Tuesday, February 7, 2012

There's been a bit of thunder and lightning over the recent comments of John Piper and the "masculine feel" he thinks Christianity has. I don't read much of or about Rev. Piper, because of his Calvinism. I respect Rev. Piper, but much of his theology is off-putting to this Arminian Pentecostal.

The first I read of Piper's comments were from Tim Gombis's blog. Gombis wrote:
Piper’s claim matches the dynamics of imperialism: “It is God’s will that power is consolidated in our hands, and this is for your good.  We know what’s best for you, and we have the best of intentions.”
This reminded me of a quote from Augustine's "City of God." Noting that God "gives earthly kingdoms to both good and bad," Augustine says:

"And therefore earthly kingdoms are given by Him both to the good and the bad; lest His worshippers, still under the conduct of a very weak mind, should covet these gifts from Him as some great things." (Book IV, Chapter 33)
 Augustine's point is that earthly power isn't the sign of God's blessing or favor. Its arbitrariness--that it is given to wicked as well as good people--shows its cheapness in God's eyes. It's like rain that falls on the just and the unjust. You don't have to be really good or holy or righteous to have power (or wet fields).

I certainly couldn't argue with Augustine. Which makes the assumption that God gives power to those he approves of wrong. Which calls into question the assumption that God wants certain people to have political power because they are right and just and appointed to be his instruments for conforming society to his will. Which pretty much calls into question the whole way Christians across the political and theological spectrum think and act in the political sphere. Because to some degree we've all fallen into the trap of thinking:  "God gave (or wants to give) power into our hands for your good. It is good for us to seek and use that power." And resistance is sinful.

This is a complex theme. God does call all people, rulers and ruled, to obey him. He does expect us to live out his Kingdom on this earth, and he will judge all of us for what we have and haven't done. But he also tells us that his kingdom is not of this world. There is a balance in being Christ's people in the world. Part of that balance is drawing a line between calling leaders to follow Christ and recognizing that Christ Jesus does not bring his kingdom into the world through the kingdoms of the world.

Yes, that's got almost nothing to do with John Piper's quote. I just thought it ought to be said.
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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Communion of the Saints

A friend asked me once if I could give a one-word definition of what I mean by "fellowship." One word-picture to make clear what I think God wants fellowship to mean for us. I puzzled over that one--how can you get this idea down to just one word? What word would you use?

But, as usual, God was a few steps ahead of us. He defines what we are, and He gave not a word but a sacrament to show what fellowship is: Communion. Act and word together, giving a perfect picture of what He makes the church to be.

We celebrate it in different ways, but in essence the Communion is the same: Christians all partake of bread and wine (or juice, for many Protestants) that represent the body and blood of Jesus. It ties into the concept of a covenant meal, it is based on the Passover, and it is the sign of fellowship with Christ. Put yourself in the early church for a moment, and celebrate the Lord's Supper as they would have. You have heard the Scriptures, you've sung together and prayed. Now the gathering disbands except for those who have confessed Jesus as Lord, have been discipled as catechumens, and have been baptized. One loaf of bread is brought out and passed around. It comes to you, and you tear off a piece just as the person who gave it to you has done. You pass it on. The leader of the fellowship bids you all eat. He passes one cup of wine and each sips from it. You have fulfilled Jesus' words: "All of you, drink from it."

This is the crowning moment of the gathering. It shows you as people who have all taken the life of Jesus into you. You didn't eat and drink because you were all of the same race, or worked the same job, or had the same political beliefs. Those things had nothing to do with this meal. You gathered and ate and drank because Jesus lived in each and every one of you. You ate of the one loaf and drank of the one cup, and none of you has been left out of the Lord's Supper.

This is what fellowship in Christ means. We are common partakers of Christ Jesus' life. We are brought together as believers in Christ Jesus. The danger for Christians is when we base "fellowship" on something else. The bread we all eat of isn't the Bread of Christ's body but the bread of politics, or culture, or country. None of those is the Bread of Life. That Bread, and no other, is the essence of Communion; that Wine of Christ's blood is the only wine that unites us.

