Friday, January 29, 2010

Tough Question; Thought Provoking Book

Yesterday I took a very long survey on my religious views and habits. It was a 35+ page survey filled with some very odd questions (like, 'do you associate a temperature with Jesus?'). There was one question, however, that was very difficult for me to answer: 'Are you an Evangelical?'

That might sound like an odd question (or maybe a dangerous one) for a guy who is on staff at Evangelical Community Church and graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to ask. Why is it a hard question?

First, it's hard to get behind the interviewers use of the question. The word means different things to different people - to some it is virtually synonymous with 'fundamentalist'. To others, especially fundamentalists, it's synonymous with liberal. To some it's a tradition that goes back to the early 18th century; to others it's history dates back no further than the 1940's and the neo-evangelicals. The word conjures images from George W. Bush to Jonathan Edwards; from Billy Graham to Joel Osteen; from Francis Schaeffer to Pat Robertson.

Maybe you think the images it brings to mind aren't really relevant. Maybe it means something doctrinal. If so, what? What doctrinal statement covers evangelicals? Maybe it's an institution? No, there's no institutional center, no place to send a letter of resignation.

The question came just as I am finishing a provocative book by DG Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham. Hart's premise is that there really is no such thing as 'evangelicalism'. Sounds odd when more than 40 million American's call themselves evangelicals. He argues that the concept is an abstract construction created by the neo-evangelicals in the 1940's and latched onto by the media in the late 20th century. Prior to the 'commandeering' (Hart's word) of the term by 'nice fundamentalists' (neo-evangelicals) in the mid part of the 20th century, nearly all American Protestants would have thought of themselves as evangelical.

He writes, "as useful as academics found the concept, clergy and laity, along with evangelical leaders and editors, discovered the idea to be incredibly cumbersome and unwieldy...Yet scholars and pundits have done more to keep evangelicalism alive than have church members, for alothough evangelicalism may have been useful for scholars in search of new perspectives, it has proven remarkably barren in sustaining the faith of believers who need spiritual sustenance more than trendy analysis." (pg. 28). He continues, "At the same time that the fielf of evangelical studies has proliferated, the wheels have come off the evangelical movement; evangelicalism no longer makes sense of the average congregation's ministry or the individual believer's devotion. (pg. 29). The 'lowest common denominator' doctrinal basis served to spark a movement, but the 'soft center' cannot sustain the movement over the long term.

Hart's conclusion is that the term evangelical has lost it's usefulness. He writes in his concluding chapter, "Evangelicalism is a seemingly large and influential religious body, but it lacks an institutional center, intellectual coherence, and devotional direction. It is so immense that many Americans cannot help but be an evangelical if they answer pollster' questions a certain way or belong to a church that historians and sociologists somewhat arbitrarily identify as evangelical" (pg. 176). His book is a compelling argument that a label that was once useful for academics is now harmful to the church. Hart continues to argue that evangelicalism "was too fluid or insubstantial or abstract" (and he does speak of it in the past tense because he believes it is fragmented and thinned out beyond repair - and that it shouldn't be repaired because the venture was mistaken from the get go).

As a fun concluding mind game, Hart asks his readers to imagine what would happen if the word 'evangelical' was banned by some new government agency that regulated religious language (hey, could happen). What would we lose? According to Hart, nothing. Oh a few radio personalities may need to retool what they do, but the average believer would continue going to church and being ministered to by their pastors. In fact, he argues, it may be a good thing as American believers would be stripped of their dependency on para-church organizations and be force to commit to the local church with its liturgy, preaching, structure, and sacraments. The last sentences of the book: "Before evangelicalism, Christians had churches to hear the Word preached, to receive the sacraments, and to hear sound counsel and correction. Without evangelicalism, Protestant Christianity may not be as unified (when has it ever been?), but it will go on. And without the burden of forming a nationally influential coalition, American Protestants in all their Heinz 57 varieties, from Presbyterian to Calvary Chapel, may even be healthier" (pg. 191).

