Monday, November 26, 2007

The Ever-Relevant GKC

It is amazing that reading GK Chesterton can at once feel both like a trip to the past and a prophetic glimpse at today. He was an early 20th century English journalist and made no bones about dropping names and places and events into his literature so that it would seem he was speaking only to his contemporaries. But he was speaking so often of timeless things and was so perceptive that many of his words are startlingly relevant to this day.

For instance, consider his argument at the outset of The Everlasting Man. One doesn't have to read Barna's Revolution to know that many evangelicals are all but done with evangelicalism. If Chesterton were here he'd probably say that's because we are in it and all we can see is the worst of it. Here's what he said:

"The next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And . . . the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. . . . They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith. Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian" (Ev. Man, 9-11).

Then there is his dialogue in Father Brown's The Hammer of God which reveals just how imperceptibly dangerous, especially for religious people, is the problem of pride:

First off, Father Brown says to Wilfred Bohun: "Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak" (Fr. Brn., 91).

Then there is the comment which seems to be a reflection on the Fall of Satan: "‘I knew a man,’ he [Father Brown] said, ‘who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that though he was a good man, he committed a great crime" (91).

But it is not about Satan, per se. When Wilfred Bohun asks him how he knows this, he cries: "Are you a devil?" The response is the secret of Father Brown’s insight: "‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all the devils in my heart"(91).

All of this actually reminds me of the need in ancient Israel, rarely met, to destroy not only the gods but also the high places. And, once again, Chesterton forces me to ask: What does this say to us and our worship today?

I know its been said before that evangelical worship is for many evangelicals an idol; a god. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not. But what about the spiritual high places, and what they do to us? I think we have a serious addiction to ourselves that manifests itself in our worship practices quite insidiously. It is too difficult and not appropriate to judge one another, but we ought to ask ourselves and our churches if this is a problem.

Another prophetic word from almost a century ago.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Orthodoxy Excerpts

Some artful philosophy from GK Chesterton, which I might only ruin with further comment:

On the freedom that is only found by having rules: "We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over, but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased" (Orthodoxy, 216).

On the denied presuppositions that enable evolutionism: "Nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. . .

. . . Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends on the philosophy of the mouse. You cannot even say that there is victory or superiority in nature unless you have some doctrine about what things are superior. You cannot even say that the cat scores unless there is a system of scoring. You cannot even say that the cat gets the best of it unless there is some best to be got" (150).

On miracles and the presuppositions of science: "The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them" (224).

On rejecting faith on the basis of convenient caricatures: "The ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren’t; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn’t; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn’t, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train" (223).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Facing Our Complicities

Reflecting back on the previous post, there are other situations where these issues of societal complicity show themselves. One that comes to mind is the relationship between evangelicals and homosexuals. It is far too easy for Christians to distance themselves from homosexuals and make homosexuality the standard illustration of obvious sin. This self-righteous posture betrays an overwhelming ignorance of the more subtle sins within—such as slander and judgmentalism—as well of the societal complicity in the sin of homosexuality itself.

Generations of evangelicals have cavorted to and strongly perpetuated patriarchalism and its inherent gender sterteotypes, and have therefore unwittingly encouraged their more "masculine" daughters and "effeminate" sons into an identity crisis. Not all have done this, of course, and even those that have have done so with varying degrees of intentionality and grace. Nonetheless, this has been the societal environment of which we've been a part and it (among other things) has caused the gender-confused seek identity and community from other sources.

That some find relative peace and compassion by embracing the identity given them by the homosexual community should not surprise us. The sad irony, however, is that often enough this only causes evangelical parents to turn more adamantly away from them. Too often I think this "righteous indignation" plays as a comforting mask for one's own unarticulated and unrealized guilt--- and manifests itself, at worst, as a deep-seeded homophobia (which is different, in my view, from just thinking homosexuality a sin).

Having had a hand in creating a homosexual, these evangelicals turn on their own sons and daughters to avoid facing up to their own culpability in a societal evil.

This is just another example of the mess in which all are intertwined. This is why separating the world into in/out categories of sinners & saints is just way too simplistic. Acknowledging this does not negate or reduce the moral culpability of those who manifest sins in their most outward and perhaps egregious forms, but it does force us all to face up to the corporate reality of our fallenness as a human race. I'd like to see us face up to these complicities a little bit more. I think it might actually cause us to be more aware of and open to the depths of God's redemptive grace.

Perhaps such honesty with the human condition would help evangelicals to maintain a real, rather than an abstract, "love for the lost"—rather than having to conjure it up every "Missions Sunday" with manipulative slide shows and sappy worship songs. Instead, perhaps it would be borne out of a genuine conviction and empathy for our fellow sinners.

