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Prescription for Health – or Poison?

Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.

What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.

For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .

The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.

The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.

However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.

What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.

A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.

The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.

In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.

I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.

The Question of Becoming

Okay, really short post today! I was reading in Clark Pinnock’s book, Most Moved Mover, when I came across this quote –

The element of risk may belong to the time of our earthly probation and our ability to choose may diminish; as choices become habits, habits become character, and character becomes our very being. In a sense, we are becoming our choices. (Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, Baker Academic, 2001, p. 171.)

I’m going to let this one simmer for a little while, but I will probably come back to this quote in future posts. In the meantime, I think it is enough to ask, “What are you becoming?”

 

 

When, and How, To Speak

There is, according to someone much smarter than I am, a time to keep silent, and equally a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7). Yesterday I shared some thoughts I have learned (mostly by error) about when to keep silent. Today some rather tenuous thoughts about when it is appropriate – or even mandatory – to speak up.

(As an aside, I think it is at least worth pondering that the Preacher noted silence before he mentioned speech. Hmmm.)

So, okay, when is it a good thing to speak up? Well, if none of the four things I mentioned yesterday are present (or are at least minimally present), here are some suggestions about raising your voice. We should speak up when:

An error is being promoted, that, if not confronted, will have significant, and perhaps eternal, consequences.

I can handle it when my friends argue whether the Texas Rangers or the Houston Astros are the best baseball team in America, because, quite frankly, they are both wrong. Beyond that, the topic, while interesting, simply has no eternal significance. On the other hand, there are subjects about which we simply cannot equivocate. Admittedly this question is fraught with the possibility of abuse, because I know people who will fall on their sword over the color of the carpet in the church building. The way I have learned to separate the wheat from the chaff is to ask, “Is there a teaching from Christ or the apostles that directly links this topic to obedience to God and his nature?” Notice I did NOT say, “Is there are passage of Scripture that I can find to proof-text my answer?” In the history of the church we can find one wretched example after another of proof-texting and Scripture bending. There is a difference between Jesus’s direct teaching, and my interpretation of a passage from “the dark side of Nahum” (to steal a beautiful phrase from Fred Craddock). If you cannot tell the difference, please refer to my post of yesterday.

People are being hurt, or there is the distinct possibility that people will be hurt.

It is never acceptable to stand by and allow people to be hurt, either by words or physical action. Common sense has to apply here, and it might be that the best way to “speak up” is to call the appropriate authorities. However, silence is never an acceptable option when a person is being physically, emotionally, or verbally abused.

God’s honor is being attacked.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never reacted when HE was being attacked, yet when his Father’s house was being abused he drove the money changers from its walls? I believe there is a profound theological truth illustrated in that action. (And, this is not the place to argue about the trinity, but I do believe Jesus was divine in his earthly body – but he knew the difference between attacks against his words and attacks against God’s honor). It is true we are not “divine” in the sense that Jesus was – so we will never be tempted to think that an attack on our person is an attack on God. YEAH, RIGHT! Once again, to accurately determine whether it is our fragile ego or God’s pure honor that is being besmirched takes a great deal of maturity and discernment – but as with the above reason, it is never acceptable to allow God’s name – or his honor – to be used in a vain, disrespectful manner.

Finally, when we have been asked an honest, searching question.

It is never okay to simply duck an honest, open, searching question. Even if the best we can come up with is, “I do not have the foggiest clue what the answer to that question is.” At the very least we can be, and must be, honest. But to say, “Well, it is not really appropriate for me to talk about religion (or God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.) right now” is really just a dodge. In fact, this is one of the times in which Scripture does give us a fairly direct command – “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15). In such a situation silence is never golden.

Okay – so there are times when it is appropriate – even necessary – to speak up. I hope it goes without saying (pardon the pun) that even though the when may be obvious, the how is also just as critical. So, the last section of 1 Peter 3:15 is significant here – “But do this with gentleness and respect.” Speaking up does not always mean speaking up immediately. Sometimes (and oh, how I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago), it is better to remain silent initially, to compose our emotions and to prepare our thoughts, and  only then to confront and speak when the conversation can be private (or involve only those who are necessary). And, just to repeat, sometime speaking up means contacting the appropriate authorities, and not trying to interject ourselves into violent or potentially violent confrontations.

Maybe all of this is so common sense as to be frivolous. But, if for no other reason than it is helpful to remind ourselves of these things occasionally, I hope these words have been useful.

Silence

Our culture has lost a great treasure. It did not happen quickly – in fact it has taken a couple of generations to completely disappear. Sadly, although the church should have been the caretaker of this precious commodity, we are complicit in its disappearance. What is it that has become for the majority of Americans a distant memory? Silence – the gift of utter and complete emptiness. The ability to be filled with the glorious sense of quiet.

