Christ) and ignores the realities of syncretism and shallow faith that can only be addressed through long-term teaching. Though a bit heavy handed at times, it’s hard to disagree with his premise that we have, in too many cases, left off the crucial follow-up side of missions. There is a cruel irony in the fact that the teaching side of ministry is so prevalent (and rightly seen as crucial) at home but  far less so on  the field–are those we desperately want to reach with the Gospel somehow undeserving of the same quality of teaching and training that produced the missionaries we sent them? The Great Commission is a call to constant replication–you can’t make and multiply  disciples without teaching.

The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, 2009, Matthias Media, Kingsford, Australia, ISBN 9781921441639, 183 pages, hardcover.

This one was on just about everyone’s list for 2009, but I was late to the party. The raves from those reviews are indeed true. Marshall & Payne have seized on a terrific metaphor for the goals and frustrations of ministry–the vine (that is, the growth of the Gospel through the Spirit in the life of the Church) vs. the trellis (the support structure that enables the vine to grow best). Their premise is simple: the vine is the raison d’etre for the trellis, and so an undue focus on the trellis will neglect the vine and ultimately undermine the entire effort. This is indeed the rare leadership, “how-to” style book that actually has something profound to say. I foresee it being part of the required reading for pastors and church leaders for a long time.

Posted by Justin Lonas

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