Perhaps we need a slap in the face so we can no longer miss the depth of grace. Perhaps this is what it means to be come honestly and humbly together before the throne of the reconciling God by the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps what it means to be a Christian is to grasp a vision of a shared humanity—not one which concedes itself to evil but one which confesses hope and humanity in Christ.

Perhaps confession is more than a negative renouncing but also a positive pronouncing and accepting—even a gracious quickening! Perhaps this is what it means to be filled with the Spirit, to become ambassadors of reconciliation, and to be the first taste of the new creation in Christ.

Perhaps we should be the salt of the earth rather than holding out in self-righteous seclusion for the rapture. Such a vision of Christianity might be dangerous and costly—but it is veraciously daring and compelling.

Facing the Complexity of Justice and Evil (a book review)

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night offers a needed jolt of reality regarding the systemic and endemic extent of evil in our world. It does so by taking a hard look at one of the front-line perpetrators of apartheid: Eugene de Kock. The book poses questions about justice by reflecting honestly on the fact that he has been dubbed "Prime Evil" and sentenced to 212 years in prison by the very same society that created him, benefitted from his crimes, and endorsed them with their silence (34, 110-111). Though de Kock was rightly convicted of his crimes, once the structures of evil in which he was entangled are considered, it is clear that the punishment can not be called totally just. Justice has been served, but not really done.

At one level it must be affirmed that "de Kock’s harsh punishment is unques-tionably just because corporate or systemic structures of evil cannot be allowed to overshadow [his] moral responsibility to resist those structural evils" (Guretzki). It must be agreed that individuals can and should be held responsible for their actions even if they are going along with structural evil. The careful and serious discipline of individual offenders is justified by the essential need to uphold the freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility of the persons that make up a society. De Kock is accountable for his actions. He engineered countless murders rather than stand up for what was right. He knew those at the other end of the rifle were "people" just like him (76).

When he later insisted that putting politicians in his place would result in no more wars (78), de Kock indicted himself. After all, he was in that position and yet still perpetuated the evil. In one sense he may have been like a frog slowly boiling in a kettle, but he is not a frog. Being human means being held morally responsible or it ceases to mean very much at all. The proper length of de Kock’s sentence could be debated, but in an imperfect world it is preferable that individuals be held responsible than their personal responsibility be allowed to fragment into society and be diluted (162). Admitting that there are societal evils underlying his wrongdoings does not relieve his moral culpability—it reveals that there is plenty more moral culpability to go around.

Though de Kock’s individual culpability should not be overshadowed by societal evil, it should not be assumed that his punishment entails the unquestionable accomplishment of justice. Indeed, plenty of questions remain. Can his punishment return his victims to their families? Who can grant de Kock’s children a father in place of the one they lost to the system of apartheid? Why should de Kock’s children pay for this societal evil, and their fellow white school-children not? As Miroslav Volf concludes: "Justice is impossible in the order of calculating, equalizing, legalizing, and universalizing actions" (Volf, 223). God grants authority to human governments not under the delusion that they will finally and fully accomplish justice, but as part of his general grace by which justice can partially be served (Rom 13:1-5) this side of the new creation.

The complexity of evil begs many questions: How can justice be served on societies? Is it enough that taxes paid for de Kock’s hearings and for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? How can justice ever be properly doled out to everyone who has a hand in society’s depravity? What about past generations? Would we be happier if we could raise Cain and crucify him for our sins?

Though her approach is strictly social and psychological, there is a theological depth to Gobodo-Madikizela's conclusions. In her longing for real justice she felt the deep need for "a sacrificial act" (113), for mercy "granted cautiously" to the repentant, and for a newfound "shared humanity" (139). It is hard to imagine any hope for final justice other than in a holy Human who suffers a sacrificial death, raises to life, empowers a reconciling people, and promises a final judgment day.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Church Re-Formation

I think there is an important parallel between the Reformation era and today which the church needs to face up to and figure out what to do with. If we don’t it could be devastating, if we do it could propel us to be even truer and more beautiful. It regards the locus of the faith; the authority; the truth. To get it, first of all we have to take a trip back to the 15th century:

Early on in church history the truth of the faith had been carried primarily by the apostles and their successors, upheld by the oral tradition and the liturgy, and preserved in the apostle’s writings (which were then scattered around the continent). By the fifth century the apostolic succession had shown cracks, the liturgy had proven unable to answer every question, and so the Scriptures were collected and canonized. But the leadership still carried sway. Over time the reliability of the leadership waned. Power corrupted.

