Sunday, January 27, 2008

Politics and the Death of the Church

Super Tuesday is coming fast, and the political season is in full bloom. Everyone's telling everyone else how to vote and why, and this year marks something different from the past in one respect:  There's a real contest on for the evangelical vote. Some of this is due to the Iraq war, some due to disillusionment with Republican policies, and some is simply a sea-change brought about by the emergent movement. The last is the most important, because the Iraq war will come to an end in time (perhaps a long time) and Republican policies will change in response to the electorate. The emergent church, though, is going to have long-lasting effects because it is, for better and for worse, reflecting change in America's culture. I don't mean to air grievances with the emergent scene; I just want to blog on politics for a bit.

I've come to wonder lately if the Anabaptists, in turning their backs on the politics and the governments of their day, might have been taking the right and "Christian" approach to politics. Just saying this will get a lot of heat from activists on left and right who will tell me that this is turning away from the Church's activist mission to change the culture and to establish the Kingdom of God in the earth. Both sides whole-heartedly and heatedly think we need to engage the political culture of the nation and of the world.

Problem is, we're not engaging the political culture. We're marrying it.

If we were engaging the political culture, we wouldn't be taking sides. We wouldn't split ourselves into Religious Right and Religious Left. We wouldn't hold political allegiance closer to our hearts than the Name of Jesus Christ or the unity that the Holy Spirit gives and that we are commanded to maintain. We would call even our political heroes to account when they sin. We would keep in mind the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

But we don't.

We take sides. We choose a party. We pick and choose from the Scriptures to justify ourselves--there's as much "proof-texting" by liberals as by conservatives.  What we choose has more to do with what pulls on our emotions than with what the Bible really says. And we make excuses when someone on "our" side clearly violates the Word of God. 

To quote J.P. Moreland, "If one approaches Jesus with either a democratic or republican agenda, Jesus will turn out to be just a big Ted Kennedy or Bill Frist in the sky!" This makes Jesus just another false god--remaking God into the image of man. God is not what He is but what we feel comfortable with.

At the root of the problem is this:  We think more in terms of the Old Testament state than of the New Testament Church. The Old Testament is full of laws for setting up a government and living under that government as a state. The New Testament isn't about a state. There are no kings anointed to rule except Jesus. There are no covenants except one, that God Himself will make and keep:  "I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God. . . . I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sin no more." The New Testament just doesn't tell us how to set up a civil government. Constitutional monarchy? Republic? Dictatorship? Big government? Small government? We're left on our own. Which leaves me to wonder:  Does God care about that as much as we do? Maybe His priorities lie elsewhere.

Technorati Tags: ,,

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Shack: Pilgrim's Progress 21st-Century Style?

I just finished reading William Young's The Shack. If you haven't heard of this book, you're going to. A number of highly-regarded writers are endorsing it; Eugene Peterson, author of The Message Bible, compares it to Pilgrim's Progress: "It's that good," Peterson writes in his endorsement. When someone of Peterson's stature says that about a book, the book becomes worthy of attention. And The Shack (published by Windblown Media) is certainly worth your time.


(Cover image, copyrighted by Windblown Media)

Briefly, The Shack is the story of Mackenzie Allan Phillips, married father of 5 children whose youngest daughter is abducted and murdered by a serial killer. About 3 and a half years after her still-unsolved murder, Mack finds a letter from "Papa"--God--inviting Mack to meet God at a tumble-down wilderness shack where Missy's blood-stained dress was found. Out of both anger and cynical curiosity, Mack ends up waiting for God at the shack.

Let's get some things out of the way first. No, the book isn't perfect. It's always a risky thing to speak for God or to defend Him. Whatever you make Him to be is bound to be less than He is. That's the danger of a "graven image": mistaking the image or icon for the real thing.

On the other hand, the narrative gives good reason for things we take as. . . unorthodox. And, of course, icons (unlike idols) were not meant to be worshipped or taken as deptictions of the real thing. An icon was meant to be a seed for meditation. The Shack is just that.

A theologian would say that the book emphasizes the immanence of God over the transcendence of God. But, of course, that's the point: Is God near? How could He be near, or be good, or understand our pain as He claims to, and not do something about it--not stop it? Why doesn't He simply show up? Why didn't He show up then?

You may think you know where all this is going; Christian writers and philosophers have dealt with these questions for centuries. We've had lots of answers thrown at us, in books and sermons. The power of The Shack lies in the way it makes its points. The story goes deeper--much deeper--than the average sermon.

