Monday, June 24, 2013

The Method of Biblical Theology

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books are one grand story. The entire work, not including The Hobbit, contains three volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) . Each volume really is comprised of two books. For instance, the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, contains 1) a prologue that introduces the entire series of books; 2) Book 1, called The Ring Sets Out (or The First Journey); and 3) Book 2, called The Ring Goes South (or The Journey of the Nine Companions). Each of these books is split into about 10-12 chapters with such names as “A Long-expected Party,” “The Shadow of the Past,” and “Three is Company.” Each of these chapters tell a main story that somehow fits into the entire storyline of The Lord of the Rings. Additionally, they contain sub-plots, background anecdotes, and digressions (seeming rabbit-trails), all for the purpose of making the grand story complete.

Now try to remember the first time you read the books (or, regrettably, only watched the movies). You didn’t know exactly how the story would progress. You didn’t know the ending because you hadn’t read it before. Incidentally, however, we all really did know how the story would end. From the very beginning, we knew that the impossible task that had to be done would be done. Can you imaging Frodo failing his quest? So in the minds of us readers, the most pressing issue was not what would happen but how it would happen. And the reason that Tolkien is so successful in making his readers continue reading is that fantastic events happen, tension builds, and everything happens so miraculously yet so plausibly.

But think again back to the first time you read the story. At each point in the story, you didn’t know exactly what would happen next. You were given hints and clues. Events were foreshadowed and prophesied. Yet you were left to your own perceptiveness in reading the details to anticipate future events. Both we readers and the characters in the story knew only what had been revealed up to that point in the history of Middle Earth and in their own part of it. None of us knew the future. To make things more difficult, the first time you read these books, undoubtedly you missed a lot of the details. Some of the themes, symbols, and patterns evaded your notice. You understanding was cloudy and incomplete.

But image something impossible for a moment. Imagine yourself rereading all preceding chapters one or twice or five times before you moved on to the next chapter. And before moving on to book two, you reread all the previous books 3-4 times.

Of course, you have better things to do with your time, but if you had done such a thing, you would have become an expert of each book, and the subsequent books would have made much more sense as their events unfolded. Indeed, you would eventually have large portions of it memorized. You would recognize how each smaller portion, every tiny detail fits into the entirety of the story. You would understand more about why Tolkien told the story exactly the way he did. You would learn to think like Tolkien, and you would understand the world he created in the way that he, as the creative author of Middle Earth and its history, wants you to understand it.

Biblical Theology is a method of interpreting the Bible. The type of reading I have just described largely describes the method of Biblical Theology. History is the story that God creates and tells. Thus, history has a purpose and is moving toward a specific goal. The Bible is the literary masterpiece that God wrote to tell that story. God is the author of this multi-volume epic, which tells one grand story with many sub-plots. Like The Lord of the Rings, the Bible also contains background anecdotes and seeming digressions. Throughout the work, the divine Author recounts fantastic events and builds tension in ways that are both miraculous and plausible. And so we should read it in a way similar to how we read The Lord of the Rings. Yet, as an author, God is even more successful than Tolkien. No time is wasted when we read each portion over and over in order to understand how they fit into the grand story, to come to know the mind of the divine Author, and to learn to think like Him. As we read, we told a certain amount about what history look like in the end, but the exciting project is discovering how God brings history to that end.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cultural Imperialism: A Mission of the Church

As I think of the possibility of missions work in my future, I have been considering my own understanding of Christian mission. I have begun reading The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher Wright, which sets out to “demonstrate that a strong theology of the mission of God provides a fruitful hermeneutical framework within which to read the whole Bible” (26). The book comes highly recommended as a work of biblical theology, which purports to turn the hermeneutical key for “unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative,” i.e. the mission of God.

I’m a little surprised that the initial chapters of the book relate to a philosophy of missionary work. (I’m actually reading it because it is a standard work on biblical theology.) In one of these initial chapters, Wright grapples with the idea of contextualizing the gospel in the work of mission(s). This is the idea that while the gospel “has an unchanging core because of its historical rootedness in the Scriptures and the Christ event,” yet “it has been [and should be] received, understood, articulated, and lived out in myriad ways, both vertically through history and horizontally in all the cultures in which Christian faith has taken [or takes] root” (46).

In the context of this discussion comes the sticky issue of how Western missionaries have frequently imposed Western cultural expressions on cultures to which those expressions are completely foreign. The flaw to avoid is confusing the “unchanging core” of the gospel with unnecessary baggage of Western culture. Wright says that “the West” is “a particular context of human culture, not necessarily any better or any worse than any other context for reading the Bible and doing theology” (42). This statement implies that he views “the West” as simply the “culture” of northern Europeans (and Americans), especially of the post-Enlightenment manifestations of it. According to this line of thinking, a missionary needs to remove the gospel from his own cultural husk and not export those trappings as part of the message he delivers.

Another expression of very caution was recently recommended to me in a blog post by R. C. Sproul Jr. called “Contextualizing Missions.” In that article Sproul Jr. uses the example of missionaries who into “untamed interiors” haul musical organs along with the gospel. But it isn’t always a musical instrument that we export. Missionaries are also guilty of imposing “our own traditions [and] our own way of doing things.” In contrast, the task of missionaries is to “grow and encourage the church of Jesus Christ,” to “grow and encourage the local believers,” and to “encourage them to follow Jesus, not us.” We are not to go “with programs, but with the gospel.” The missionary’s goal ought to be to “win the lost,” not “to remake ... churches or cultures in [his own] image.” Sproul Jr. is witty and uses rhetorical flourishes to make a point, but his thesis is clear: a missionary needs to know “the difference between a cross and an organ.”