While I may not fully agree, DG Hart raises some serious questions and makes a compelling case. In fact, his book has spurred me on to take an independent study in American Church History, specifically evangelicalism. So maybe after 4000 more pages of reading I'll come to some conclusion...but probably not.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ouch Mr. Hart, that Hurt

DG Hart posted his Old Life blog today:

"Reformed Protestants are generally dismissive (or worse) of prosperity gospels. They know, at least intuitively, that suffering is part of the Christian life and that calculating God’s favor on the basis of material well being is not good theology...And yet, when Reformed Protestants pray, or at least when they make prayer requests, our desires generally run along the lines of Joel Osteen. Which sort of upends Benjamin Warfield’s remark that every Christian on his knees is a good Calvinist. His point that when praying every believer is acknowledging the sovereignty of God. But he didn’t ask what believers were praying for and whether it conformed to God’s revealed will. We pray for surgeries, broken ankles, test results, catastrophe survivors, and the unemployed. None of these concerns are of themselves illegitimate. Jesus does tell his disciples not to worry about their physical needs, not because they are unimportant but because if God provides for the lilies of the field then he’s likely to care even more for his children. And yet, that passage in Matthew 6 concludes with the importance of seeking first the kingdom of God and then all these other things will be added"

Oh, that chaps my cheeks - but probably because there's more than a grain of truth in it.

" my count only one of the six petitions [of the Lord's prayer] has to do with material needs – “give us this day our daily bread.” The others concern God (his glory, church, and will) and man’s sin (forgiveness, and temptation). By my math that works out to roughly 17 percent of our prayers being devoted to physical needs. And yet, when we listen or read the requests for prayer in most congregations, the percentage tilts almost in the exact opposite direction, with God and sin receiving about 17 percent of our requests."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Best Intro I've Read in a Long Time

The idea of 'mere Christianity' or the essentials of the faith as been coming up for me a lot recently - in my ACG, in private conversations, in thinking about evangelicalism's identity and how I fit into it, etc. I only heard the term 'paleo-orthodoxy' and Thomas Oden's name a few years ago (if my seminary prof's mentioned him, I apologize - I was tired that day). Travis Prinzi describes paleo orthodoxy: "The position is really quite simple: Go read and learn the Early Church Fathers, the great theologians of the faith who laid down the essentials in the midst of persecution, controversy, debate and heresy during the first several hundred years following Jesus. Learn the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils. Return to the church’s classic creeds - the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed - and focus on those things that have been held by all Christians in all places at all times. In his classic book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton called tradition "the democracy of the dead" (chapter 4). Paleo-orthodox theology is a way of giving the dead their vote."

I'm diving into a couple of his books and am excited about it. I just got Thomas Oden's The Justification Reader (Classic Christian Readers) in the mail today. I've only read the introduction so far, but it's pushing all the right buttons in my head so far. Here's the first sentence:

"My purpose is plainly to set forth nothing more or less than the classic Christian teaching of salvation by grace through faith, and only those parts of that teaching on which there is substantial agreement between traditions of East and West, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, including charismatic and Pentecostal teaching."

Ambitious! Possible?

Second & third sentences:

"I promise to make no new contribution theology. I will not set before you anything new or innovative."

Yes. I'm over new (one of the things that makes me not want to pursue a PhD is the need to produce new, original work). He continues:

"As a former addict of fad theology, I have come home to ancient ecumencial Christianity. My only desire is to give voice to the truth of the early apostolic tradition without change or distortion. If something here should inadvertently seem to be new, it would be a decisive lapse from my intention."

Like I said, I'm now very excited to read the book. The 'staleness' of it is refreshing. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Counterfeit gods, part 3

So post #3 is about chapter #2, which, so far is the best chapter we've read and discussed in my small group (we've discussed #3 also, but I'm behind in posting).

The chapter title is 'Love is not all you need.' Someone tell the hippies! Keller argues that many in our culture have replace God with love - with an over-dependency on being 'in love'. As with all the chapters, Keller uses a story from the Bible to illustrated to potential dangers of making something an idol. In this chapter, he points to the tragic story of Jacob-Rachel-Leah. I felt his use of this story was better than his use of the Abraham-Isaac story in chapter one, though I don't follow him in all the details (I think he reads too much into Laban's desire to marry Leah off). I had never really considered Jacob's obsession with Rachel, but Keller makes a compelling case that Jacob was lovesick - smitten to the point he says Jacob was acting like an addict who simply had to have Rachel. He had promised to work for seven years to get her, a price that would have been considered exorbitant by ancient standards. Then, when he was tricked and given Leah instead, he worked another seven years to get the bride he desired.

