But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”


Review: “Bad Religion” (Part II)

1101480308_400In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat manages to be exactly the kind of figure that he decries exists no longer: the public religious intellectual akin to Reinhold Niebuhr or Will Herberg.  Though not a theologian proper, Douthat does offer some trenchant observations in a readable and winsome fashion.

The second half of his book focuses upon the heresies he sees infecting modern American Christianity.  From Douthat’s perspective, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145).  Among these maladies are: 1) the rise of a “do-it-yourself” biblical approach in the mold of Dan Brown and the supposedly secret and revelatory Gnostic Christian texts, 2) the infectious power of money, prosperity, and the temptation to ally Christianity with success by the world’s standards, 3) the elevation of pseudo-spirituality and the “God within” in addition to the rise of largely therapeutic forms of 1101960408_400Christianity, and 4) the heresy of American nationalism that, depending on which party is in power can manifest itself pessimistically (apocalyptic) or optimistically (messianic).  His discussion of this fourth problem alone is worth the price of admission.

For Douthat, each of these heresies are ugly aberrations from the true faith that rob us of the power of orthodoxy and more.  It is worth noting that heretical thinking can affect both liberals and conservatives.  Hear his perspective, then, on the right place of Christian teaching:

The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.

ralph_reed-the-right-hand-of-God-240x320This is wisdom for our time.  While not all of our American heresies may necessarily be represented, Bad Religion does a good job laying out the scope and stakes of the problem at hand.  Christianity–still a pervasive force within the United States–that does not embrace its birthright has little prophetic or helpful to say to the world at large.

In answer to the difficulties facing the Church in our society, Douthat proposes that a return to Christian orthodoxy would involve politics without partisanship, being ecumenical but still confessional, moralistic yet holistic, and inhabit the qualities of sanctity and beauty.  Holding onto these tensions is important.

Though probably a longer conversation than I want to have here, a not insignificant amount of this perspective is probably derived from Douthat’s Catholicism.  Protestants would be wise to listen.  It is no surprise, I think, that Pope Francis may be becoming exactly the kind of prophetic figure who inhabits these qualities.

Ultimately, Bad Religion is worth reading for its thoughtful reflections on the state of American faith and culture.  I cannot say I time-pope-francisagree 100% with everything he says, but the kind of wisdom and reflection he exudes here is desperately needed in a religious society with our problems.   Christians especially will benefit from his observations about the role of orthodoxy and heresy vis-a-vis the temptations of worldly wisdom.

Whether his critiques will lead to a revival of Christianity and any kind of return to a 1950s settlement is an open question (he does not guarantee it, and I have doubts on at least the latter possibility).  Nevertheless, naming and analyzing such heresies are valuable, even if only for the state of our own souls.  In this I am thankful for one of the final things he says in the book: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived, not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293).  What happens after this?  Well, we’ll see what comes next.

Review: “Bad Religion” (Part I)

Bad-ReligionI’ve just finished reading a fascinating book assigned for one of my new classes.  It is called Bad Religion, and is written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

In essence, the book is a look at the interplay between American Christianity and American society in modern times, with special emphasis on what he considers the rather depressed and malformed state of the former.

The subtitle of Bad Religion is this: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”  Borrowing Alistair McGrath’s definition of heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith,” Douthat attempts to show how American Christianity has lost its orthodox prophetic edge in the United States.

To do so, Douthat spends the first half of his book analyzing how we arrived at our current state.  Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, he looks to figures like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, BOOK-articleInlineevangelist Billy Graham, television personality and Roman Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen, and civil rights activist, pastor and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr.  For Douthat, each of these represent American Christianity at its height, exuding what he calls “confidence” (53) and an ability to transcend borders and boundaries.

Following this, he charts the decades that followed–the “locust years,” as he calls them.  During this era–beset with emerging concerns (he lists political polarization, the sexual revolution, global perspectives, the problem of wealth, and class), American Christianity began to decline and fracture.  Numbers declined in previously robust mainline and Roman Catholic churches, and with it some of the influential positions they had previously held.

