Thursday, April 22, 2010

Current Issues in Christianity

It occurs to me that judging from my blog one wouldn't know that there are a number of incredibly significant things that are going on right now in the life of the Church. One of the things that might keep me from commenting on them is that my knowledge of the finer details of (not to mention my opinions on) them are not as fully formed as might be worth "publishing". Nonetheless, I look at them quite curiously, and to varying degrees have my own take on what is going on. So, in no particular order, here are some links and passing remarks regarding current issues in what may (or may not) well be a watershed period in Church history.

The Justification Debate (aka "the new calvinism" vs. "the new perspective"). The major players in this discussion are John Piper and NT Wright. Follow this link to recordings from the recent Wheaton conference on NT Wright's work and listen to the lighthearted but straight-talking Saturday morning lecture with Keven VanHoozer for a decent catch up on the issue. He calls Wright's work part of a "paradigm revolution" and he might be right. I think it is a good thing going on. There needs to be better dialogue and less reactionism though. That goes for me too. I think VanHoozer gets it right at the end of his talk, for sure.

Genesis Controversies. No, not the band. In the last few years a number of professors at Reformed schools in the States have either resigned in the aftermath of or out-right lost their jobs over their openness to theistic evolution. More to the point: it is their intrinsically related readings of Genesis. An underlying issue here is the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, which are important topics for people who believe that the Bible is divinely provided. It tends to matter how we think these human words convey divine truth. I think there are intricate and vital discussions going on here, and no doubt a school has a right to hire and fire according to the ways it wants to approach the issue, but once again, I hope we see genuine listening and loving dialogue. The change in our time is great, and we should take good care, going forward.

Abuse in the Catholic Church and the entrenchments of the current Pope. See the open letter from Catholic theologian Hans Kung to the bishops of his church, printed in the Irish Times. I'm not sure I'm with every thing Kung says in this letter (I'm hesitant about some of the bio-ethics stuff), but with the main thrust of it I am totally on board, and it is guys like this who keep my hope for shared communion alive.

McChurch and iChristian. Yeah, that's my little slam against the consumerism and individualism of the Christianity that gets all the attention and praise nowadays. I'll admit, at times in my life I've disdained traditionalism and at other time, like now, become weary of the trends. Maybe I'm just never going to be happy. That said, a recent Aberdeen University student has been posting excerpts from his Master's thesis on discipleship and his last post explains quite well some of the things I'm concerned about. Or, as an example take this video:

As much as I like Rob Bell (I do), I had to marvel at this Easter sermonette that was making its way around the internet. Pretty solid message, actually. But did any thought go into its use of media at all? The very content of the message is about the embodied nature of hope in Jesus Christ and yet instead of doing the guy-walks-the-streets video like they used to do (and which in this case would have been somewhat poignant) they put together this rock-star photo-shoot flurry of canned graphics and pop music? It all but wrecks the message for me, this carelessness about the medium. But even worse it bothers me that it just becomes one more easy-click for consumerist Christianity competing on the market of inspiration. Check out the Wright quote at the end of that discipleship post to see what I think about that.

Now, lest I sound all negative, I must say that I think this is a rather exciting time in Christianity (not to mention a crazy time to try to be a professional theologian). I also must remind myself that between all the headlines there are hundreds and thousands of people hidden away in the churches of the world who are confessing their sins and mistakes, confessing that Jesus is God and the world has hope, and humbly aiming to live and love and learn in community. Let them engage with this stuff and speak the truth in love. Let me be counted among them. And, as Ravi Zacharias says, let my people think!


Darren said...

I hadn't seen the Rob Bell video, so thanks for that. His attire and body language is incredibly off-putting, but maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy. What seems to be an attempt at 'cool and hip' comes across to me as kinda weird.

But it's nice that he's trying something different than a standard standing-behind-a-pulpit preacher, and experimenting with the medium.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Excellent list Jon, though I might adjust your Genesis entry, saying that all of this kerfuffle over Genesis 1 is a direct product of evangelical Christianity's confused and confusing relationship with the Bible. And I'd go on to say that this problematic relationship is in no small part the product of a lack of careful theological reflection on the part of evangelicals. I'm one of those rare biblical scholars who actually think systematicians are worth talking to :).

Jon Coutts said...

Darren: I forgot to give you the hat-tip on this. I followed all but the last story via your facebook links. As for Bell, it occurs to me he could have been photo-shopped into the Genesis band picture. Not that it matters what the guy looks like, but the whole presentation comes off very cheese-ball.

Colin: What's the adjustment to my entry? I suggested the underlying issue of doctrine of Scripture and you are saying it is not a small but direct product of it? Fair enough. I was trying not to overstate, but let's face it, you're right.

Dave M said...

Usually what passes for experimentation in church circles is something that has been safely mastered in secular ones. It always feels flat, and worse it doesn't mean anything. A medium should be used because the artist feels it is the best way to articulate his or her idea not because of a desire for relevancy.

The Hansens said...

Thanks for this post Jon- I'm looking forward to exploring those links further.

I like that Rob Bell link, for the first 2 minutes. I admit, it goes over the top and gets distracting from the actual message, but a few graphics highlighting key words or points doesn't necessarily make something consumer-driven. Media is a tool that can be used for God's glory or not- much like any other tool. I don't think Rob Bell's medium was used mindlessly, actually. This may truly be how he visualizes what he is saying. Or not- I can't say with certainty what his motives were.


Jon Coutts said...

Jen: I appreciate the push-back, seriously. To be clear, my comment above is largely a personal aesthetic one and neither it nor the post itself means to challenge his actual motives.