Beyond this, Keller points to the unhealthy longing Leah has for her husband, going to extremes to please him and win his love. The competition between her and Rachel to give sons to Jacob is painful to read, and the sense that Leah lived never having really received Jacob's love is heartbreaking.

Moving from ancient to contemporary, Keller argues that our culture has made an idol of romance and sex - 'apocalyptic romance' and 'apocalyptic sex' are great terms, even if I don't quite know what he means by them. In my experience, the idolization of romance/love/sex comes in a variety of forms. For some, they go into a relationship, even marriage, with this overly romantic notion of what it will entail. Everything good will get better, everything bad will cease to be. Reality, however, never meets these pollyannaish expectations. Nights aren't all about cuddling on the couch or hot sex in the bed. There are bills to be paid, dishes to be washed, and disagreements to work through. Someone who's idolized love/romance going into marriage can be discouraged and embittered. Some will look to blame themselves. Others may blame their spouse and begin to feel the 'grass is greener' over there, in another relationship. The same can happen with sex. Some couples go in search of perfect, wonderful, hot sex all the time. They neglect to consider the rhythms of life and marriage and get frustrated and even angry (I really recommend reading Lauren Winner's Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity - she does a wonderful job unromanticizing sex).

On the other end of the spectrum, some idolize a specific person rather than a vague notion of love. For some, they worship the ground the other walks on. We've all seen it. Sometimes it's a momentary phase of 'puppy love' that wears off. The wearing off is good, because as Keller points out, no one is meant to carry the weight of God. No one but God truly 'completes us' (thanks Tom for what may be the worst cheesy love line ever). When it doesn't wear off it can cause 'terrible blindness to the pathologies in the relationship' and can lead to all sorts of abusive.

I particularly liked two points Keller makes in this chapter. First, he asks "Where are the all the spiritual heroes in this story [of Jacob-Rachel-Leah]?" His answer - they aren't there! He writes, "The reason for our confusion is that we usually read the Bible as a series of disconnected stories, each with a 'moral' for how we should live our lives. It is not. Rather it comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right...the Bible repeatedly shows us weak people who don't deserve God's grace, don't seek it, and don't appreciate it even after they have received it." YES, YES and AMEN! This is what we call Biblical Theology!

Second, I really appreciate his reminder about 'cosmic disappointment'. He says, "We learn that though all of life there runs a ground note of cosmic disappointment. You are never going to lead a wise life until you understand that." While life if filled with good thing - great things even, things that come from the hand of God - they will never satisfy us completely. There will always be a note of disappointment with the job you thought would be perfect, the vacation you saved years for, the relationship you thought would be perfect. This side of heaven, of Eden restored, nothing can satisfy. Thank God! The note of disappointment is God's grace meant to show us that we were created for something else. In Lewis' words, "If I find a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world."

Lastly,I think Keller is spot on in his prescription (I knew some prescription would come). He quotes Thomas Chalmers classic sermon, "The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection [idolatry] is by the expulsive power of a new one...[to rid yourself of an idol] try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world."

A great word just in time for Valentine's Day!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Neal Postman and Haiti

Neal Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is getting somewhat dated, but I still highly recommend it. I read it six or seven years ago and it has really changed how I take in the news. Tim Challies reflects on Postman in light of the catastrophe in Haiti.

Here's a few sections from Challies great post (he quotes Postman extensively, marked off by quotes):
Our television culture grew out of the age of telegraphy. The great idea in the age of the telegraph was “that transportation and communication could be disengaged from each other, that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” While there was a time when only Haitians would have known about the disaster, today, in our rapidly-shrinking world, it is immediately visible from pole-to-pole. But telegraphy did more than make the world much smaller. It unexpectedly “destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.”

We now have context-free information; “that is, the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity. The telegraph made information into a commodity, a ‘thing’ that could be bought and sold irrespective of its uses or meaning.” And this is exactly what we are seeing today...