The point of view of Wright and Sproul Jr. has some merit. It is important not to give unnecessary offense for the sake of our favorite method or style. It is important that we know exactly what the gospel is. We need to know the difference between the gospel and implications of the gospel. We need to discern between what a newly-planted church is ready for and what is necessary for planting a church. We need to be open to the fact that we cannot always offer the “complete package” to the first generation.

Yet, implicit in these view are at least four undesirable implications about culture and the gospel. First, all cultures are viewed as possessing neutral trappings that eventually create an external husk for the gospel. Styles are seen as realities predetermined by the target cultures, and missionaries should not impose the unfamiliar styles of their own culture upon people from another. Yet, cultural expressions are not neutral and may be evaluated by biblical norms. Putting the gospel into an unholy husk is a compromise that should be avoided. We should be very careful about assuming that people will be able to disassociate their cultural expressions from their former paganism. Missionaries and evangelists offer an alternative. Why should we expect the gospel and its implications to be familiar to a pagan? This critique of not recognizing the paganness of cultures untouched by the gospel goes hand in hand with my previous critique of not recognizing the churchness of Western culture.

A second implication, which I highly doubt anyone actually believes but which should still be addressed, is the idea that cultures and their expressions and styles cannot be reformed or formed by the gospel. Rather, cultures are treated as givens, which must not be tampered with. Indeed, tampering with them is a form of cultural imperialism, a missionary flaw to be scrupulously avoided. Yet, of course, this is not true. And missionaries, domestic or foreign, should be careful not to pull a classic “bait and switch” in their presentation of the gospel: get them in with familiar, though pagan, cultural expressions, then work on changing them.

Third, these exhortations for contextualization imply that the church itself does not contain a culture, that the cultural expressions that developed in “the West” did so less because of the church and more because of the geography or whatever else might have changed the barbarians of western Europe into a civilized society. In contrast, I affirm that the church itself has a culture. The church has not always been reactionary, borrowing raw material from surrounding culture. There was a time when the church created culture, governed by the desire to make sanctuary worship beautiful and glorious. And so godly, artistic, creative men and women invented and created. And so also architectures, musical genres, and thought and behavior patterns were born. And these inventions, originally made for the purpose of beautifying and glorifying sanctuary worship, spilled over into the larger society.

Thus, I think that the term “Western” as a characterization of a culture can be unhelpful. The church largely created what we think of as “Western culture.” So why should we see those cultural expressions, which the church developed over the course of over 1,000 years out of an impetus to make worship beautiful, as irrelevant and undesirable for missionary work? Do we really expect foreign converts to start that 1,000-year clock over and in the meantime to borrow their cultural expressions from the surrounding pagan culture? Should missionaries promote this out of a fear of being accused of being cultural imperialists?

Or perhaps the church did it wrong in the West. Let’s go back to example of musical organs. We don’t really think that the missionaries to the barbarians of northern Europe discovered the organ from the barbarians, do we? Surely, we don’t regret the invention (or progressive improvement) of the organ in both the church service and the concert hall, do we? (Obviously, some churches throughout history have abuse their use of the organ. But cannot any good thing be abused?) The fact that the organ is now associated with the West and not just the church is very telling about how the church forms culture. The very example used for imperialism of Western culture is not inherent to “the West” at all, but rather the church!

(I know the original organ was most likely not invented by the church, but it was improved by it. What we now think of as an organ is largely a product of the church and is a far cry from its Greek prototype. But this particular instrument was chosen and developed because 1) it makes a beautiful sound, 2) it can function like a complete orchestra though played by one person, and 3) not having a decaying tone, it is ideal for accompanying and beautifying singing in worship.)

Finally, and closely related to everything else I have said about the missionary endeavor, I would ask, what is the gospel? I question the understanding of the gospel and the project of spreading it as simply getting individuals saved by getting them to ascribe to certain propositions. Rather, spreading the gospel should be viewed more as the building of a kingdom. I agree with Sproul Jr. that missionaries should encourage people to “follow Jesus,” but I want to think of Jesus as the totus Christus, the “whole Christ,” Head and body. If our understanding of salvation and the gospel is tied up with our doctrine of the church (and it should be), then indeed we are offering people more than individual salvation. We are offering them life as citizens in the kingdom of light, a complete package of Jesus-church culture, practices, music, history, story, and affections. And in this sense, we need to own up to reality by pleading guilty to being cultural imperialists, not of Western culture per se but of the culture Jesus has been nurturing and developing through His Spirit for almost 2,000 years.

Even with the above four caveats, I still submit to the warnings by older and wiser men concerning contextualization. Obviously, a missionary must fit the gospel message into a specific linguistic context. One of the first tasks of a new missionary needs to be to learn the language. (He might then begin laboring to mould even the language by the Bible, as was done in the West.) Missionaries must also understand the historical milieu of his target country in order to understand how the culture has grown into its current state. Also, geography and accessibility can severely limit what a missionary can do. Bamboo musical instruments are usually not practical in regions where it does not grow. (Thus, I am not arguing that missionaries ought to take organs into the untamed interiors.) Finally, missionaries should apply with discernment the ancient practice of plundering the Egyptians, that is, using materials from the surrounding society for the purposes of building up and beautifying worship. Israel used the plunder from Egypt to build and decorate the tabernacle. Medieval churchmen snatched and then improved upon an instrument like an organ in order to make the singing in congregational worship more glorious. We are welcome to knock on the gates of hell, pilfer the clever devices of the pagans, and transform them for worship, and therefore culturally formative, purposes. In these ways can missionaries continue the church’s work of being culturally creative rather then reactive and perpetually dependent.

