Friday, August 31, 2007

2007 Book of the Year: Exclusion and Embrace

This may seem a tad premature, but I am confident that I have just read, and can therefore name, my "Book of the Year". Last year I chose "Beyond Foundationalism" by Grenz and Franke. I'm pretty sure it didn't give the same sales bump as Oprah might have but, nonetheless, it seemed to me a very important book, and such a thing deserved to be said. Such a thing deserves to be said again.

Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace is perhaps the most important book of our day. I'm not kidding. Now, granted, it is already over 10 years old, but sometimes the most important things take awhile to get noticed. This one has been noticed by plenty of scholars of course. But it took 10 years to trickle down to me. Even though I've noticed it being quoted in a lot of different places, I really only read it because I had to for a class.

Am I ever glad.

Miroslave Volf has written an intensely well-researched, thought-out, and articulate book on the social ramifications of the Christian gospel. But that is not really a fair description of the book. That is where it ends up, but as its subtitle states, all throughout it is a thorough and honest Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.

In it one finds a compelling argument for the way of Christ as the only sensical hope for "progress" that this world will ever have. In it one finds a defining guide toward understanding personal identity intertwined with a landmark depiction of the integral dynamic of relational community. In it one also finds a lucid presentation on the themes of justice, truth, and peace that actually makes you willing to believe in them again. Add it all up and this is quite simply a very important book.

There may be one or two points in this book that I'd quibble about, but honestly, I think this book has defined my worldview. It is the way of the cross. Nothing rings more true to me in the whole world than what this book presents.

The interesting thing about it is that Volf panders to no one. Evangelicals will read this and squirm. He takes on everything from gender to isolationism, judgmentalism to the support of violence. Atheists, too, will read this and recognize many of their own quoted in its pages and taken in a positive light. But they will likely be surprised at how such a compilation of atheist philosophers can each lend a voice to the truth of Christ.

I could provide excerpts but it would be too hard to choose. Whether it is trumping Neitzche's "will to power" with the more-important "will to embrace", disarming the notion that we can ever administer justice without serving the cycle of injustice, or reminding the church of the anti-Christian trend of merely living inside itself---Volf challenges everyone. But not just to challenge them, as if he wants to be the next "cool" author to lead a revolution. There is none of that book-selling crap going on here. Volf challenges all without really calling anyone out. He is gentle but miles away from naive. He is a Croatian who has seen many atrocities in his own time and still realizes he must admit the power of forgiveness. He is courageous. He wades right into the violence and pluralism and self-righteousness of our world and puts in his two cents. Two cents worth a million.

This is probably the most honest book I've ever read. Volf will pose an "answer" and then thoroughly question his own answers to try to get at the truth. Which he does in spades, if you ask me.

My one warning with Volf's book is that it may be hard to read. It is written for the academic world. I had to read pretty slow. But it is well worth the effort for those who don't want to wait for it to trickle into more readily accessible literature. Even if you were just to read the first three chapters you would likely find your life and worldview challenged and benefitted immensely.

If you know me or you've been reading me at all you know I'm pretty concerned about the state of the world, and even more concerned about the state of evangelicalism. To paraphrase one of the many great lines from the book: We seem to be improving ourselves to death. In regard to the church and the world, this book represents my only hope. Sounds exagerrated, maybe, but I mean it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Leadership Summit's Inordinate Triumphalism

I recently caught the tail end of a Willow Creek Leadership Summit and heard Bill Hybels giving the wrap up speech for the day. Even though I greatly respect and appreciate this pastor and evangelical leader and the thrust of much of what he says and does, I must say that he said a few things that really bothered me. I'd heard him say them before, and they'd bothered me before, but this time it clicked in my head and I understood why.

He said: "The local church is the hope of the world."

I've heard him say this before, and I love it because it challenges us to live up to our mission and reminds us that we hold a redemptive (rather than merely escapist) message and are driven by a powerful Spirit. But unfortunately I think this statement not only misplaces our motivation but is patently false.