“Most of our daily news is inert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action. This fact is the principle legacy of the telegraph: By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the ‘information-action ratio.’” “In both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action.” As we moved away from a typographic world into a telegraphic and television world (and now into a digital world), information became separated from action. “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency. This is a kind of information glut that makes us unable to react to all the information available to us or to do anything about most of it.

Three days from now we will have moved on. Maybe it will take four or five. But honestly, after the weekend, few of us will ever think of Haiti again. The next news story will come along and Haiti will be relegated to history. But three days from now and a week from now, the situation in Haiti will be far worse than it is today. The devastation will be more complete. The pain will be greater.

Postman calls the world brought about and fostered by television a “peek-a-boo world” “where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

And isn’t that what the Haiti earthquake is for most of us? It is entertainment.
This is a very true, but the next paragraph is also very true, and please, let's not forget it.
In one regard I have to turn from Postman. Postman, though he knew his Bible well, was not a Christian and did not understand the power of prayer. Though we may be impotent to act, to actually go to Haiti and give aid, we can ask God to accomplish his purposes, even through so devastating a situation. We can pray for the nation and its people. We should pray for them, even, and especially for brothers in sisters in Christ who live in that country. We should pray that as people from around the world head to Haiti to feed the hungry and heal the sick, that they would take the gospel with them. And we can consider giving financially to credible organizations that will be involved in relief efforts (such as Compassion). It turns out that we are not entirely impotent in the aftermath of this great disaster.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Two Songs for the Week (from opposite ends of my listening spectrum)

I don't care from HipHop/Rap or Country. I can appreciate most anything else, as these two songs show:

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Christ and Culture: My Conclusion

Last semester the ACG I lead considered how Christians and the Church should engage our culture. We looked at Neihbur's five models, considering the pro's and con's of each (for this summary, check out the Nov. 20th posting on the poiemablog).

Most of us landed in one of two camps - the "transformationalist" or the "two-kingdom" camp. The "transformationalists" camp would include, likely, men like Edwards, Wesley, maybe even Calvin and Augustine (though these last two are also claimed by the 'two kingdom' folk). Certainly Schaeffer and Kuyper, along with most at Calvin College would fall into this camp. They would argue that there is distinctly Christian ways of doing things (governing, teaching, etc.). Christians are to bring everything under the sovereignty of Christ, transforming the world more and more into the Kingdom of God. Many in this camp were post-millennial, though not all. They would emphasize that the kingdom of God is not merely spiritual in character, but also physical – Christ is Lord of all things and is redeeming all things. Sounds good. For a long time, I was in this camp - now, I'm a little more suspicious.

The 'two kingdom' camp boasts Martin Luther, Calvin (arguable), and Augustine as models. To this we could add Micheal Horton and most of the Westminster Seminary California crowd. Proponents argue that we are dual citizens. Our primary allegiance is the heavenly kingdom that is mediated to us through the church (it’s preaching, discipline, and administration of the sacraments). In addition, we all participate in the earthly kingdom through our various vocations – serving our neighbors, loving our children, etc. We recognize the sinfulness not only of our culture, but of us as individuals, even redeemed individuals. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t advance through the efforts of the church, but is received through the ministry of the church. Individual go out and work in the world, but don’t try to Christianize it.

My approach is more of a hybrid. I agree with the transformationalists that Christians as individuals should be transforming culture. I think we should remember, however, that most of this work will be done on a micro scale - homes, neighborhoods, schools, work places, etc. I believe we are called to be salt and light in these places and that so doing will transform them. Christians transform their worlds by 1) loving their neighbor, 2) fulfilling their vocations well, not by Christianizing law or medicine or carpentry. In other words, I don't think there are particular Christian ways of engaging in these callings. Certainly Christians will do so differently, but the difference will be almost entirely internal - differences in motivations (love and the glory of God), not in policies or methods. Of course a Christian lawyer should be an honest one and a Christian doctor should value life. Yet these values/virtues come to us not only through the specific revelation (the Bible), but also through general revelation and natural law.