Our world is dominated with noise – but not just any kind of noise. Our world is filled with the noise of words. From the time our alarm clock goes off in the morning until we finally collapse exhausted in our beds at night we are drowning in a toxic quagmire of words. Many of these words are verbalized, either in the form of speech or songs. Perhaps even a greater number of these words are printed – showing up on billboards, on posters, in newspapers and magazines, and always present on our computers, tablets and phones. We exist in a stagnant, putrefying, poisonous ocean of words.

The irony is that as you read this, you are reading . . . words! Christians gather on Sunday mornings to sing songs of praise to our God. We collectively lift up prayers to God. We expect, even crave, to hear words of encouragement from the eternal Word of God. I want to suggest, however, that none of these words will have any significance at all if we do not enter into our worship (either solitary or collective) out of the purifying quality of silence.

Before there was anything, before there was even time, there was God, and –  silence. God spoke his first creative word out of the creative silence. In John’s mystifying vision of the future, amidst all the praise and worship that constantly surrounds the throne of God, there is the sound of awe inspiring silence. In order to hear God’s voice, there must first be silence!

Most westerners (Europe, England, the Americas) are terrified of silence. We do not understand those “mystical” people from the East who can sit for hours – alone or in a group – and do or say nothing. We even shy away from enclaves of silence within our own noisy culture, the Amish and the Mennonites and the Quakers, and those weird monastics. We may admire them from a distance, but we hope that we never catch their disease of quietness. Sad thing, really. Why are we so afraid to be silent, unless we are afraid to hear . . . God?

One question I hear almost constantly today is, “How could the United States fall so far from its founding principles is such a short period of time?” I’m sure that many answers could be given. I think, however, all the answers have a common root. I believe we have lost that fundamental ability – and necessity – to “Be still (silent) and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Here is a crazy idea: inoculate yourself with 30 minutes of silence every day, and see how much more clearly you can hear the voice of your God.

What is Education? (revisited)

Funny that something so basic can be so misunderstood. So much of what is passed off as “education” today is nothing of the sort. This is how I have come to understand education.

First, all education begins with a challenge to what we have previously known or accepted as true. You simply cannot learn something that you already know or believe. You can be reminded of something that you once learned and had forgotten, but to use the terms learn or education concerning something that you already know is to misuse the terms.

Second, one takes the challenge of the new thought or idea and puts it to a critical analysis. Here is where the student says, “I’ve never thought of this before, or in this way. I wonder what others have to say about this.” In elementary school the final source of truth might be our parents, but usually we confirm a new idea before we accept it as our own. If we do not have an “ultimate authority” we keep knocking the idea around with others until we can confirm or deny the new concept.

Learning does not stop with critical analysis, however. A third step involves returning to that which I already know, and either assimilating or rejecting the worth of the new idea. Most of what I read concerns thoughts or ideas that I have not previously experienced. I can confirm that those thoughts and ideas are, indeed true and correct as far as they go. Much of that, however, are thoughts and ideas that are not important to me and I basically ignore or forget them as soon as I learn them (sort of the study, test, and dump that most students practice on a regular basis). Yes, you can say that I have learned a great deal about the grammar of the Greek language – but I can assure you I have assimilated very little of it. I have to go back repeatedly and remind (there’s that word again) myself of concepts I have previously learned. On the other hand, if I need to know something, and can use it immediately and repeatedly, that fact or practice becomes a part of my life. Thankfully I did not have to remind myself of the principles of landing an airplane every time I took off. I learned it, and it became “second nature” in a very real way.

The final step in education then returns to the first step, and we are prepared to challenge ourselves, or be challenged by, another thought, idea, concept, or practice. The circle, or spiral, continues as long as we live, or at least as long as we aspire to learn. It is certainly true that we can remind ourselves of a great many things – and a great many things are worth our time to pull out and remember from time to time. But, to expand our mind we must challenge, analyze, assimilate and challenge again.

I fear the misnaming of education is a mistake that is all too frequently made in church settings. In far too many Bibles “classes” challenge is not accepted. The only thing that can be discussed is what is already known, approved, and accepted. Not even the teacher is allowed to study things that are new or challenging, for fear that some of his new “learning” might infiltrate his presentations. If there is no challenge there can be no critical analysis. In fact, there cannot be any critical analysis of things that are already accepted and approved. There can be no “what” or “why” questions – unless the subject involves an outsider, and we wonder what or why “they” think the way they do. If there is no critical analysis, there can be no assimilation, no “building” upon a previous foundation. Only that which is approved can be approved. That is circular thinking, and that is not education.