By the fifteenth century the power games of the Church authorities had been shown for what they were, and the base truth-dispenser of the Christian faith had eroded. Most lay people did not have the ability to read the Scriptures for themselves and, thought they sensed abuses were going on, did not have the ability to "check" their authorities. The abuses and the oppression piled up---until the Renaissance and other things enabled people such as Wycliffe, Erasmus, and Luther to check the Scriptures and hold the leadership to account. Their hope was for reform but it ended in a split. Reformers wanted the Church authorities to admit they’d gone wrong and proven unreliable in some (not all) ways and to work towards reform (not schism).

But the dilemma for the Catholic Church was that to admit that any Church authority in the past had been wrong was to admit that they could be wrong again. This perhaps sounds ludicrous to our evangelical ears today but we have to understand that, to them, for the Church to admit it failed was for Christianity would lose its credibility completely. The Scriptures, in their eyes, were hand in hand with the Church leadership. If they were undermined the whole ship went down. This is why the Council of Trent did not budge to the Reformers an inch.

Which brings me to today. The parallel to today is simply this: Evangelicals now have for a long time looked to Scripture as the sole authority for the Church. Sola scriptura. Certainly, the words on paper are more reliable a witness than twenty centuries of tradition. We actually have 99.8% accurate idea of what the original apostles wrote down. Tradition and Church authority can no longer compete with that.

But something has happened to the reliability of words. Beginning with Nietzche, postmodern thinkers have unveiled the power games and shiftiness inherent in language. Words are not perfect symbols for the thing they mean to express. Words, once said or written down, can be open to a variety of interpretations. People always knew this, of course, but it took Nietzche and the like to make us face it. The Word may be infallible, but our interpretation and understanding of it never is. Words, in themselves, have lost their certainty.

For some this has eroded all faith in Scripture. Many evangelicals have fought this erosion fiercely, holding tightly to the infallibility of Scripture, naively denying the realizations of postmodernism and chalking it up to a fad. They say all you need is the Bible and they become their own Popes. The truth of the faith is theirs. That’s where the locus of authority is now. Me and the Bible and the Holy Spirit will be just fine, thank you.

The Holy Spirit has been gracious and the Bible is clear on many points and so this does, admittedly, get people pretty far. But it also leaves them open to misinterpretations galore. The Bible can be read many ways and the Spirit misunderstood a thousand. Nowadays this just isn't holding water anymore.

This is difficult to accept. We can’t just say "the Bible says" and leave it at that. This is a huge hit to evangelical certainty. What can we rely on then? This is sending some evangelicals, naively, all the way back into Catholicism. This is also allowing the current Pope to take Catholicism back to Trent. We desperately want our security. But just as the reformers (rightly) took the security blanket of papal infallibility away before, postmodernism has (rightly) taken the security blanket of biblicism away. Now what?

What we need is to not panic, and to realize what has been true all along. The words of Scripture may be just the right ones selected by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purposes, but they don’t do so on their own. Scripture alone, while the highest "check" against Tradition and spirituality, is not the authority of the Church of Christ. Jesus Christ is. For us to follow Jesus in truth as a church and as The Church we must see ourselves in a process. In this process Scripture is and always has been meant to work in tandem with the Spirit in the context of the community of believers past, present, and future in order to perform its task.

Where does that leave us? I don’t think it is a stretch, based on this and other parallels with the fifteenth century, to say that we might well be in process of a Re-Formation. My hope is that this ensues in a gradual coming together. When we realize that the only authority in the Church is Jesus Christ, who exercises that authority through the Scriptures as read with the Spirit in the context of the Church (Tradition past and present) we have perhaps a less tangible and visible locus for our faith, but therefore a better and more unifying one. We are united by our faith in Christ and our need for dialogue and perpetual reconciliation.

We become The People Learning To Speak The Truth In Love.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Manalive

I am still working on the afformentioned second post on the Re-Formation theme. In the meantime here is a fascinating and beautifully written exerpt from Chesterton's Manalive, which we had a wonderful discussion around in class today. At one point it reads almost like a premonition of postmodern paralysis. But this is overcome---by a change of perspective perhaps?---and results in two men deciding to break with paralysis and seek to live again.

Nothing can alter it, it’s the wheels of the universe,’ went on Inglewood, in a low voice; ‘some men are weak and some strong, and the only thing we can do is to know that we are weak. I have been in love lots of times, but I could not do anything for I remembered my own fickleness. I have formed opinions, but I haven’t the cheek to push them, because I’ve so often changed them. That’s the upshot, old fellow. We can’t trust ourselves, and we can’t help it.