I do not follow the transformationalist when it comes to the churches role in the conversion of culture. I am incredibly uneasy with the churches 'cultural agenda' - whether it's the Religious Rights or the Emergent Left. Do you see the problem? Both are claiming to be the Christian agenda, baptizing their platform with the Bible. If the church is to engage in transforming the culture, who's cultural vision will we be shaping culture into? As I said in class, I don't think we, as Christians and as the church, are transformed enough to know how we ought to transform our culture. That doesn't mean that pastors should stop preaching about culture sins; however, the church as the church shouldn't involve itself in promoting specific agendas, policies, etc.

For example, the church should preach on the value of human life and the sanctity of marriage. However, I believe it is misguided for the church to move from proclaiming what the bible clearly teaches to promoting certain political agendas, parties, legislation, etc. Christians who believe in the sanctity of life and marriage can disagree on who best to guard them. Will legislation do it? Maybe, but I doubt people want abortion on demand because it's legal. More likely, abortion on demand is legal because people demanded it. Should we forget the legal side and work towards providing better alternatives to abortion? Yes and no. My point is that for the Christian, any and all of these may be legitimate, but for the church none are! I believe it is perfectly appropriate for Christians to lobby for legislation limiting access to abortion or making it outright illegal. I think it's important for Christians to be involved in supporting crisis pregnancy centers, adopting, etc. I don't think the church should push any of these, especially not as 'the Christian' response to abortion (it would be easy to use the issue of marriage also).

Does this mean that Christ isn't the Lord over every area of life? NO, NOT AT ALL. Listen to How R. Scott Clark puts it:

"In seminary I was taught that there is a distinctively Christian way of viewing everything. In a sense I suppose that’s true but here’s how my mind has changed on this issue. There is no question whether Christ is Lord of everything. The Apostle John teaches that nothing came into being except that which came into being through the Word. Jesus is the Word. As Creator he is Lord of all. The question that remains, however, is how he is Lord of all…We often assume that he exercises his Lordship in precisely the same way in every sphere of life. This is an assumption that should be challenged. There is good biblical evidence to suggest that we are to understand that Christ administers his sovereign Lordship in distinct ways in different spheres or kingdoms. For example, he has made promises to the visible, institutional church that he has not made to the civil kingdom. He has not promised “Lo I will be with you always” to any visible political entity, but he has made that promise to the visible church." ("Christ is Lord of all, But...", on the Heidleblog)

Or Michael Horton:

"Christians were to be salt and light in the arts by actually becoming artists, not by the church issuing edicts and pronouncements. Those engaged in business and trade were to glorify God by producing or offering quality goods at a reasonable price. This is an essential point. When one asks, "So the Reformation wanted the church to be involved in every aspect of life?", we must reply, "Not on your life!" In fact, the lordship of Christ over every sphere was not the lordship of the church. God rules his world through institutions he created before and after the fall which have to do with culture, not redemption. It is not the place of the church to issue political pronouncements, but the place of Christians who have been called to that arena; it is not the place of the church to create great works of art and music, but the place of Christians who have been given an artistic vocation. In medieval theory, the City of God (Christendom: church and culture as one) was ruled by the church; in Reformation theory, the City of God was spiritual and redemptive, not cultural. Therefore, the involvement of Christians in these spheres to the glory of God took preeminence, breaking the centuries of ecclesiastical rule." ("
My Father's World", Modern Reformation, March/April 1992)

My understanding of the church (institutional) is that it should be a 'refueling station' (or a 're-salianation station')where people who serve the world day in and day out come to be confronted with the law of God and driven to the grace of God revealed in the gospel. Too many churches preach only law. Some do it from the right - opposing abortion, homosexual marriage, etc from the pulpit. Some do it from the left - preaching the need to be active in promoting social justice, serving as Christ served, etc. The church is institution called into existence to proclaim the gospel of God's grace. If we fail to do that week in and week out, we have failed to fulfill our calling. Our calling is the Great Commission, not the building of a Great Society.