One final point. All these observations can apply to a church-planting pastor in his own country. Using styles that are familiar to the surrounding pagan and rebellious culture for the sake of converts may produce some numbers. They might even fill church buildings with Christians, but ones who remain in a perpetual state of immaturity. Always keeping their eye on the surrounding culture for their cues, purportedly in order to be relevant to the world, these contextualizing church-planters undermine the work that is the most relevant for the creating and transformation of culture, which is sanctuary worship of Almighty God, a strange and dangerous task. It’s time for the church to recover her project of creativity and invention for the sake of glorious sanctuary worship and thereby ultimately for the life of the world.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Culprits for Biblical Ignorance

Today I want to talk about something that should be obvious to everyone in the conversation of Christian education but, sadly, is too often neglected at worst and merely assumed at best. What I am talking about is the practice of studying the Bible in order to gain a thorough knowledge of it. I’m going to leave off for now discussing the extent of and approach to the Biblical knowledge necessary for all God’s children. Here, I will examine the chief reasons for the dearth of Bible knowledge among God’s people, even among those raised in Christian homes and taught in Christian schools.

1. Worldview thinking

God has placed me among His people who love and promote “classical education.” One of the purported benefits of this method of education is its intellectual rigor. This rigor, coupled with a desire to be epistemologically self-conscious in a distinctively Christian way, is supposed to produce Christians who are able to “give an answer” to all forms of unbelief. This goal, while worthy in many respects, has been misapplied by its emphasis on “worldview thinking.” Of course, I recognize that the Christian faith is capable of providing a thoroughly extensive and intensive account of reality. But that desire to pass on such knowledge has minimized those disciplines (intellectual and otherwise) that are most valuable for Christians.

This fact came to my attention a couple years ago when I was at a teachers’ training provided by a leading school in the Christian classical school movement. I was surprised by the fact that at this intellectually demanding classical Christian school, Bible class met only three days per week. So I asked a board member about it, and he told me that they do so for two related reasons. First, they want to be careful that they don’t tacitly teach their students an improper compartmentalization of Bible from the rest of life. This avoidance is accomplished apparently, at least in part, by deemphasizing the formal teaching of the Bible proper. The second reason is that the Christian worldview is integrated into all school subjects. Thus, students will learn the Bible from their literature, math, science, and history teachers. The theory is that the Bible will so saturate the other classroom subjects that the students will complete their education with an adequate knowledge of it.

Worldview thinking has largely become a trendy buzzword for relevant engagement with the surrounding culture. Even at its best, it treats Christianity as a disembodied system of thought to be argued persuasively. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is its deemphasis on the data of Scripture in order to engage in the realm of ideas. Christianity is “assumed.” It is a lens through which one interprets reality. But when treated merely in this way, my observation has been a neglect of actual Scripture and a very shallow understanding of its facts.

I would add as a parenthesis that Bible classes themselves also frequently tend not to deal with the Bible as much as theology or apologetics. There is a tacit fear of making Bible class too much like a moralizing Sunday School class, almost as if the Bible itself cannot be taught in an intellectually rigorous way.

2. Catechism

Catechism can be thought of as both method and content. I am not against the method of question and answer. Indeed, I regard it as a very effective pedagogical technique, especially in the early years. Rather, I am observing the drawbacks of the catechisms taught in the primary school years. When I began moving in the Reformed direction, I soon discovered that a distinctive of Reformed child rearing is the practice of catechizing. Debates ensue about the best catechism for children. Parents take as a mark of parental success the difficulty level or antiquated sound of their child’s questions and answers. A child who is equipped with a pea-shooter will learn only a purportedly watered-down “Catechism for Young Children.” Better, a child with a pocket pistol with have at his ever-ready disposal the answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. But parents who want to go all out and equip their children with a bazooka that is sure to knock out all enemies of the gospel will teach their children the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Of course, I am speaking facetiously, but I am truly concerned that we are putting the cart before the horse. I heard of a dear friend of mine recently expressing concern about his four-year old’s inability to articulate the truth of the Trinity. My friend, of course, was not overly concerned, but I do think his prioritizing of the study of doctrine even at this early age illustrates my point. Catechisms are essentially systematic theology. And systematic theology should rely on a thorough knowledge of the Bible. Regrettably, my observation has been that a heavy emphasis on catechism frequently goes hand in hand with a shallow knowledge of the stories, types, symbols, terminology, and facts of Scripture.

Again, by way of parenthesis, I am not opposed to teaching children the language of doctrine. My concern is with how prioritizing it easily results in a deficient knowledge of the Bible itself. Additionally, teaching doctrine is important especially in later years after a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge has been laid. Pedagogically speaking, Bible content is an enormous amount of “grammar level” material. I regard theology and apologetics as essentially “dialectic” material.

3. Partisan spirit

Frequently coupled with catechizing is a partisan spirit that is more concerned about losing children to other theological traditions than producing people who know their Bibles thoroughly. I have heard parents, whose children, though remaining faithfully passionate about serving Jesus, now identify with a different type of church, lament their failure to catechize their children better. I have heard teachers object to my cautions concerning catechizing by saying that our children may not turn out Reformed if we teach them only the Bible. Oh, the irony! These concerns may be legitimate to a point, but they also reflect a divisiveness that has plagued Protestantism for years. It is as though our desire to keep our own types of churches full justifies circumventing a rigorous Bible education.

This partisan spirit also implies a lamentable misunderstanding of how to replicate our own. As parents and as educators, we must recognize that watertight theological arguments and meticulously qualified catechism responses are not sufficient to pass on our heritage. Our heritage is more than a list of theological distinctives. And Christ’s body is much, much bigger than our own particular convictions. And I speak as one who feels very, very strongly about my own!