This book is littered with gems to pick up and tuck away. One look likely won't show them for their full worth. The Shack is worth pulling out and reading again, and handing out to friends. It has the power to change the way you view life and God, and to challenge you to something deeper than what we have made Christianity to be.

So: Is it The Pilgrim's Progress for this generation? In a way, yes; but it reminds me more of C.S. Lewis' The Pilgrim's Regress. Like that book, this one peels back our layers of objections to God, our fear and distrust of Him. It's not so much about the full journey, first step to last, as about how and why we make the journey. Call it a mid-course correction. When you're off-track, that's just what you need.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Refractions: Refractions 26: The Epistle of van Gogh

This entry links to the Refractions blog of artist Makoto Fujimura:

Refractions: Refractions 26: The Epistle of van Gogh

Refractions 26 is Fujimura's entry on insights he gained from the Morgan Library exhibit of Van Gogh's letters to Emile Bernard. Fujimura, a highly-regarded artist whose parents were born in Japan, has posted a lengthy but thoughtful entry that covers Van Gogh's art and faith, especially shown through "Starry Night" (probably Van Gogh's most popular and recognizable work). What's interesting to me is that Fujimura fleshes out the basic picture of Van Gogh with a few details about his intellect and culture:  that, for instance, Van Gogh spoke and wrote in five languages, daily read from Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ in its original Latin, and was rejected from the pastorate by the Dutch Reformed Church because he was not well educated.

Fujimura relates Van Gogh's literary and linguistic skills to his artistic ability. Van Gogh was keenly interested in not only his own but other cultures and was strongly influenced (like several Impressionist artists) by Japanese woodblock art. Would he have been so artistically and visually aware in a less literary culture? How does reading affect a culture's art? How does it affect the way a culture thinks and works? (An aside:  Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of the best books on this theme.)

So here's a thought:  Why are Christians, who should be the most literary people on the planet, so poor in the visual arts? We've got the kitsch of Thomas Kincade and the sometimes-preachy illustrations of Ron DiCianni (whose art I really like in spite of its drawbacks). But when I read the sections of Scripture in which God's prophets see visions of the Holy One on His throne, I see majesty, awe and holiness displayed in a way that brings the prophet (and me as the reader) to his (to my) knees in humility, repentance and worship. We can do this in our writing and music, but how can we develop a sense of the presence of God in the visual arts? And why aren't we trying harder to do so?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

God is Good, All the Time. . . Unfortunately

I wrote in my Dec. 29 post that Larry Crabb's book had gotten me to think about the goodness of God. We easily, in the comfort of a good worship service, respond to the pastor's line "God is good" with the refrain, "All the time." When he says, "All the time," then on cue we answer:  "God is good." And this is true. But not in the way we mean, or want it to be true.

If I say, "God is good," what do I mean? And when God says He is good, what does He mean? Are we on the same page? Are we talking about the same thing? Frankly, a close reading of the Bible makes it plain that we are not. Because the God of the Bible isn't always what I think of as good.

And yet, God is good--all the time. He is good because He never lies, not about Himself nor about what we are like. He is good because He always forgives the one who repents, no matter how heinous or despicable that person's deeds. He is good because He is merciful in equal measure to all who come to Him. He is good because He is always faithful to His words and to His character, and because He will not endure evil. . . not even in His Church. Especially not in His Church. This is what it means to say that God is good all the time:  That He never varies from this.

Whatever is good reflects the character of God. This means truthfulness even when it puts me in a bad light, and forgiveness and mercy when I would rather wound in turn the one who wounded me, and keeping my word no matter what it may cost me.

What do I count as good? Getting what I want is good. Being safe is good. Being wealthy is good. It's good to be sought out as a wise man, to be called "gifted" and "anointed." In other words, when we get down to it, selfishness is good. Christlikeness is painful and therefore is not good. Not that I would actually say this. But it describes the way I think and live.

In The Chronicles of Narnia, one thing is said of Aslan again and again:  "He's not a tame lion." Or, as Mr. Beaver puts it:  "Of course He's not safe. But He's good." So I have a choice between safety and the goodness of God. Not always, of course; sometimes they are the same thing. But in a fallen world, God does not promise to keep me safe in the way I wish He would. He only promises to make me like His Son. In all things, God works for the good--not for the comfort--of those who love Him.

In our hearts, there's something that responds to that. There's something that wants to throw off the fear of true goodness and where it may lead; there's something that wants to follow no matter what the danger, no matter the cost. That something is the Spirit of God, Who impels us to follow Christ. We are ready to let God look into our hearts, show us the root of our fear, and put it to death. The truth is, we know that we won't be safe in being safe. We are only safe in Christ.