Let me close this off with a very long quote from David VanDrunen (taken from OldLife Blog on the Westminster hermeneutic, originally appearing the Kerux Online Journal):

"This brief look at biblical theology should teach us a number of things about this battle. Most important of all, it teaches us that the culture war rages in Babylon, not in the Promised Land. A number of other important considerations arise from this. For one thing, it reminds us that in any of our cultural struggles we are not to set as a goal the annihilation or even the radical transformation of society. The existence of Babylon is completely legitimate. This is a particularly relevant message for Americans especially to heed. America is portrayed as the Promised Land so often—it is the hope of the world, the shining city on the hill, with liberty and justice for all. It is the refuge for the teeming masses of distant shores yearning to be free. It is a land of never before attained prosperity and military strength. America certainly is a great land, and patriotic affections are good and healthy. But it is not paradise, and never was. And neither is any other place on earth. To view any earthly land as the Promised Land is to set our sights both too high and too low at the same time: too high for our nation’s prospects and too low for what the Promised Land really is. People wage culture wars in Babylon, and to whatever extent they win or lose, Babylon continues to be just that—Babylon! It will not be annihilated, and it will not be transformed into something else.

To understand this is to put things into perspective. If the America of 50 or 100 or 200 years ago was Babylon, and if the America of the next generation, apart from the outcome of this culture war, will still be Babylon, should we not conclude that culture wars really are not won or lost, at least not absolutely? Living in Babylon by definition implies living outside of Paradise in a land which does not in any special way belong to the church, and as such is more or less filled with injustice, immorality, and any number of other depravities which motivate the culture warriors. As long as the church has lived in Babylon, it has been involved in cultures with marks of degeneracy. And as long as it continues to live here, it will face the same thing. It is only at Christ’s return that wicked culture and its supporters will be abolished completely: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels” (2 Thess. 1:6-7). The culture war has been raging for ages and it will not end until Christ returns. Why do we so often act as if the 1960’s, with the corresponding rise of the drug culture and sexual promiscuity, marked the beginning of this war? Perhaps the battle rages more fiercely and more visibly now, but even Christians living in Norman Rockwell America should have realized the existence of the culture war—the same culture war which rages around us now. As a wise man long ago observed, there is nothing new under the sun."

Does this mean that fighting the culture wars is wrong? VanDrunen says, “of course not.” But if Christians do fight in those battles they ne
ed to do so with a proper understanding of the stakes involved:

"God commanded the people in Jeremiah 29 to seek the peace and prosperity of the city in which they lived, and this applies to us as well. We know that a nation with increasing numbers of cocaine-addicts, abortions, thefts, child-abuse cases, illiterates, etc., etc., will not retain desirable levels of peace and prosperity for long. Therefore we do have an obligation to do things which will, if not eliminate such things, at least substantially reduce their rate of occurrence. The peace and prosperity of our society, not to mention our personal peace and prosperity, depend on it. And the political sphere certainly is one of the institutions of culture which will make its indelible stamp on the peace and prosperity of the society. Christians therefore should have an interest in the political process when their form of government allows it, as ours does. To turn our backs on politics would mean to turn our backs in part to the command of God to seek the peace and prosperity of our nation. We may debate amongst ourselves which political positions to promote and how much emphasis should be given to the political process, but the interest and involvement in politics which we see among the “religious right” is in itself a good thing. But, it must always be accompanied by the realization that we are participating in the politics of Babylon. What should we hope to gain by our cultural, including political, activity? Only a relatively better life for society, ourselves, and our children in the years to come than what we would otherwise face. We seek not the destruction of our enemies, but simply a modestly better society which in the future will face exactly the same kinds of threats and require the same sort of opposition. Perhaps we can turn America back to the culture of the 1950’s. But the 1960’s will always follow.

Our first hope naturally is for the peace and prosperity of our nation. But perhaps we should be secretly pleased when these turn into disorder and depression. We have noted how many Christians today yearn for the days of public virtue present years ago in our nation’s history. It seems that there is little doubt that as far as public virtue goes America has seen better days. But when we see how such memories distort the biblical understanding that we live in Babylon, when we see how they cause our hopes to seek fulfillment not in the next world, but in this, when we see how they paint a falsely idyllic picture in our minds which we ignorantly project into the future, does it not make us at least wonder how much good such relatively peaceful and prosperous days really do. If God answered our prayers and blessed our cultural efforts by bringing us days of unparalleled peace and prosperity, would that not in itself be a tremendous temptation to set our sights no higher than Babylon? Are not days such as ours good reminders of what Babylon really is—a pagan, depraved, and hopeless place over which an angel from heaven will one day shout: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great” (Rev. 18:2)? The Israelites were apparently satisfied with the peace and prosperity of Babylon— only a tiny fraction of them returned to the Promised Land when the opportunity came. Will we as a church do any better?