4. The spheres

The final culprit for our general Bible ignorance that I will mention is, once again, sphere sovereignty. I have talked about the inadequacies of the spheres before, and so I will only touch on them briefly here. Many churches operate under the assumption that the intellectual development of Bible knowledge is the responsibility of the “family sphere” while the responsibility of the ecclesiastical sphere extends to the spiritual development of its members. Thus, pastors labor to persuade parents, especially fathers, of their responsibility to teach their children the Bible, and, once the job of persuasion is done, they try to equip them in their pursuit. Thus, they have book table, and they recommend Christian schools, which operate in the sphere of the family. But in an effort to maintain supposedly proper distinctions of roles, churches demure from offering a thorough and rigorous Bible curriculum.

Once again, I regard this neat, watertight theological construction as providing churches with a respectable excuse for not making the long-term, expensive, and inconvenient commitment to teach the data of the Bible in a systematic way (apart from the pulpit).

Of course, these criticisms do not apply equally to everyone, and there are churches out there who do a very good job in offering such vital programs. The bottom line of my concern is that believers of all theological backgrounds do not know their Bible. Teaching the Bible is a lot of work and takes years of diligent labor. But if we are to have a generation of men and women who can make a difference in the surrounding culture, then they must be saturated with Biblical knowledge. And that knowledge is possible only if we make the commitment to teach it thoroughly and rigorously.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pathway to Freedom: Christianity Replaced by the Church

In his article, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic,” Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative highlights a phenomenon that has been recently brought to my attention, an understanding of which, I believe, is necessary for lasting systemic change in the American system. Some of the most basic values that Americans hold dear are the very ones that will continue our demise of any claim to moral superiority.

McCarthy calls our system, borrowing from Grant Havers, “federal majoritarianism,” which values self-government, while maintaining a sort of aristocracy rooted not in heredity but in education, connections, and, more recently, charisma. This premium placed on self-government comes clearly from the Colonists’ being predominantly Protestant, that is, within ecclesiastical traditions “in which congregations had great say over church governance.” Thus, McCarthy states,

It’s easy to see how men who were accustomed to managing their spiritual affairs might think that they could manage their worldly affairs without king or Parliament. The tradition — the practice — of self-government held more authority for Americans than such institutions as crown, Parliament, or Anglican hierarchy. When the two types of authority came into conflict, it was clear where the colonists’ strongest loyalties would lie.

Americans love their independence, their liberty for every individual person as an individual and not as a member of a group or family or race. This nation began as a Protestant nation that was always trepidatious about either Church or civil leaders who claim any sort of authority. For instance, McCarthy recounts that in the 19th century the Roman Catholic church, a thoroughly authoritarian tradition, was confronted with suspicion in the United States. He reasons, “because the Catholic faith subordinates the laity to a hierarchy, wouldn’t Catholics in politics subordinate citizens to the pope or a dictator?” I also presume that this suspicion has factored in to keeping the Catholic Church from exceeding 25% of the populace to this day. In ecclesiastical matters, like civil, Americans prefer their leadership to earn their rights by education, connections, or charisma.

The question posed by the (presumedly Catholic) author is this: “As Protestantism has mutated into less structured congregations… and as religious practice in general apparently declines, have Americans also lost the experience that made political self-governance possible?” American is sliding from a loosely structured “federal majoritarianism” to a “new plebiscitary majoritarianism, which is impatient with constitutional filters [and the limitations it places on the leadership] and demands a direct expression of the people’s will through the power of the president of the United States.” With this slide in view, are Americans willing to continue perpetuating their system while recognizing the possibilities inherent in a system of liberty of the individual accompanied by an almost irrational trust in charisma and celebrity?

One could hope for a “Catholic moment” in which authority and hierarchy play a greater role, despite their risk of abuse. But such hopes must be tempered by the reality that America’s “political structure at its core is Protestant.” Not only would such a move be resisted by the populace, the Catholic mindset rightly hopes too much:

Catholic political theory has a hard time dealing with the American political system — despite a great many modern modifications, the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of how politics works was shaped by the practices of Christendom, by the existence of stable authorities who formally acknowledged the moral authority of the Church and who at least pretended to heed the Church’s teachings. The American public, by contrast, is not a stable authority... and neither the public nor the Constitution acknowledges the authority of the Church in anything except the fuzziest or most utilitarian terms.

This, I believe is the heart of the matter. America was founded upon “a Constitution that rested exclusively on popular rule.” And this rule by the populace, rather than establishing religion, guarantees the equal legitimacy of all religions, though under certain transcendent limitations. Thus, as time has passed and the people have become less Christian in their individual thinking, “we have something closer to a mass democracy than a federal republic.” And “the influence of a landed well-read aristocracy has given way to what Aristotle would have recognized as a money-minded oligarchy.” McCarthy makes the scathing but true indictment that “commercial wealth speaks more loudly than the Framers had expected, and the 18th-century notions of character and reputation have fallen before modern concepts of charisma and celebrity.”

Daniel McCarthy has made an accurate assessment of where we are and how we got here. It is most certainly true that when men like Thomas Jefferson guaranteed the equal standing of all churches, he radically relocated the role and the realm of rule of religious institutions. By moving the work of the Church to primarily, almost exclusively, the inner, spiritual man, a movement with with the church itself was complicit, the American system established a baseline authority to which even the Church must submit. The Founders redefined the authority the Church could wield and established rules that must not be broken. Equal legitimacy of all religions is possible as long as each one abides by these higher and prior laws that transcend all others. John Locke knew that the biggest threat to liberal democracy was the Church and that the Church needed to be replaced with a internalized Christianity. But when the Church acts as an institutional body meeting the needs of the whole man, she is forced to break some of these transcendent rules, at times encroaching even upon the purported functions of the civil state.