In response, many mainline denominations headed down the path of liberal accommodation, finding along the way that this was not the answer to their losses.  Other churches (notably evangelical denominations and, increasingly, segments of Roman Catholicism) chose resistance to the changing times.  Though especially in evangelical circles this time period did lead to growth, the last few decades have also marred Catholics with the shameful sex abuse scandal and evangelicals with too close association with the militarism, missteps, and mistakes of the George W. Bush era.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSAll of this connects with the specific heresies Douthat feels we have inherited in our contemporary age.  (More on that tomorrow.)

For now, I’ll simply say that I find much to admire in Douthat’s thought, prose, and ability to synthesize and articulate a wide range of materials.  I felt as if I were reliving the entirely of my PhD candidacy (American Church History) all over again during the reading of this book…and in a good way!  It is a monograph I wish I had written myself.  Though as an historian I may question some of the claims he is making here (especially–as is often done–a temptation towards the pseudo-sanctification of the 1950s as the height of all things), his footnotes reveal that he has done his homework.

Douthat’s argument does remind us billy-graham-70that things were different in mid-century America.  Individuals with wide influence like Niebuhr, Graham, Sheen, and–especially–MLK bestrode America like Colossi.  The pervasiveness of this “consensus Christianity” was important, even as it probably covered over the differences that eventually disrupted it in the years that followed.  (Or was it perhaps–somewhat less dramatically–just simply apathy or custom that led American to be so “Christian” in the 1950s and early 1960s?)

In any case, Bad Religion‘s read of accommodation vs. resistance makes sense, and anticipates Douthat’s discussion of heresy.  The move from a  “both/and” to “either/or”  approach is one of these haunting developments, as is the emergence of optimistic utopianism…for once again, he asserts, we have confused the City of God with the City of Man.

(to be continued)

Strange Fire is God’s Fire

strange fireEven as I write this, well-known pastor John MacArthur is hosting a conference entitled Strange Fire. Based on his upcoming book of the same name, the purpose of the conference is to offer a heavy critique of and warning against the Charismatic Movement. As the promotional material for the book indicates, MacArthur’s believes:

…what’s at stake is nothing less than our understanding of salvation and sanctification, and our view of Scripture’s authority. In his new book, Strange Fire, John MacArthur critiques the charismatic movement, exposing the faulty—and in some cases blasphemous—teaching and practices that are misleading hundreds of millions of people.

To further quote some of his words (as found in a piece critical of him in Charisma magazine): “As a movement, they have persistently ignored the truth about the Holy Spirit and with reckless license set up an idol spirit in the house of God, blaspheming the third member of the Trinity in His own name.” Oh my.

As you might imagine, I disagree with MacArthur. Strongly. As a Pentecostal and member of what I would consider to be the broad stream of Christianity involved in the Charismatic Renewal, I take great exception to the rather broad strokes with which he is painting my fellow coreligionists. Reading through his material yesterday and watching some of his pre-conference videos made me realize how deadly serious he is in taking aim at the movement.

While I could write for pages on this and I’m sure that many others are (for a little taste of the kinds of debate taking place, take a look at the Strange Fire Twitter feed or this takedown piece from Charisma), I’ll only list a few of my many thoughts here.

First, there is the potential that MacArthur and I agree on certain points. Even though he’s used inaccurate language to 412991_300critique the whole of the Charismatic Movement (and, it would seem, Pentecostalism as well), I concur with some of the questions he raises about aberrant or damaging theologies arising from it (prosperity gospel, Word of Faith, etc.). These teachings, though, are not uniform throughout the movement and their legitimacy is debated even amongst Pentecostals/Charismatics.  So when his conference seems to claim that the vast majority of the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition falls into this pattern, it is off base.

It thus appears that even when I would concur with some of his warnings, the harsh, dismissive, and inaccurate way in which he chooses to interact with my brothers and sisters in Christ betrays not only a rather ungenerous Spirit but a real lack of understanding of what Pentecostalism is all about.  I want no part in this.