My greatest mentors over the first half of my formative years were all devout (and brilliant, by the way) members of the Churches of Christ. I learned from men such as Everett Ferguson, John Willis, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Lemoine Lewis, and Eugene Clevenger. These are men who epitomize education to me. Most, or at least many, of them obtained their doctoral degrees from the pinnacle of Ivy League (and, not to be redundant, liberal) universities. Yet, they remained true to the Restoration plea that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is the ultimate authority to which all new ideas and concepts must be compared. My greatest mentors over the last few decades of my life have been outsiders to this circle of faith – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, and even more recent, N.T. Wright. Having a solid foundation, I can compare what is new, unfamiliar, and in some cases unsettling, with what I previously learned to be true. I have come to learn (pardon the pun) that much of what these “outsiders” teach is actually true – true in the biblical sense, but perhaps not true in the sense of my tradition. Not all, to be sure – I do have to exercise my critical analysis muscles quite a bit!

I am distressed by those who refuse to be challenged, and so to expand their education. I am equally distressed to read, and to hear, of those who claim to be leaders in the Churches of Christ today who begin with the challenge, and then jump straight to assimilation without the critical analysis phase. How did Everett Ferguson come away from that bastion of liberalism known as Harvard with such a conservative understanding? Because his feet were well grounded, and he was not swayed by “every philosophy” that blew his way.  Suffice it to say that our pulpits are full of preachers who catch wind of a new idea, and, embarrassed by their suffocating “tradition,” blithely follow that new idea where ever it blows, even if it blows up. Jumping on every new and sexy idea is not education. Forcing your congregation to follow you into your folly is not leadership. However, I am afraid we have idolized those who are the least worthy of our following, and we have mistakenly identified blind allegiance as true education.

I am, by nature and by nurture, an educator. I simply adore teaching. I love it when my students “get it.” But I don’t want it to be easy. I want there to be some struggle, and I do not necessarily want them to accept every “i” and “t” as I present them. I want my students to get an education – and some day it would be a great honor for one of them to teach this old dawg a new trick or two.

*Note: Arrrrgh. I just realized I posted under this exact title some time ago. That is the thing about my memory – it works so irregularly that almost everything is brand new to me. Sorry for any whiplash that folks might have experienced.

Book Review – Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision (Paul R. House)

Bonhoeffer’s Seminary Vision: A Case for Costly Discipleship and Life Together. Paul R. House (Crossway:Wheaton, Illinois, 2015) 197 pages.

One thing that you can say about my book reviews is that I am NOT generally on the “cutting edge” of literary publications. Chances are I am reviewing books that are anywhere from five to fifteen years old – or maybe even older. Every once in a while, however, I do get ahold of a book that has been published in the preceding twelve months, and luckily for me this book is one such example.

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Paul R. House has given words to something that I feel very deeply. The fact that he did so by incorporating the theology and practices of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is just icing on the cake to me. In fact, I initially bought the book because of the connection to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I am hopelessly enthralled with Bonhoeffer, and the title of this volume piqued my interest). However, I quickly came to realize that the real value of this book lies in House’s critique and solutions he gave to a critical issue facing seminaries and schools of theology.

 

I write from my own perspective, and so others may have a very different opinion based on their experiences, but I will go out on a limb and say that, with few exceptions, Churches of Christ do not do a very good job of preparing ministers. The Bible departments in our colleges and universities, our graduate schools, and our schools of preaching do a passable job in teaching the content of what a preacher needs to know (and some do that better than others), but on an over-all basis the schools that are tasked to prepare the next generation of congregational preachers do not do a very effective job of forming the life of the minister. There is a kind of silent code that states, “our job is to provide a student with the skills he will need to be a preacher, it is up to the candidate to be the kind of Christian he will be.” This was certainly the case when I was in school 30+ years ago; I am not sure how true it is today. Just a hunch based on some very unscientific observations, but things have not changed much in the product, however much has been changed in the theory end of the equation.

If my observation is valid at all, that would mean that the Churches of Christ fare no better, although probably not any worse, than the situation House describes. He challenges the notion that ministers of the gospel can be trained in sterile, “academic” settings exclusively. He especially challenges the idea that a minister can be shaped or formed through the process of “on-line” courses which basically amount to nothing more than the transfer of data between two computers. House is no neophyte – he has a Ph.D from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has been involved in seminary education for over 30 years. His academic credentials are impeccable. What he says needs to be heard, whether you ultimately agree with him or not.