In America religious freedom has come at the cost of internalization. Thereby the church has been provided with an excuse for abdication, and she has taken full advantage. Now, in this age of tolerance, it has been too easy to minister merely to men’s souls but not to the whole man. And being complicit in this internalization, the church has become largely irrelevant as an authority over and definer of culture. The civil community with its practices now transcends the ecclesial community and its practices. Thus, in the words of Rich Lusk, the cross has been replaced by the flagpole. We teach our children the pledge of allegiance but not the Nicene Creed. The practices of the church have been internalized and individualized. Baptism is for those who can comprehend the gospel. The Lord’s Supper is a time of quiet introspection and not a joyous, sensuous feast. It is no surprise that the largest denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention.

My burden is not primarily for the nation of the United States but for the Church. It is only as she recovers her understanding of her authority over the affairs of this world will the culture change. This understanding was more obvious in her early centuries when she was more clearly an alternative and counter culture. She now needs to awaken to the fact that she is in a situation very similar to those early days. She must recognize that rather than being her ally, tolerance of internalized, individualized religion is a grave enemy. She must reassert her transcendence above the limitations placed upon her by the mass, tolerant democracy in order to act as the Church.

Daniel McCarthy asks, “Why Can’t We Have a Christian Republic?” We can. But only when Christianity has been replaced by the Church.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why I Observe Lent (and other seasons)

With the coming and going of Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, we are currently in the midst of the season of Lent. Lent consists of the 40 days (not including Lord’s Days) leading up to Easter. It is traditionally a time of some sort of a fast or a foreswearing of something in which one would normally take pleasure. For example, devout Catholics typically do not eat meat during this time, with the exception of fish. (I have been fascinated by grocery stores’ awareness of this season by discounting seafood, at least in Seattle.)

During the Middle Ages, when Christendom reigned, the observance of Lent was essentially mandatory. Then again, when virtually everyone in your town or village practiced it, you would have been subversive to the life of the community to express your individuality by refusing to observe these practices. The practices were part of the community’s identity.

With the Reformation, fortunately, godly men searched out the Biblical justification of all the practices of the Christian community. They rightly observed that whereas in the older covenants, feasts and festival seasons were mandated, in the New, resurrected Covenant the specificity of obligation was different. Previously angels tutored men to act in specific ways. Heavenly bodies ruled over time. Leviticus 23 and other passages in the law outline very precisely the feasts that were to be observed.

But now, we are no longer under those elementary principles. We have grown past our childhood, and men, humans, are now entrusted with the decisions about times and seasons. Angels no longer rule us. We rule angels. The Holy Spirit resides in the Church to guide her in establishing practices that mark out the community of believers. The practices that are Scripturally mandated for the entire community include Lord’s day gathered worship, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. But as we observe the history of the Church, we can see the Holy Spirit work to create healthy, though not strictly obligatory, traditions that identify believers with Christ and with His body.

So why add more practices than those explicitly required by Scripture? (After, if it’s not commanded, it’s forbidden, right? or at least dangerous?) Is it not legalistic to do more than God Himself requires? Concerning Lent, is not the denial of the flesh gnostic or ascetic? If everyone else around me is fasting, and I know it, is that not contradictory to the requirement that fasts be secret (Matt. 6:16-18)? Recently, I have read online people caricature and criticize the observance of Lent for these reasons.

The discussion of the observance of Lent needs to begin with considering of the nature of observing any practice or ritual in the New Covenant situation. Too often the question of the relationship between the older covenants and the New resorts to battles of continuity versus discontinuity. And whereas those discussions are important, they often don’t tell the entire story. To fill out the narrative, we need to recognize that the relationship among the covenants is one of progression and growth. Over the course of her history, the people of God have matured, as was intended from the very beginning.

Under the older covenants, God’s community was in her infancy and childhood. She was treated like a child and was expected to mature to greater and greater glory. We clearly see this progression as we trace the history presented in Scripture from the priestly period of law to the kingly period of wisdom to the prophetic period of divine counsel. Now, in Christ, this body has grown into adulthood and is expected to act like adults.

Yet adults do not forsake the impulse to practice (good) patterns and habits, an impulse nurtured during their childhood. Practices, more than beliefs, are means of making adults into who they are, that is, of forming their identity.

Applied to the Church in the resurrected covenant situation, it would be foolish to throw off the establishment of regular rituals and seasons. For it is by those rituals that her affections are nurtured. It is by the liturgical practices of the Church that her doctrine is established and her desires are oriented toward Jesus. It is by practices that the community is defined. And it is in those liturgies that she lives within and lives out the life of Jesus her husband. If we are to love our husband as we ought, we need to establish grace-saturated rituals all throughout our life: daily, weekly, and yearly ones.

In other words, mature life, Church life is not dictated simply by the dos and don’ts of Scripture. We have grown beyond the mere avoidance of evil in order to be free from feelings of guilt. We also pursue our Lover. We seek to display that love not simply by doing “normal life” with the right heart attitude (as important as that is) but by increasingly incorporating grace-filled, joy-producing, love-evincing practices that deepen our wild and reckless love for our husband.

During Lent, by living in Jesus’ Passion, we exhibit our passion for Him.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Participating in History

In my recent post on the practice of family prayers, I mentioned that the biggest deficiency of our liturgies is the portion dedicated to the extemporaneous prayers. Because traditional liturgies have been filled primarily with praying and with Scripture, any attempt I make of imitating those liturgies in our family prayer times can only improve by doing the same.


I have been working on a system of prayers that will accomplish several goals. First, our prayers need to encompass God’s entire creation. Paul urges believers “that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men” (2 Timothy 2:2). In order to accomplish this large task, we need to rid ourselves of spontaneity and become systematic the task.