The local church, or even the universal church is not the hope of the world.

Sorry, it just isn't. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. It may sound like I'm splitting hairs, but this is very important.

Yes the church represents Jesus Christ and is called to be his ambassador and is called to embrace his mission as is filled with the Holy Spirit who guides it and empowers it to make great strides in that mission, but it isn't Jesus Christ. It isn't perfect. It fails Him and he preserves it and works with it despite all that. But it isn't Him. If it was, things would indeed be a lot better in the world today. When we say the church is the hope of the world we've got a good inspiring statement there, and a proper challenge in front of us, but we are also just setting ourselves up for disillusionment in our own eyes and disappointment in the world's eyes.

We soon forget (and so does society) that the church is first and foremost a people embracing forgiveness, not a people who are somehow better than anyone else.

Another thing Hybels said (or at least heavily implied) was that if the Church (and by that I think he mostly meant the Evangelical West) got together they could eradicate poverty. Wow. That is inspiring. But again, patently false. Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if we could and I think we should try, but let's not decieve ourselves.

This is basically the heresy of Triumphalism all over again. Triumphalism, like most falsehoods, starts with a truth and then takes it too far. It goes like this: It believes that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death and suffering. Amen. The cross and empty tomb. But it forgets that we will not experience that victory fully until his return. Not yet.

Triumphalism is leaning too heavily on the already without an adequate dose of the not yet. The flip side of it is the lethargy and indifference of what I'll call Defeatism. This isn't good either. I admit that I succumb to it too easily. I think many of us do. I'll also admit that Hybels is rightly trying to wake us up from wallowing in such slumber. But I just wish it wasn't just another error in the opposite direction.

Triumphalism isn't so bad, I guess, when it is merely overestimating the already of God's plan, but it is downright horrifying when it over-estimates the already of us and our ability to achieve it. What happens when we get Triumphalistic like this is that we over-state ourselves, over-estimate ourselves and our abilities, and set ourselves up for huge failure and let down. We get naive. When we do this not only do we set ourselves up for disappointment, but we put our hope and our motivation in the wrong place.

This may sound nitpicky, but I'm convinced it is a huge problem in evangelicalism today. We put it all on our own shoulders, obsess about our strategies and our leadership principles, and then go to town. These efforst aren't bad. It is good stewardship to champion excellence and coordinate our efforts. But thereien does not lie our hope. Therein lies the path to self-reliance. This was the path Adam and Eve chose first.

I'll close this one off with another illustration of the point: I've also heard Hybels say before (quoting Scripture):

"Without a vision, the people perish."

To this I ask the question: What vision? Is it our marketing strategies, our "championing" rhetoric, our seeker sensitivity, and our leadership efficiency training? Is it that vision?

It's not that those things are bad or unhelpful, but I really don't think that's what the Bible was referring to. I think it was referring to God's vision; God's redemptive plan. Sure, that includes the best efforts of his church. But is most certainly is not reducible to that. Too often I think we are using that Scriptural reference to say:

"Without human ingenuity added to the biblical vision, the people perish."

I sure hope we don't mean that. But that's what I'm hearing. And if anyone else is hearing that, I hope we all can recognize it as untrue, or at least drastically incomplete. I don't mean to pick on Hybels. He is a very godly man and I think he is leading evangelicals in the right direction and I think we should follow these initiatives. But to me these statements of his also represent a flaw in our thinking that I think we need badly to get straight. Especially if we actually aim to hit those initiatives redemptively.

I think we should try to eradicate poverty. But out of love for Christ and for his creatures not out of a hype campaign. I also think we carry, testify to, and serve the hope of the world. But we are not it. The sooner we realize that I think the sooner God's grace and power can begin to have its way with us. For without God's vision, the people perish.

