Sunday, April 27, 2008

Caught Inside a Seminar with a Consultant Man Again!

Today I experienced one of the most challenging, annoying, and disturbing seminars in a very long time. Firstly, with more than five decades of church life under my belt, there are few fads that have not ended up costing me time and money for some class or seminar someplace. In the 60s it was the charismatic renewal, in the 70s church growth. Spiritual gifts followed and then leadership and vision seminars. Lately, we have seen a spate of conferences dealing with the emerging church and ministry to postmoderns.

I have sat through more than enough sessions on “reaching the unreached,” becoming “seeker sensitive,” pioneering a contemporary service, and the like. Today was no different. With words like “missional community,” moving from an “attraction model to an incarnational model,” “apostolic leadership,” and a small rucksack full of specialty vocabulary, it felt like being force fed a year’s worth of Leadership Net material through a fire hose.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not immune to the appeal of this kind of material. Indeed, a quest to master this arcane literature led me to complete a masters degree in organizational management at a secular business school during the mid-90s. My more than 500 page thesis surveyed virtually every bit of leadership material then extant as well as conducting some major social science research on correlations between pastoral leadership style and ministerial effectiveness. However, I have come to believe that just as the CEO model for the pastor has proven disastrously unhelpful, so will this newest fad.

During the sessions today some familiar themes were sounded: replacing “church growth” with a vision for kingdom growth; developing disciples instead of members; encouraging a new apostolic leadership; moving away from a program centered preoccupation to focusing on spiritual formation; and shifting from planning to preparing for a challenging and uncertain world.

What I appreciated was the encouragement for church leaders to think “outside the box” and to find creative ways to impact their communities for Christ and to encourage their people to do the same. Some of the ideas mentioned were positively genius! Also, the humorous delivery and relentless teasing made the time pass quickly.

However, when we move beyond these helpful pointers, there was much that was disturbing in the day. With clear echoes of Barna and Viola, the speaker constantly carped on the superiority of missional communities and house churches as an answer to “Constantinian” Christianity. Evidently practically everything wrong with Christianity today could be solved by promoting missional communities, house churches, and “missionaries” doing intentional outreach in apartment buildings and labs instead of being part of a traditional church. Much as I felt when reading Barna’s Revolution, my mind kept wondering if this speaker was not working over much hard to justify the fact that he evidently does not like going to church and left the pastorate for the peripatetic role of seminar speaker and consultant.

In the estimation of some of the architects of what’s next, the church of the future will be multiform. Mega churches or “big box churches” will not fade away since there will always be “somebody” who likes that sort of thing. But, one gets the impression that the real action will be had in the trenches where the truly committed eschew conventional church involvement in favor of so-called pre-contstantinian “market place” Christianity without buildings, liturgy, or programs.

Rather than being a “project manager,” “cruise ship director,” or other demeaning description of contemporary pastors, spiritually alive folks will devote themselves to the kind of house church structures that are so in vogue in the minds of progressive church consultants today. And, even if these missional communities do not involve themselves in corporate worship, that is no great loss. Our leader explained that he has been to a lot of church worship services and “they ain’t so good.” He assured us that you “won’t be hurt” by missing weekly worship. As for the biblical admonition to "forsake not the assembling of yourselves together," that will take place in the various ad hoc missional activities that people "feel led" to engage in throughout their communities.

A more disturbing casualty of this churchless utopia would seem to be the Bible. The Corinthians did not have a Bible to read, preachers to sermonize, or programs to sign up for, we were told. Yet, they were able to experience a vital spiritual dynamic. They simply followed the mystical leading of the Holy Spirit.Church history instructs us at this point. I wonder if the seminar speaker ever heard of the Zwickau prophets, early 16th century Anabaptist enthusiasts opposed forcefully by Luther.

“What is the use,” said they, “of clinging so closely to the Bible? The Bible! always the Bible! Can the Bible preach to us? Is it sufficient for our instruction? If God had designed to instruct us by a book, would he not have sent us a Bible from heaven? It is by the Spirit alone that we can be enlightened. God himself speaks to us. God himself reveals to us what we should do, and what we should preach.”