Michael had risen to his feet, and stood poised in the perilous position at the end of the roof, like some dark statue hung above its gable. Behind him, huge clouds of an almost impossible purple turned slowly topsy-turvy in the silent anarchy of heaven. Their gyration made the dark figure seem yet dizzier.

"Let us . . ." he said, and was suddenly silent.

"Let us what?" asked Arthur Inglewood, rising equally quickly though somewhat more cautiously, for his freind seemed to find some difficulty of speech."

"Let us go and do some of these things we can't do," said Michael.

I don't believe Chesterton here, or in this book, is espousing a recklessness about life, but rather a wise and knowledgable insistence that one cannot cease to live out of fear of making errors. As he says elsewhere: "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

But what if you care about the people around you? Then be wise. And love them. Yet call on them for grace to be free to live. Be ready to confess and be forgiven and repent of your errors. But live passionately, and wisely. The two go hand in hand. And an environment of confession and forgiveness (as only enabled by the promise of justice in Christ) goes in with them and makes them possible. Anything else is a stifled life. And this is why there is more life in Christian grace than in all the meaningless postmodern illusions of tolerance that prevail today.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Re-Formation?

It almost seems like everyone with a book deal or a mega-church in Western Christendom is clamouring to be the next Martin Luther. Browse a few titles like George Barna’s Revolution and Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change and you start seeing 95 Theses every which way you turn around. Except instead of posting them on the Wittenburg church’s door, today we are posting them online by the thousands. It can't all be hype, though, can it? Is there something new, difficult, but potentially good emerging?

For some the "emergent" church is a by-word and for others the last hope for Christianity. Generally speaking, the former group mostly contains those being sought in seeker-sensitive services and the latter group contains those who are not. I’ve said before that the "emergent" church at its worst is really little more than a new brand of seeker church. At its best, however, I must admit that it just may be a Re-Reformation.

But instead of hyping it with references to Bono or Al Gore, allegories from the Lord of the Rings, or some kind of worship time with candles and incense—as much as I personally might enjoy those—allow me to point out three parallels between today’s emerging church movement and the reformation squalor of the sixteenth century.

1) A NEW MEDIUM. In the fifteenth century it was the printing press. Instead of being totally reliant on the clergy to read a book for them, the regular joe was learning to read. Even though the literacy rate might only have reached 30% by the time Luther made that fateful posting, their was a new power given to the people: The power to hear from someone else if they so chose. The internet represents the exponential increase of that power. The impact of this is more subtle, perhaps, but no less important.

My pastor may be the one whose sermons I sit through each week, but it is the rest of the week that I can go find what I really want to hear. My pastor can have no idea what other voices I am listening to and can not possibly keep up with his church people’s ka-zillion blogs. Whereas before the pastor may only have had to keep up to speed on a half-dozen authors and watch the news a couple times a week to keep up, now he is largely in the dark. The pastor is one drowned-out voice among many, and his may not carry much weight. I’m not saying this is all bad or all good. But it is a huge shift in the nature of the church.

2) ABUSE OF POWER. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic bishop or clergyman was the epitome of evil. Not every pastor today is a televangelist. Not every pre-Reformation Catholic was manipulating others with legalism, guilt, fear or condescension. Not every Christian is today. But by the fifteenth century the lot had been sullied, and by the twenty-first it has been again. Like the Catholics of 500 years ago Evangelical clergy and laity alike are not trusted anymore and the people have rebelled.

3) "SUPERSTITIONS". I am using superstition to refer to our tendency to attach more significance to the tools God uses to spread his grace than to the Giver of Grace Himself. By the fifteenth century the Catholics had taken the manifestations of God’s grace such as baptism, communion, confession, and the priest and turned them into veritable superstitions. It got to be that people could easily cease to trust Christ and trust the baptismal fount instead. It got to be that the vital Christian life was not sustained by the Spirit but literally through the Eucharistic wafer itself. I would venture to guess that many within evangelicalism have done this again.

Instead of baptism efficacious for salvation it is the altar call or the sinner’s prayer. Instead of the Eucharist or indulgences sustaining spiritual life it is personal devotions in and of themselves. If pushed on it evangelicals would resist this notion, but practically speaking it is what we seem to have done. At least Catholics were holding onto sacraments that the Bible actually points toward.

I have one more parallel to draw but I've never heard anyone say it in so many words and think it is a bit controversial, so I'm thinking about it a bit more and will add it next week.

Or maybe I should hold out for a book deal!