God's vision rests is the reconciling power and self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ. Our hope is the abiding faithfulness and redeeming power of the Spirit. Our leadership summits should focus us on that. By and large I think they do, but then these statements of human triumphalism slip in and divert it back to ourselves. Man is it hard not to do that. I do it all the time. But let's call it like it is.

Friday, August 24, 2007

GKC and Real Community

GK Chesterton has a marvelous essay in one of his first books (Heretics) called "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family" which addresses the topic I've been raising in my last several posts. His basic thrust in this essay is that cliques and clubs are all well and good (in their place) but let's not pretend that they are somehow the type of community that the human experience needs and is really all about.

His essay addresses family and the neighborhood versus the cliques and the clubs, but could easily be applied to the situation of multi-faceted, multi-generational churces versus target-audience churches. I was going to paraphrase him, but he puts it so much better than I, I'm just going to quote him, and insert a comment here or there so you know what I'm addressing with his words:

"The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. . . . [because] in a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. . . . The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. . . . A big society [i.e. mega-church?] is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge. . . .

The club was valued as a place where a man could be sociable. Now the club [i.e. the target-audience church?] is a place where a man can be unsociable. . . . Its aim is to make a man comfortable, and to make a man comfortable is to make him the opposite of sociable. Sociability, like all good things, is full of discomforts, dangers, and renunciations. . . .

Of course, this shrinking from the brutal vivacity and brutal variety of common men is a perfectly reasonable and excusable thing as long as it does not pretend to any point of superiority [i.e. the mega-church obsession of Western evangelicalism? In other words, cliques and clubs are fine, we all want to talk to people with common interests, that's what friendships are about, but let's not pretend that this is the be-all-end-all of community, especially Christian community, i.e. the Church!] . . . .

So long as you have groups of men chosen rationally [i.e. by generation, music preference, etc...?], you have some special or sectarian atmosphere. It is when you have groups of men chosen irrationally that you have men. The element of adventure begins to exist; for an adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us. It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose. . . .

The supreme adventure is being born. . . . Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. . . . In order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. . . .

The reason why the lives of the rich [i.e. ?] are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent. They fail to feel adventures because they make the adventures. . . . They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe to be as weak as themselves."

This may seem a scathing rebuke. Maybe it is. I certainly think there is a crucial point to be made here that every generation needs to here. I'm certainly not againts finding people of common interests, even in church, and hanging out with them lots. In fact, this is and always will be a great potential source of relational, emotional, and even spiritual, nourishment. It can also add to the fellowship and productivity of the organization. But let's not truncate community and leave it at that. I could go on, but I'll leave it there for comments.

Go ahead and tell me if I'm out of line or need balancing on this. I'll probably disagree with you, but that's okay! In fact, that's part of my essential point! Disagreement is a crucial part of the adventure GK is talking about! In fact, it is a crucial part of Christian community (in a fallen world)! Without it we will hardly learn love and we will hardly learn truth! That does sound narrow, Mr. Chesterton, that does sound like hell.

[excerpted from Heretics, Dodo Press, pages 83-90]

Monday, August 20, 2007

Common Interests and Community

The thing about conversation is that even if you develop a genuine interest in people (and therefore can be interested in what they want to talk about), you still can't possibly be genuinely interested in everything. Part of being human is being different from other humans. Part of being a creature made in the image of God is that you reflect not some static and uni-dimensional image in total conformity to everyone else, but that you reflect some aspect of that image like one face of a multi-faced prism. You are created unique. You do have certain likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, personality quirks and hobbies, and there is no sense denying that. It is what you bring to the table.

And so in a conversation, while it is a good thing to find a way to be interested in others and to develop a listening ear and an open heart to different people, you can't pretend you are something you are not. The goal is not assimilation. The goal is not enmeshment of personalities. The goal is not for me to become an avid fisherman and deny that more truly I am an avid cinephile, music lover, or NFL fan. The goal is community. And as Miroslav Volf says in his important book, Exclusion and Embrace, in order to have community you must have difference between individuals. There must be a distance between you so that there is space to receive the other.