Even Luther’s dear colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, “lost himself in the clouds of a confused mysticism and spiritualism, and appealed, like the Zwickau Prophets, to immediate inspirations.” Luther wryly observed of his friend: "He has swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all."

An evangelicalism untethered from the Word will soon dissipate into little more than social good works or theological irrelevance. And, if history teaches us anything, it demonstrates that diminishing the Word of God always leads to a denial of other core beliefs. Disciples of Christ without a church where the Word is faithfully preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is exercised are much like fish out of water. And, they will end up with the same fate.

Consultants always come with a brief case overflowing with ideas. But, any idea broker who dismisses the church of Jesus Christ as a "constantinian" error, depreciates the importance of Christian corporate worship, and uses immediacy of divine direction as an argument to dispense with the preached Word of God will not lead to a strengthening of God's kingdom or his church. No matter how humorous the delivery or winsome the personality, snarky put downs and non-stop examples of church problems do not a change agent make.

Frighteningly, this man is widely published, highly regarded, teaches D.Min. courses at my alma mater, and consults with several of the major evangelical denominations and many of the para-church agencies out there today.

My lingering questions at the end of the day: Why would church leaders pay outrageous sums of money to listen to this nonsense? And, if they did actually take the advice to heart, how well would most churches respond to proposals to eliminate buildings, stated worship services, and the like? Finally, what would prompt pastors to bring their lay leaders to a conference in order to be told by a man who no longers participates in an organzied church how to dispense with organized churches? I can only assume that the sponsors of this event either did not know what the speaker believed or thought that the listeners would simply go for the atmospherics and the show and ignore the actual advice.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Expelled Exposes Antipathy to God in the Academy

Expelled is the kind of documentary for those who like their highly technical information served up with a wry sense of humor, lots of creative use of old fashioned video clips, and an exposition of the topic using a relentless metaphor of the Berlin Wall as the intellectual backdrop. And, for good measure, process the whole thing through the sardonic Buster Keaton deadpan of economist, Yale Law valedictorian, White House speech writer, law professor, columnist, game show host, and actor famous for the words: “Bueller, Bueller.”

Expelled is the vehicle for Ben Stein to present a sustained call for freedom of thought and inquiry against the environment of academic totalitarianism. Exposed are the deans, PR flacks, and professors who are willing to deny tenure and ruin the careers of well educated science professors for the singular crime of suggesting that the Darwinian emperor has no clothes. Citing both the defenders of evolutionary ideology and those who have raised questions challenging it, we see more Cambridge, Berkeley, and University of Chicago trained PhD's than have probably appeared in any movie in history.

Stein traipses through the documentary in suit and tennis shoes, asking awkward questions, pushing fabulously educated scholars to affirm the logical conclusions of their pronouncements. Especially ill-served by the format is the narcissistic atheist Richard Dawkins. He actually says on film that Darwinism leads logically to atheism, that atheists make common cause with gullible mainstream Christians to win their support in the pro-evolution war, and that belief in God is irrational and virtually impossible but life on earth may have been “seeded” by space aliens.

Stein is no fundamentalist and he strongly denies young earth creationism. He simply argues that the complexity of life at the molecular level cannot be conceived of without some kind of intelligent design. And, his documentary parades scientists, journalists, and public intellectuals—some of whom are either agnostic or irreligious—through the film with cutouts to scenes of totalitarianism and repeated images of the Berlin Wall.

The “Wall” is Stein’s metaphor for what he sees as the storm trooper tactics of the academic establishment, the media, and the courts to stifle dissent. In his view, this kind of policy robs Americans of precious freedom of thought, speech, and religion. Indeed, for Stein, we are in danger of losing our freedoms at the hands of these intellectual fascists.