Second, our prayers need to be specific. Though prayers should be all-encompassing, we need to avoid simply generalized prayers. Common prayer books are very helpful in reminding us of all the occasions for which a believer must pray as well as in giving us general ideas for prayer, and we would do well to be well-versed in those prayers. Yet, we also need to incorporate specific names and circumstances into our prayers. Specificity provides us the ability to anticipate specific answers to our prayers.

Third, our prayers must be knowledgeable. We need to inform ourselves of the contexts of needs, the offices of rulers, and of histories behind problems. We must seek to develop a vested interest in the needs of the whole world. The world depends upon our intercessory work. As a priestly kingdom, we exist for the life of the world. Thus, the more we understand the needs that be bring before God, the more powerful our prayers will be.

Last, and related to the previous two, our prayers need to be toilsome. Prayer is an awesome burden that we bear on behalf of the world. No doubt it is truly miraculous that simply by bringing requests before God changes the world. Yet, our efforts of prayer can also include real work in seeking to bring them to pass. Thus, we can perform activities that deepen our connection to needs as we strive to see them met.


In an effort to accomplish these goals, I have developed a strategy for prayer. As a family, we have four times of prayer each day, corresponding to each meal and before bed. Each of these offices of prayer has a particular focus. During matins, we pray for needs pertaining to Christ’s church. During midday office, we pray for the needs of individuals and families. Vespers focuses on the needs of the civil governments and of the culture all around us. And the prayers during compline relate to the spread of the gospel into the whole world.

We have a chart (or two) for each separate prayer office for every day on which we write down specific requests. As we pray, then, we record the dates on which we pray for each request. We also update the requests or cross them out as they get answered.


As I mentioned, the matins prayers focus on Christ’s church. On Sunday, we pray for the church universal. Requests are particularly related to the participation, as the church catholic, in Lord’s Day worship, the greatest work of God’s people in the world. We pray that God would use the worship to transform this world. We also pray for liturgical reform in all Jesus’ body as well as for other requests that pertain to the one holy catholic church.

On Monday, our matins prayers focus on our own local church, especially its leadership (elders, deacons, musicians, etc.). Tuesday morning prayers relate to other ministries of our church, like Sunday School and choir. Wednesday focuses on our church’s denomination as a whole, its leadership, and its needs. Thursday relates to our church’s particular presbytery, its leadership and needs. Friday morning carries to God petitions regarding the leadership and needs of other presbyteries in our denomination. And Saturday focuses on other denominations and churches throughout Christ’s body.


Midday prayers relate to needs of families and individuals. Sunday focuses on our own family; Monday and Tuesday on our extended family. Wednesday midday prayers relate to our neighbors; Thursday to our co-workers; Friday to educational institutions; and Saturday to our community group and closest friends.

Additionally, during midday office we have pray for a list of “Promised Prayer” requests. We maintain a chart of prayer requests including those requests that we have promised to others that we would take before God. I think it was C. S. Lewis who lamented that the most frequently broken promise among believers is the promise to pray for someone about a specific need. Yet these prayers are vital! So we write these needs down, pray for them, and constantly monitor God’s answer.


Our vespers prayers relate to civil rulers and to the culture that surrounds us. On Sunday, we pray for the one-world government, that of Jesus sitting on His throne putting all of His enemies, one by one, under His feet. These prayers are similar to the morning prayer, but being Sunday, that’s okay. We simply pray that through the church and her faithful worship and service in the world, Jesus’ kingdom would come more and more and that His will be done more and more on earth as it is in heaven.

On Monday, we pray for our local city government; on Tuesday, for our county government; on Wednesday, state; and on Thursday, federal. On Friday, we pray for the needs inherent in the top domestic news items, and on Saturday for the international ones.

Additionally, on Monday through Thursday vespers, we pray for specific cultural issues, like abortion and idolatry, that drag down the society in which we live.

Operation World

The prayers of compline include requests pertaining to the spread of Jesus’ kingdom. Under the fantastic guidance of Operation World, we pray for the countries of the world, making it around the globe in one year. That book provides a lot of valuable demographic information and provides specific requests regarding the gospel and the church in each country. We also will inform ourselves about the key issues each nation is facing at this time. Also, Sunday through Tuesday, we pray for different missionaries; Wednesday and Thursday for missions agencies; and Friday and Saturday for charities and ministries.

By means of this system, I have attempted to cover all realms for which a Christian should pray. If you detect any glaring holes, please let me know!

Additional Benefits

In additional to the primary benefit of lifting the world before God’s throne, these exercises also provide other benefits.

First, the practice of corporate prayer itself is significant to our development as believers. This is an ancient practice that has been eclipsed in many ways by individual, devotional prayer. Yet, as we pray corporately, we develop an appreciation for the intensive connection within Christ’s body.

Second, by means of this practice, God is nurturing our affections. Our day would be incomplete without prayer, and it would seem downright odd. We gain an awareness and a burden for the needs of all people around us. It is difficult to maintain animosity toward someone for whom we pray! Due to constant exposure to it, we develop a sensitivity for the needs of our society, our neighbors, our governments, and our family. Our prayers are an act of laying down our lives for our friends, neighbors, and enemies.

Third, whereas the previous benefits focus on the primary task of formation of believers, if this system works right, it will have significant informative benefit. Each capable member of the family will be tasked to perform research about the specific realms for which we pray. By necessity, we will need to understand the workings of government, the leadership of churches and denominations, and the crux of the cultural and newsworthy issues of our day. And to gain this understanding, we all will develop our skills in research and presentation.

Additionally, as part of our procedure in maintaining our mindset of connectedness with others, all who are able will write letters to other people: missionaries, governors, judges, pastors, and family members. This will increase our urgency in prayer as well as develop our skills in writing and communication.