Yes, let us pray for the peace and prosperity of our land for the sake of the physical well-being of ourselves and our children. But let us also be thankful for God’s often disappointing answers for the sake of the spiritual well-being of his church."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Counterfeit Gods, part 2

It's been a very long time since my last post on this book. Our group considered chapter one a month ago, I just forgot to post about it. It was a good chapter and a good conversation.

What is the deepest longing of your heart? What would life be like if you were given what you longed for? Keller warns, "We never imagine that getting our heart's deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us." Using Romans 1:24, Keller argues that when God gives us our hearts deepest desire, it is often a form of punishment, for our hearts turn these desires into idols - things that replace God. He writes, "Every human being must live for something. Something must capture our imaginations, our heart's most fundamental allegiance and hope. But, the Bible tells us, without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, that object will never be God."

Keller then takes the reader to the story of Abraham and uses him to illustrate the point. He argues that "while God's call demanded that he give up his other hopes [associated with leaving his homeland and family], it had also given him a new one [children, blessing, etc]." This is, in my opinion, similar to the call that comes to each of us - 'Repent and Believe'. Turn from your sins, vain hopes, self-centered dreams and believe what God is doing for you, what he is offering you.

Keller continues following the story of Abraham, filling in the gaps of the story with some creative, if maybe misguided, reading between the lines. Regarding the call to sacrifice Isaac he writes, "Abraham's affection had become adoration. Previously, Abraham's meaning in life had been dependent on God's word. Now it was becoming dependent on Isaac's love and well-being. The center of Abraham's life was shifting. God was not saying you cannot love your son, but that you must not turn a loved one into a counterfeit god.' I disagree with Keller's exegesis - I don't see this in the Genesis 22 text; however, his point is good. Gifts from God can become gods in and of themselves.

After a short section in which Keller helps the reader understand the importance of sons to Ancient Near Eastern cultures, he turns to a discussion of Abraham's faith. While Abraham's faith is radical (see Gen. 22:5 and Heb. 11:17-19), Keller is correct when he says "Abraham was not just exercising 'blind faith'. Could God raise Isaac from the dead? Is he faithful to his promises? Abraham had good reason to say 'Yes' to both questions. He had seen God's faithfulness in action repeatedly, especially in providing him with a son. Moreover, he had seen God's miraculous power in that his son was born to him and Sarah in old age. He understood the promises of God ran through Isaac, knew God was faithful to his promises, knew God could do the miraculous. His faith had it's reasons. Based on his first hand knowledge of God and his ways, he acted in faith - albeit a radical faith!

This test seems unthinkable to us. It's so harsh, but Keller points out that God's harshness, his seeming cruelty, is actually gracious. He used the episode to teach Abraham more about himself and to shake him free from idolatry (or potential idolatry). Maybe the most difficult situations in our life our God's gracious means for shaking us free of inappropriate attachments, idolatry, self reliance, etc. What might seem cruel is gracious and we can only appreciate this if we understand how idolatry enslaves, then destroys. We destroy our idols because, in Kellers words, 'no [idol] can bear the full weight of godhood'. Then once our idols have been destroyed, we're left in despondency and despair.

So what is it in your life that threatens to replace God? It's probably something very good. What would be hardest for you to sacrifice? "Something is safe for us to maintain in our lives only if it has really stopped being an idol. That can happen only when we are truly willing to live without it, when we truly say from the heart: 'Because I have God, I can live without you."

So far, Keller's book is long on diagnosis and short on prescription. Well, that's not exactly fair - I'm only through chapter one after all. I'm looking forward to the next chapter and discussion on Thursday night.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Song of the Week

I'm preparing to preach this Sunday on Exodus 17:8-16 and this song came to mind. It's old, but it's a good song.