Basing his argument on two of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more popular (and readable) works, Discipleship, and Life Together, House defends his argument that theological education – at least the kind of theological education that shapes and forms a minister’s life – needs to be done in community. While rigorous academic work must be a part of the seminary experience (the part I think our schools excel at), there must be a high level of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual formation that occurs as well. House demonstrates that Bonhoeffer had his greatest impact on the future of the church through the experiences he had with his seminarians, beginning at Zingst, and then moving to Finkenwalde and ultimately to the collective pastorates in Kosslin and Gross Schlonwitz. Bonhoeffer was a demanding educator – he expected a high level of exegetical acumen from his students, but he was equally concerned with who the young men were, and what they were training to become. Bonhoeffer did not just want to share information or pass along esoteric tidbits of theological trivia. He wanted to form ministers who could go out into one of the most demanding, and physically terrifying, situations in church history and not only survive, but to thrive and help their church members to thrive.

The fact that a majority of Bible majors in universities and colleges associated with Churches of Christ do not plan to or even want to enter into congregational ministry* is a devastating indictment against the education they are receiving. Various reports are suggesting that there are not enough students enrolled to adequately serve the number of congregations who presently need ministers, and with the baby boom generation of preachers getting ready to retire or are no longer able to serve the congregations, the need for additional servant-ministers will soon become acute. The ultimate answer to this need is no doubt far more extensive than the suggestions in this thin volume, but if you are looking for a place to begin, the wisdom in this book would be my first suggestion.

*Based on a personal report of one prominent university dated some years ago. Other colleges and universities may have a much higher proportion of students who not only desire, but are actively planning, to enter into congregational ministry. My apologies if my brush is painting with too broad of a stroke.

Book Review – The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Thomas E. Bergler)

The Juvenilization of American Christianity Thoms E. Bergler (Grand Rapids: William E. Eerdmans, 2012) 229 pages and 37 pages of endnotes. 51+3XPP+nvL

I’m not exactly sure the process that encouraged me to read this book – I had a bunch of “irons in the fire” over the past couple of years, and a note indicates I bought this book in July of 2013 – so it has been a while since I have read it. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but that time delay does not reflect on the importance of the book.

There are some books that you read and you think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.” Other books you read and you think, “I’m not sure I agree with that, or I do not think the author made his case very well here.” And then there are the books that you read and you think, “Wow. I agree with the author, and I really wish that he was not right.” Bergler’s book fit that third category for me. I have felt that Bergler’s thesis was true for quite some time, but I could not have said it as powerfully or as eloquently as Bergler does.

Bergler’s thesis is given on pages 4 and 8:

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American Church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.

And then this:

Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture.

The main point of the book is that due to the influence of the adolescent culture shift that started in the 1930’s, the American church is basically a church of adolescents. This is not something that can be undone, according to Bergler. Indeed, he states emphatically that his book is NOT a manual on how to eliminate juvenilization – and the last chapter is dedicated to “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization.”

Bergler demonstrates how each of the major groups of American Christianity (Liberals andConservatives, Catholics and Protestants) have been affected by this trend. The one group that he points out that has managed to resist the process is the Black church. This is true because  Black Christians did a much better job of integrating their youth into the entire church and thereby fostered a greater degree of maturity as their youth matured.

In contrast, by creating, and by constantly re-creating age specific “youth groups” complete with their own “youth ministers,” the vast majority of the American church scene simply allowed their youth to stagnate in the period of life we call adolescence. The problem is that now “we are all adolescents” as the introduction is titled. Just think of the major issues in the American church today and you will find that at the root there is a systemic lack of Christian maturity. Everyone wants the church to be what they want it to be, not what Christ has called the church to be.

Having gone through adolescence in the 1970’s this book was a hard read for me. I loved the youth group that gave me so much strength as a young Christian. But I can see now how we have bent the church to try to match the demands of what can only be described as “adolescence” that we have lost sight of Paul’s instruction to “grow up into maturity . . . into Christ.” By allowing everyone to stay an adolescent, we have almost killed the church.

The one problem I have with the book is Bergler’s acceptance of the problem he identified. True, in the final pages he discusses how the process needs to be “tamed,” but I do not see how the issue he discusses can be dealt with short of ending it. Adolescence may be a necessary stage of growth for today’s young people, but in no way do we want them to stay stuck in adolescence. We want to move them to maturity – we want to move the church to maturity. We want, or maybe better put, we NEED to grow up!

I heartily recommend the book. It may open your eyes, it may challenge you, and you may thoroughly disagree with Bergler, but in my (humble) opinion you cannot disregard the issue that he reveals.

We Need to Listen to Anselm

Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)

Answer – An atheist

I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.

Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)

I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.

I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.

Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.

Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.

We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.

“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)

Doggone Bad Theology

It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.

The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.

Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?

I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.

At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”

In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.

And doggone bad theology is the worst.

Book Review – “Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker” (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)

I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardles51L8n6dixxL._AA160_s of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.

Boy, am I glad I did.

My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.

Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)

I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.

Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.

Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.

Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.

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