Here's one of the most moving videos I've seen, from Charlie Hall's song Mystery:

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Maybe it's time for "Servant Capitalism"

Christ washing the feet of the Apostles, by Gi...
Image via Wikipedia
The concept of "servant leadership" has made something of a buzz for a while now. If you've read leadership material, or even attended customer-service seminars, you've likely heard at least a brief run-down on the concept:  You lead by serving. The idea is that you put the needs of those you lead above your own; you count yourself as servant to both those above and those below you on the organizational scale. John Maxwell is pretty big on it, and so are some other well-known "leadership leaders.

It's a good idea, though the servant aspect sometimes gets watered down to "help yourself by helping others"--hardly a servant's idea. The Christian leadership authors (like Maxwell) point to the Gospel of John, to Christ Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and telling them:   "And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other's feet" (John 13:14, New Living Translation). There's nothing here that points to gaining an advantage through serving:  True service is always about the other, with no thought of myself. Serving isn't "me"; it's not even "us." It's "you." What we used to get in stores:  "How can I help you?"

So my thought is that maybe we need to transfer the idea from leadership to capitalism. Maybe it's time for servant capitalism. Not businesses that simply do good to do well, or that try to have a social conscience. Those concepts are not bad but not sufficient. They do not transform a business into something that is wholly other-centered. What I mean is creating a business that is, top-to-bottom, centered on the customer. Not a non-profit business but a for-profit. Not one that justifies unethical behavior by saying:  "We have an obligation to our stockholders as well as to our customers." Such a business would make a fair and reasonable profit (my high-school Economics textbooks put that at 3-5% in the 70s).

At heart, the idea is that money--all money--is first and foremost a means of serving. This cuts against the way we see money:  It is, in our culture, for security against the future and for pleasure now. Capitalism is a way for me to gain security and pleasure by selling security and pleasure to others. In the end, most Christians and non-Christians think of money in the same way; and we think of business in the same way. We have "God-honoring principles" as rules of how we do business. The business itself, though, comes under the barest of scrutiny. We may ask:  Is it immoral? We do not ask:  Does it serve God and humanity?

What else would a servant capitalism look like? How would it be different from what we have? Could it work on a large scale? Anyone willing to take a crack at it, feel free to step up to the plate.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ebooks: Good or bad?

So, within 24 hours, I come across these ebook articles:

Yes, it's obvious that ebooks are a big deal. Will they change the way we consume books? Are they good or bad? Will they make us smarter and juice up the educational system or be "Much Ado About Nothing"? Seems everyone has an opinion.

Including me.

Here's the thing:  I have a Kindle. I have a laptop. My wife has a smartphone. She uses an iMac both at home and at work. We are, you might say, connected. And I have a basement full of books. Oh, yeah. All kinds of books.

My family is a family of readers. My kids have all read not only Lord of the Rings but also Fahrenheit 451 and Till We Have Faces (the last is my personal all-time favorite fictional work). We are the perfect confluence of geeky and literary. So what do I think of ebooks?

Well...it depends.

Cover of
Cover via Amazon

I love my Kindle. I figure it has saved me about $45.90 in library fines. Now I can load up on all the public-domain classics I never would have read in two weeks (think Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov). I have them, FREE, and FOREVER! Glorious! The Kindle is perfect for this type of content.

On the other hand, that's not where the big discussion lies. The issue is with textbooks, on full-color tablets (i.e., iPads). The e-textbook is the future of publishing, we're told. It'll have all these glorious multimedia links, and social networking for sharing notes, and flat-out gorgeous colors, and it can be updated as soon as a new digital edition is finished, and it will all cost less than the standard print textbook. What's not to like?

Here's my list.