We can also volunteer our time and energy in seeing our prayers answered. Because of our praying, we develop a longing that ills be corrected and needs be met. Our prayers give us the impetus to make meals for those in need, to volunteer our time and resources for the defeat of wickedness, and to present the gospel to the lost.

Finally, each of these persons and issues for which we pray are rich in discussion topics. Meals and other family times will be filled with discussion of current events, ethical dilemmas, Biblical relevance, and the ebbs and flows of history. We will become more developed and informed individuals who can converse about a variety of topics with others.

My family is still in the beginning stages of carrying out this plan, but already we are pleased with what God is doing. We trust that by His grace, God will mold our hearts and make us people of prayer and of the Word. And by our frequent prayers, we can participate in the course of history.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Selective Review of Teaching and Christian Practices

Ever since I read James K. A. (Jamie) Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy years ago, I have had a deep appreciation for his perspective and, indeed, have been greatly shaped by it. Though he speaks more from the perspective of a philosopher than a Biblicist, his critique of modernism and advocacy of essentially premodern ecclesiastical solutions must be heard. While not confined to ancient history, he counters modernism with old resurrected ideas in a manner that echoes the scathing assessments made by postmodernism, as is evinced in his excellent Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

Formative Education

Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is a must read for everyone involved in Christian education and in the raising of children for that matter. In it, Smith makes a case that truly Christian pedagogies must take into account the fact that humans are desiring, affective beings more than they are thinking beings. Thus, education is more about formation than information, and educators must pay closer attention to the modes of education than its content. While subject matter is important, the practices used to teach it are even more.

The fountainhead of all Christian practices is Lord’s Day worship in the sanctuary in the community of God’s people.

Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and LearningSo, as a father and an educator, I was greatly interested when my pre-ordered copy of the book Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning edited by David I. Smith and Jamie Smith arrived on my doorstep. For it is in this book that presentations are made of what I would describe as experiments that test his aforementioned hypotheses. These experiments consisted of college-level teachers integrating historic Christian practices into their classrooms in order to focus on the formation of the individual in concert with the requirements of the course material.

An Introduction to Christian Practices

The introduction of the book sets the stage of the project by describing its theoretical impetus, clearly echoing Smith’s work in Desiring the Kingdom but bringing in other material specifically geared to education. Written by both David I. and Jamie Smith, this introduction states that “these scholarly conversations represent, among other things, a move away from the notion that rational deliberation on ideas is the primary shaper of the self, and toward a more contextual and embodied understanding of how what we do with and among others shapes who we become” (6).

Smith’s appreciation for Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is clear in the descriptions of a “practice.” Summarizing MacIntyre’s argument, the introduction describes practices basically as habits, which are “acquired dispositions and inclinations that are absorbed over time by participating in the routines and rituals of a tradition, as well as by imitating the models upheld as ‘exemplars’ by the tradition” (8). The outcome of practices is incorporation into a community.

Christian practices, thus, are those activities performed by the historic church community that form the “dispositions and inclinations” (i.e. affections) of a follower of Christ.

The underlying purpose of the book’s project is clear: “[We] want to push back on reducing Christian education to the dissemination of Christian ideas.” They are in harmony with authors Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass, who “have contested the reduction of Christian faith to intellectual assent to a set of propositions.” Educators especially must experience a “shift from considering Christianity as an intellectual system to (re)emphasizing the church as a community of practice” (14).

In exploring the relationship between particular historic Christian practices and the modes of pedagogy, the participants in the project discovered that the possibilities are nearly endless. Through the experiments recounted in this book, the authors seek to further the conversation about specific questions about this relationship, questions like: “Since Christian practices are themselves… pedagogical devices to help form the self in particular directions, then are there ways in which they can function as models for, analogies to, or guiding metaphors for educational practices?” Or consider, “Can an involvement in learning experiences built around Christian practices provide some degree of counter-formation to the secular cultural liturgies that otherwise shape our lives and perceptions?” Or, “Are there present patterns of educational practice that are in tension with the kinds of formation implicitly aimed at by Christian practices, such that we need to consider restructuring teaching and learning lest their rhythms be in competition with Christian formation” (18-19)?

Christian Practices in the College Classroom

The book is worth its introduction alone, and my enthusiasm for what remains is tempered by the nature of the project. The strengths of the book lie in anecdotal successes and in the possibilities they subtly intimate. But when a college professor creatively applies key ideas about Christian practices to one class, which is only one of several in which each student is enrolled, the results are necessarily limited and modest. The episodic nature a college class that meets three times per week (and in at least one case, only once per week) works against the very ideas of what a practice is supposed to be and do.

My favorite successes are as follows.

Philosophy professor Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung elucidated Aquinas’ teaching on the virtues and vices through the historic practice of silence. She modified the practice for her particular goal, which was to demonstrate experientially the vice of vainglory by requiring the students not to talk about themselves for a week:
[No] commenting about your feelings, no offering your opinions or judgments, no wry witticisms or clever criticisms, no long-winded narratives about how your day went and what frustrated or elated you, no interrupting with ‘bigger and better’ stories, no fishing for compliments, no calling or texting to share what you’re doing, no blogging about your opinions or favorite movies or annoying neighbors or pet peeves, no complaining. And perhaps hardest of all, no defending what you did, no pre-emptive spin to prevent others from getting the wrong impression of what you’re doing, no rationalizing, no excuse-making. No nothing. Instead, be still. Listen. Let other people talk. Let your actions speak for themselves (32-33).
By means of this exercise, the students sought a sanctifying, deliberate practice which served the dual purpose of understanding a Thomist concept as well as demonstrating its immediate relevance to our time. While not advocating that this particular application be permanent, Professor Konyndyk DeYoung was able to communicate the very unfortunate fact of most people’s self-absorption in a much more memorable and poignant way than simply reading and lecture (though, of course, those practices also have a laudable history).