I think part of my problem with the video is that I've seen Bell do much better, and much different. It certainly isn't wrong, or even in bad taste, necessarily, to broadcast a short sermonette with dramatic flare and graphics like this. But given that this was Bell, it boggled my mind to see him pass on the opportunity afforded by the content of this particular message to actually do the live action street-footage thing, and do so quite meaningfully. But maybe they just didn't think of it, or have the budget, or whatever. Fine.

But my point is really just to make this an illustrative tip-of-the-iceberg thing. It would have been way too easy to pick on an easy target; on someone I don't like. No, here's a preacher I tend to get behind, and a message I'm fairly happy with, and still it feels like it "becomes one more easy-click for consumerist Christianity competing on the market of inspiration."

I'm not accusing it of having conscious consumerist motives, I mean, they gave it away for free. I don't mean consumerist in the money-making sense at all, actually. It just feels like there is a huge market for a clickable Christianity; a Christianity built on personally tailored inspirational moments. There comes a point where that's just not Christian anymore. Of course, one can't really accuse any one video or song or blog of being non-Christian in this sense, or of carrying the whole weight of this problem. But on the other hand, we can think about this and recognize the problem, and maybe try not to feed that problem too much. I guess I'm getting really sensitive to the problem, and Bell's video seemed a good illustration to use since I actually am a bit of a closet-Rob Bell-fan.

Media for the glory of God . . . I guess that's what I'm pushing for(?)

Jon Coutts said...

Dave: I don't think Rob Bell's video intends to be experimental, or even art, per se. I'm more judging it on the basis of it being a sermon that tried to be dramatic. And on that level I think what you are saying about art overlaps well. "A medium should be used because the artist feels it is the best way to articulate his or her idea not because of a desire for relevancy."

That said, I have a couple further thoughts (springing from your comment but not necessarily directed at you to answer, Dave).

(1) What if the idea to be articulated contains within it a desire for a wide audience, as something relevant to the MTV viewing public who speak this language of flashy graphics and pop-star flare? (I'd still push for something that doesn't "settle", but it isn't like the aesthetic is the only interest for the people making this video.)

(2) Would more "conscientious" artists even go for such a thing? If I pitched to an artist in my church that I wanted to not just preach but present the Easter message in film, would an artist go for it or take a pass, leaving the whole genre to the pop-artists? I long for the day when the church commissioned the best artists of its day to do their subjects justice.

(3) And why is there so little great art about the resurrection? Crucifixion scenes are a dime a dozen at the Louevre, but the only resurrection painting I recall is one of Lazarus' resurrection (and it is incredible). Maybe art can't do the resurrection justice? (I suppose it can't really do the death of the Son of God justice either, but sacrificial death is perhaps a bit easier to "capture".) Or . . . maybe words alone can't do the resurrection justice and we need to commission our best artists to help us out here. Not to capture it, but to both evoke it and point to it as something evading human comprehension. Art can do both simultaneously. If I had the clout I'd like to commission some artists to take Bell's 4 minutes and do me one better next Easter.

Jon Coutts said...

By the way, I highly recommend the link on NT Wright's name for a quick entry to the debate going on there. In my view it says a lot of really important things.

Jon Coutts said...

Oh, and by the way did you know that there is a theology conference this summer which will discuss the very topic of controversy in the church? Check this out:

If anyone wants to come I could probably find some free accommodation! ;)

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I liked "guys like this." I'd never read anything about Hans Urs von Balthasar -that I can recall. Really interesting.

Jon Coutts said...

I've only just been introduced to him myself. I plan to read more. Did you see the quote on wikipedia: "Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only 'finds' the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it." Apparently he had quite the theology of aesthetics. I'm certainly curious.

Also he implored the Catholic Church to take Barth seriously. Said Barth had given the highest expression of Protestant Christianity, or something like that.

Jon Coutts said...

More by way of current events in Christianity: NT Wright is coming to Scotland:,50688,en.html

Gotta admit I'm pretty psyched about that.

curtis said...

I must admit that I have been impacted by some of Rob Bell's work, particularly by some of the discussions created by the Nooma series (which really seemed to connect with some of our youth group kids.)

Much like many of the flavor of the week authors and speakers, one thing that has been a bit bothersome to me is the ability to stay on surface issues rather than dealing with a truth. Appealing to people's spiritualilty (the want it creates within) without offending or necessarily challenging them at a level that will truly change them. Not that I think that should be an easy task. Rather it is more of a spiritual pep-talk that impacts you short term and leaves you on your own long term to sort it all out. Not sure if I am really saying this all right. These surface issues have a connection to a deeper truth, but I've not always seen him make the connection. Perhaps the assumption is that if you are watching his videos or reading his books, you are already a Christian, and are looking for a challenge in your walk with a grasp on truth so that you yourself are looking to make that deeper connection.

Now, when a more specific and challenging topic is presented, one that might actually challenge someone to contemplate truth and the Gospel, it is done so amongst a myriad of distractions. I agree the message is good, but I feel an unease with his methods of glossing over what he is saying sometimes.

I've not done a lot of research into it just yet, but I have heard the beginnings of some rumblings against Bell. Maybe not exactly a news flash for everyone here. Maybe not necessarily warranted as it seems like we are always looking for the scandal in society these days, and Christian circles are certainly no different. However, sometimes rumblings deserve some attention. Maybe the problem is one little thing, like a slick presentation. But what if the rumbling is something more serious?

Jon Coutts said...

I don't know the nature of the recent rumblings, Curtis, but it might have something to do with his like-mindedness with NT Wright (as relates to the first issue above). Frankly, its what I like about him!