  1. If it can access multimedia files, it can distract me with the temptation of other online content. Anyone who does much web surfing knows how this goes:  You check your email, there's a story someone sent you, the sidebar on that story has an interesting title, you check that out...and thirty minutes later you haven't finished your original task of checking your email. Who wants this when studying? This was the one beef I had with online testing and college email in the classes I took this last semester. For those who are easily distracted--or not really inspired with the task at hand--this is a real problem.
  2. A print book still has a better layout than a 10" tablet, or a 7" tablet, or even a 15" laptop. My opened textbooks measure 19" diagonally. I can scan 2 pages at a glance. There's plenty of room for graphics and for marginal notes, as well as highlights. The book is an amazing invention:  You turn the pages easily, you scan quickly, you find information at a glance. Simple. I can't do that with my Kindle; I've never had the chance to see whether I can with an iPad. If you own one, you can tell me. 
  3. Updatability is oversold. Why do I need to update last year's textbook on, say, the Civil War or the Patristic Fathers? In fact, the deeper you go into a subject, the more you'll tend to spend on the classics in that field. For sciences and for mathematics, of course, this won't hold true. For history, literature, theology, and philosophy, though, new content has to be truly ground-breaking to replace the works we already have; and that kind of content doesn't come on an annual schedule.
  4. Will it really be that much less expensive? That will be up to the publishers. Maybe the percentage of savings will be substantial, since costs for materials of production and for delivery will be low. But will the costs for editing and formatting digital content be less than the costs for editing print pages? For that matter, how much of the price of a paper book is due to the costs for physical production and delivery? Spending 40% less on a text would be attractive; spending 10% less--well, it would be enough of a savings to make me wonder why I'm not saving more.
So count me as a Kindle lover, voracious ebook reader--and cynic where e-textbooks are considered.
Yeah...like this guy. I know, I know....

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Sunday, January 1, 2012


Mrs. C has a problem. She is dissatisfied with her church.

I know because she told me so.

It’s not a bad church, really. It’s rather small, in a small town; but Mrs. C has lots of friends there. She’s well respected, and her husband is on the board. Her pastor preaches challenging, Biblical sermons. The church is doctrinally orthodox, evangelical, and contemporary. It ought to be a good place to worship and grow. So what’s the problem?

Mrs. C is dissatisfied because, she feels, her church isn’t deep enough. Not that the sermons aren’t detailed enough, or intellectual enough, or challenging enough—to her, that’s not the depth that’s lacking. It’s something more subtle, and it leaves her dry in her spirit. It’s a lack of grace.

“We teach a mishmash, a hodge-podge,” is the way she put it. “Either God is real and he has done what he says, or the whole thing is a farce. Either God has changed me or he hasn’t. But I don’t get that in the preaching.”

I understand what she means. The way I put it (and she agreed) is that we bullet-point grace but then we detail works. We say God has saved us by the work of his Son—by the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord of Glory. But we tell people that they have to do a whole list of things, and the work of the Son gets left out.

It isn’t exactly legalism. No one is saying that we have to perform sacrifices and circumcise our sons and keep a kosher table to be saved (that’s what Paul was dealing with when he took on the legalists in the church). But it is something more subtle. The aim is the right aim:  to live a Christlike life, in intimacy with God, in fellowship with one another, as servants of God and of each other. What’s missing is not the what but the how. That’s the depth, the grace, that Mrs. C says is missing in her well-meaning pastor’s sermons.

It would be one thing, I said, if your pastor taught the “shalts” and “shalt nots” and said something like this:  “We do these things because we are not the same, because we have been sanctified and belong to God, because he has transformed us and put his Spirit into us. We do these things because of whom God has made us to be—a people filled with the Spirit of God. We do these things out of the power of that Spirit.” Yes, she agreed. But that’s not what he’s saying. It becomes:  Do, and do, and do. But any doing that doesn’t draw out of Christ Jesus becomes draining. It isn’t the abundant life God promises; it’s an impossible effort that drains me. “Either God has done everything, or God has done nothing,” Mrs. C says. That’s the grace she’s looking for:  the grace of a God who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s a grace that leads me into rest, not into burnout. It’s a grace that leads to joy at what God has done, not despair at what I can’t measure up to.

Grace and holiness are meant to go hand-in-hand; that’s why Paul told Titus that grace is “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present world” (Titus 2:11 ESV). You can’t have holiness if you haven’t got grace. Holiness without grace isn’t legalism; but it’s just as futile as legalism, and even less satisfying.

I know Mrs. C’s pastor would be surprised if she were to bare her heart to him as she did to me. The truth is that I think there are a lot of pastors like him. I think our evangelical churches are full of Mrs. Cs desperately waiting to hear a sermon that tells them they are not who they think they are—that they are more than the sum of their failures—that the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is also in them. Because new life stripped of grace is empty.

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