For those who rankle at the term “fascist,” the most difficult part of the movie may be Stein’s assertion that Darwinian thought motivated not only Hitler and his final solution, but the Eugenics movement behind people such as Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger. Here Stein uses interviews to make his point, one that might more convincingly have been made simply by citing chapter and verse out of Mein Kampf where Hitler drew the same causal line of association between Darwin and his own ideas.

Stein recognizes that behind the equations, talk of scientific method, and calls for progress one can often discern an implacable hatred of God. Some of those interviewed in defense of evolution seemed to harbor a visceral antipathy to God and condescending disdain for religious people. Near the end of the documentary when Stein pushes Dawkins to admit that the chances of God existing are less than 1%, he also goads him into saying that one of the more likely scenarios for the emergence of life from non-life would be aliens seeding this planet with the original organisms from which we all evolved.

Radio host and film reviewer Michael Medved reports that wherever the movie screens, there has been a tendency for audiences to cheer at the end. Indeed, Stein appears unperturbed by the height of the wall erected to keep out free inquiry. But, he has made this movie to challenge some to dare to scale it. The only question is who will do it?

Anyone? Anyone?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What About the "Non Violent Atonement"?

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr)

One of the truly great summaries of liberal Protestantism in the last century, Niebuhr’s quote has found new currency in the present church environment. A group called Preaching Peace ( has taken on the task of holistically reconceptualizing Christian theology in light of the insights of Rene Girard, the French anthropological philosopher, and the application of his “mimetic theory” or the observation that human desire and behavior involves deep levels of imitation. Essentially, we borrow our desires from others in an endless drama of mythic themes and human imitation.

Girard’s 1972 book, Violence and the Sacred developed Girard’s “second great insight: “the victimary process, which is at the origin of archaic religion.” In Girard’s thinking, the Gospels offer a typical mythical account with “a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd.” However, unlike the normal myth, this one proclaims the innocence of the victim.

In Preaching Peace’s perspective, the Gospels appear to present themselves as a typical mythical account, with a victim-god lynched by a unanimous crowd, an event that is then commemorated by Christians through ritual sacrifice — symbolic in this case — in the Eucharist. Yet the parallel is perfect except for one detail: the truth of the innocence of the victim is proclaimed by the text and the writer.

For the Preaching Peace group, peace is a hermeneutic. When Jesus said, “Peace I give to you,” they see this as exposing “all of our theologies and faiths and religions where we fail to see that Peace is . . . an interpretive choice.”

Applied to the cross of Christ, the Preaching Peace folks want to strip away all of the violence-saturated language of Christian theology (getting rid of the shadow of Augustine and Eusebius) and apply the insights of Girard and the “hermeneutic of peace” to understanding it.

Take Romans 3:25, for instance. Paul says God presented Jesus to be the “propitiation for our sins.” Unlike other words for forgiveness which refer to wiping clean the slate or remitting sin, propitiation (hilastarion) has been understood as assuaging the righteous wrath of a holy God against sin. Jesus’ death satisfied God’s righteous anger or made him “propitious.”

The Preaching Peace view asks the questions: “Does Jesus reveal God's love for us, or placate God's wrath towards us? And doesn't this way of thinking presuppose that you can attain a good, loving result through violence? Does the end justify the violent means? Isn't this the sort of thinking that has fueled the endless cycle of violence that's characterized human history?”

In the last century, liberal Protestantism got around the cross by seeing the ministry of Christ as exemplary of divine love. Now, we have a sophisticated anthropological analysis of human history being used to empty the cross of any meaning other than a pyrrhic victory over violence through innocent suffering. And, major denominational groups are promoting the "non-violent atonement" seminars. I know of at least one denomination that has been sending e-mails to their pastors recommending the resources. And, it has been enthusiastically endorsed by Brian McLaren and other members of the emerging church.

Before I overturn Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Owen, Edwards, and a host of Christian heroes, I will need more than Girard’s musings about mimetics. It's almost enough to make one want to echo the Apostle Paul: "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified" 1 Corinthians 2:2 (HCSB).