The thing is that community is more than just a gathering of people with like interests. It needs to include that, of course, but is not reducible to that. Let's not pretend that community denies the importance of finding people to hang out with and talk to who do have like interests. For all I've said about being interested in what others are talking about, I must also pause to recognize the reality that an integral part of conversation is in fact a search for like interests.

So if I'm getting to know someone who can't stop talking about horticulture---and I'm showing interest not because I could give half a crap about horticulture but because I care to find out about what makes them tick---we may be practicing genuine community to a certain degree but at some point it will cease to be genuine (and will therefore cease to be true community) if I am perpetually pretending to be "turned on" by horticulture.

Now, let's face reality honestly. If we only have a five minute window in which to spark a relationship or have a conversation, I am going to have to face the fact that in that window I must: a) show interest in the person, and b) also find a way to convey my own self in an authentic way. Otherwise we will be in danger of perpetuating a one-sided and phony relationship. This is only measurable over time and can't rise and fall on every single short conversation, but is a reality nonetheless.

The sad fact is that many people will talk your ear off forever without a concern for discovering common interests. In other words, they will rely on your commitment to community for the development of that friendship. At some point, if you are going to experience genuine community, let alone enjoy a friendship within that community (which isn't necessary, but is worth remaining open to), you are going to have to find a way to interject and say something like: "Wow, I'm not much of a horticulturalist myself but I can see why that interests you."

If they ask what does interest you and in the course of time you do find that you have some common interests (or are able to develop them), then you might be able to have a friendship. If you discover you have very few common interests, your friendship might not involve a lot of extra-curricular activity, but that's okay. These things don't need to be forced, unless you are two people stranded on a desert island or you are in a stage of life where one of you really needs a friend.

But if you discover you have no common interests you should still be able to have community. And within the church this should always be possible because of our common belief that human beings are made in the image of God and because of our commitment to self-giving love in the name of Jesus Christ.

I'm not saying that church foyer-talk isn't going to involve a search for common interests. I'm just saying that a church that is built upon common interests is less of a church and more of a club. Clubs are fine. In fact, I think it vitally important to find a "club" (or friendship based on common interests) within a church. But let's not confuse one with the other.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Isn't it funny how 8 times out of 10 when people tell you what you said was interesting they mean precisely the opposite? We've all done it. We've all heard it. It is usually the surest sign that the anecdote you just told totally blew. Maybe you told it wrong, or maybe they just don't have a clue what you are talking about or why it matters---whatever the case, it was anything but interesting to that person. Yet it is the most polite of conversation closers to say: "Wow. Interesting. Hey, is there any potato salad left over there?"

Best case scenario: They just weren't following. You were assuming you were on the same page from the get-go and were mistaken. Given time and another chance you could show how interesting and sensical your anecdote was, and find and enjoy some common ground.

Worst case scenario: That person finds you an incredible bore and you must come to grips with the startling truth of that possibility without concluding that they must be from another planet.

I think it is a great gift to be able to be interested in anyone and anything. My Grandma is really good at this. She listens and tries to see what is so interesting to the speaker that they would choose to speak these words in conversation rather than the millions of others they could have chosen. I've tried to get good at this too. After all, it comes back to believing the person your are talking about is a person made in the image of God. There must be something remotely intersting there. Curiously, even though I hate fishing, I almost came to enjoy it through the passion of the avid fishermen I met and listened to and grew to appreciated in Manitoba. (I'm pretty sure Rob doesn't read this, but hello Rob!)

Trouble is, I generally start with the assumption that very few people find the same things interesting as I do, so I pass off questions about what I'm into and then get to my task of listening to others. This has been good for me and I've learned a lot about the world and learned to love people, but it can get pretty lonely too. You sure do need people around you who are interested.

And here is the thing: You also need people who are interested, not just becasue they happen to like what you like, but because they are interested in you. It is great to have a groups of friends with common interests, but we also need a groups of people with a common love. Not a love of some hobby or project, but a common thing inside them that makes them appreciate the world, and others, and expecte to see something of God, something lovable, something true, in everything.