But this isn’t the only problem. For even as he attacks “the Charismatic Movement” (whatever he seems to mean by that), he also wants us “good” Pentecostals to know that we’re not the problem. (Whew. And here I was worried.) I take this approach by MacArthur to be patronizing at best. At worst, it is simply a lie. MacArthur is known to be a cessationist (i.e. one who believes that miraculous signs and wonders ceased after the Apostolic era). He therefore has little use for Pentecostals–“good” or “bad”–in any case.

Besides that, his conference’s stated effort to attack the problems of the Charismatic Movement actually ends up insulting all Pentecostal-style believers.  Further, it rejects foundational ideas and experiences of not only certain heretical or questionable elements within Renewalism, but the orthodox Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition as a whole. His thoughts about our view of the Bible are pertinent here.

Pentecostals can and do read the Bible differently, as I’ve claimed. We are not evangelicals in the way we interact with Scripture, even while we assert that it is the norm by which we test our doctrines and theology.  I do not think our approach marks us as heretical or subChristian.  Take a look at what this conference asserts:

To claim that charismatics do not value the Bible is patently false. To imply that they regularly or normatively receive revelations that are added to the canon the Scripture is nonsense. To assert that our tradition does not have any real biblical scholarship is laughable. Does they even know about Gordon Fee? The Society for Pentecostal Studies? The faculty members at my school?

This doesn’t even begin to touch his underlying assumptions about and rejection of Charismatic belief in the miraculous or accompanying personal experience. Strange fire? You bet it is strange fire. This is the Spirit of God we’re talking about here, and God is holier and stranger and more different from us that we can possibly imagine.

There problems within the Charismatic Movement just as there are in all streams of Christianity. We are sinful human beings. But these problems do not define us, and certainly do not warrant a wholesale “throw out the baby with the bath water” approach.

indexI think that MacArthur is upset about some legitimate abuses that have been made in the name of the Holy Spirit. Fine. It seems he has some theological disagreement with the way the Pentecostal tradition exegetes Scripture. OK. But to attack fellow believers so broadly, publicly and inaccurately? This is not charitable. Talking down to me and my fellow charismatics like a disappointed grandfather? Insulting.

There are many who will say that dialogue needs to happen here. Very well. Talking can’t hurt. I wish MacArthur were doing the same thing right now instead of whatever this is. He’s taking a combative stand for his paleo-Reformed tradition, and in the process is ignoring so much of the rich fabric of Church history–a broad stream involving Wesley, Pietism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the mystics, and more.

Disagreements between Christians are not unknown. But MacArthur’s approach isn’t helpful. How about affirming differences but seeking conversation? Working through the related issues? Why the attack?

As Pentecostal ecumenist David du Plessis once said to a gathering of various non-Pentecostal Christians in the 1950s (and I’ll paraphrase): “I believe you have the truth. But you have it on ice. You need fire.” That’s the Holy Spirit. Fire is light, warmth, heat, and life. But it is also fire, and it can burn. Pentecostals would rather have it than not. Non-Pentecostal believers would rather not take the risk. Fine.  Generally speaking, both sides have come to accept the legitimacy of the other’s perspective. MacArthur’s approach? Well, it is something else entirely. His desire seems to be that fire of a different sort rain down on our Pentecostal/Charismatic heads.

An ecumenical Spirit is needed here, even while I’m doubtful we’ll end up there. It’s funny–in my historical studies I had christianity-todayalways read about cessationists and/or those Christians who thought that Pentecostalism was “of the Devil.” But I’d never met or really interacted with any until now. I thought that in light of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work around the world over the past 100 years most if not all of these people had repented or given up. Apparently I was wrong.

So: is this the last cry of a dying cessationist movement in a world where 1 in 4 may now be Pentecostal/Charismatic, or is it being giving new life through linkage to the trendy “new Calvinism?” For the sake of the Church, I hope it is the former.

But hey–in an irony of ironies, Mark Driscoll’s on our side. So there’s that.