This is part of the reason I don't like churches choosing target groups, subconsciously or consciously, as most do. It makes church easier and more enjoyable, but it somehow diminishes for me the reason we get together. At worst it creates a "false unity", in that we are saying we gather because of Christ but we really gather for something else.

This is also part of the reason I try to steer the conversation elsewhere in the church foyer whenever someone seems to be making small talk for small talks sake, talking about something even they aren't interested in! Those conversations are the worst! I'd rather stand in silence.

But honestly, if the person talking is genuinely interested, it should be at least theoretically possible, given time, to find out why. Its just a matter of how far apart you start and how much time and love you have to give.

Chesterton wrote a very true thing: "There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Communion, Again

I'm not trying to rag on my church in particular, nor my pastor, but I keep coming back to the issue of Communion in my evangelical tradition. It is a worthy theological discussion which I would like to keep having (with myself and whoever has a comment to add!).

Is it really "just a symbol"? That's what we always say in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Our official stance is that it is an "ordinance", as opposed to a "sacrament". That means we do it because Jesus commanded us to. That means that it means something, but only something symbolic. This symbol is special to us, of course, but somehow I feel we are degrading it.

I wouldn't want to go as far as some traditions go and say that it is a transubstantiation of Jesus' actual body and blood because as far as I'm concerned that is unbiblical, unnecessary, and kind of creepy to be honest. I also hesitate to call the action of taking communion or being baptized as "salvific" on its own. I imagine someone can be saved by the action of baptism or first communion, but that would be because the element of faith is present, not because of some magic power that the action itself has. These are the two reasons my denomination does not call it a sacrament and goes with symbolic ordinance instead.

But let's think about that. What are we doing when we say that? The truth is that we are putting communion on par with all of our other symbols, or meaningful rituals, in the church: Singing, standing, kneeling, giving offering, or clapping even. These are all things we do that mean something. And we do some of them more often than communion so maybe they are actually more important to us!

Furthermore, when we call it a symbol, all the investment of meaning relies completely on us and our sincerity in taking it. It is all on our shoulders whether communion means anything. We have to "get in the moment" and perform the well-worded ritual just right or it doesn't "do it for us", and the implication is that it doesn't do it for God either. Thus we wrap it in prayers and songs and rituals to make it feel holy and sacred and good and right. I am glad we do that, but I wonder if we're missing something.

After all, aren't we basically saying in our evangelical traditions that the real power of rituals are in the sincerity of our faith and the rightness of our well-placed words? Could we even take communion without anyone saying a word? This would be problematic for the visitors we want to be sensitive to, but even beyond that, would we be able to do that or would it feel wrong?

I'd also like to ask: If a ritual like baptism or communion is not salvific, what is? I'd suggest that the way we talk about "going forward at an altar call", or saying the "sinner's prayer", or "asking Jesus to come into your heart", we are making those actions salvific. How are you actually saved? Are you not simply receiving a gift? When have you done that?

Why are we so quick to say these two actions Jesus actually commanded us to perform are definitely not salvific actions but then we go and invest a lot of that salvific meaning into other actions and rituals?

I think it is because evangelicals are word-people. We don't like images, rituals, etc. We carry God in our words. I think we have something powerful there, but I also just don't think it is that simple.

I guess I'm thinking about this a lot because lately I'm not sure I have the words, but I sure do love the rituals. I love that I can just go to the communion table and take it and it is a total gift of God's presence in my life. I'm actively receiving it, but the import of it and the meaning and the reality that it signifies is all on God's shoulders. And he gives it.

I think we lose that when we call it just a symbol. This week my pastor did a great job investing that symbol with meaning. I'm just wondering if we wouldn't have to try so hard to do that if we could get our denominational theology a bit straighter on what is actually going on in communion, with or without our fine words and songs.