David I. Smith, one of the editors of the book and professor of German literature, incorporated practices involving what he calls “spiritually engaged reading” (43) or “religious reading” (44). He describes this type of reading in this way:
The kind of reading in which religious people become practiced is repeated and ongoing, revisiting texts multiple times. It seeks to be slow and attentive, drinking in the details of the text and approaching it reverentially. The reader comes to the text expecting it to make moral demands, and is willing to submit and be changed. Reading takes place in a communal context with a shared tradition of interpretation, and faithfulness counts for more than creativity. The act of reading seeks personal transformation through attentive encounter with significant texts (44).
Though in his chapter Smith does not specifically tie the practices in his class to the historic Christian reading practice of lectio divina, his previous exploration of that connection, which he develops elsewhere, is clearly in the background. As a teacher of literature, I appreciate Smith’s focus on reading a text charitably, which means slowly, deliberately, and attentively. This is particularly difficult in the high school survey-style literature class because of the temptation to read widely rather than deeply.

I further enjoyed Adolescent Psychology professor Caroline Call’s incorporation of the traditional practice of hospitality (including food) into her once-per-week, two-and-a-half hour class. Even with her extremely limited venue, she learned valuable lessons. She took the simple step of providing food for the short break in the middle of the class period and discovered that “students found the sharing of food to be the central element of a shared sense of community” (73), unsurprisingly confirming the sacramental nature of eating. But the greatest lesson she learned, however, was that “hospitality does not happen in single, isolated events, and it is not expressed simply by discrete actions” but instead “flows out from an individual’s orientation of heart and requires constant reflection, monitoring, and support” (78).

Jamie Smith’s limited application of the liturgy of divine hours to a midday class he taught on “Philosophy and Social Sciences” had what I regard very modest results. But because this practice is one I strongly advocate, I appreciated the time he took to expound the formative nature of “Christian timekeeping,” applied both in the daily offices of prayer as well as in the church calendar. He expands:
I wanted the received practice of fixed-hour prayer to function as an example of alternative ‘world-making‘ — a way of subtly rewiring their imaginations by means of an alternative story repeated over time in the mode of a prayer. The liturgical year is constructed narrativally, re-enacting the life of Christ in rhythms of repetition, inviting the people of God into that story such that the story of God in Christ becomes the story of the people of God. As Christian Smith suggested more generally, the liturgical year is a liturgical, narrative dramatization of a moral order; its unique timekeeping is an alternative practice of meaning-making and world-making (147).
Again, Smith’s ability to achieve these lofty purposes in a class that met for 75 minutes, two days per week was, unsurprisingly, meager.

Other practices that participating professors implemented in their classrooms include communal meals, pilgrimage, journaling, prayer labyrinth, conversation, meditation, and confession.

Liturgy: Reorienting the Shape of Christian Learning

Besides the Introduction, the one chapter that made the entire book worth the time to read was the one by Paul J. Griffiths, the subtitle of which is “Catechizing the Appetite for Learning.” His project is to reorient the whole conversation about Christian learning:
One of the directions in which Christians must catechize the appetite for learning in a time like ours is toward radical redirection, so radical that it may look like extinction: to understand and to seek learning as Christians do is very different from understanding and seeking it as pagan academicians do — sufficiently different that we approach equivocation in calling both “learning” (105).
Making a careful historical and conceptual distinction between “curiosity” (bad) and “studiousness” (good), Griffiths’s descriptions beg certain questions: What is it about Christian “learning” that makes such a reorientation necessary? How is Christian “learning” distinctive? His response is unequivocal: liturgy.
Christian thinking about preparatory, ancillary, and informing practices must begin from thinking about the liturgy. That is because Christian life is lived most intensely and most fully in the liturgy. It is there that the church is most fully herself as sponsa Christi… Attending to the liturgically given shape of the Christian life is of great help in seeing what ought to inform a fully Christian pursuit of learning (113).
He continues by describing key elements of liturgy that ought to carry over into all learning and life, including a “sacrificial gift-exchange,” eagerness to give a sacrificial gift solely out of love, “confession of our incapacity” and “unworthiness,” and repetitive “wastes” of time (113-115). Applying these elements to learning, Griffiths advances the Christian tradition of prayer before study, careful “attention to particulars” (akribeia), and relative indifference to outcome in favor of learning as “a gesture of loving intimacy (119). The final appeal in his essay is for grace and humility in the action of learning:
Liturgical agents stammer and lament. So, and for similar reasons, do studious learners. First, we lament our own incapacities: we are in various ways and to different degrees, stupid, inattentive, lazy, domineering, and blind. Being catechized in the direction of studiousness rather than curiosity does not by itself remedy these defects… Lament is not, for the curious, a value, but rather a sign of weakness. For the studious, lament at one’s own incapacity for study and one’s failures as a student is intrinsic to learning (120).
Understanding the complex arguments of Paul Griffiths that he advocates in his brief essay is indispensable to reorienting our understanding of distinctively Christian learning and teaching.

A Broader Scope Necessary for Success

The successes of the book mentioned above (and many more) make it worth its perusal. It is rich in ideas and tips that can be implemented at any level of education. However, the episodic nature of the applications made by college professors shows limited fruit: they demonstrate truths on a small scale, like an experiment in a petrie dish. In order to be truly successful, the ideas of the book need to be tested in a context that is broader than a laboratory.

The ideas advocated in the introduction are much, much bigger than simply techniques that certain college professors may attempt in one of their students’ many classes. To demonstrate their validity, which I emphatically affirm, these ideas need to be implemented with a broader scope.

But by “broader scope,” I don’t mean to overhaul any particular institution, though that would be a fascinating project outside of a monastery. Rather, the scale I am talking about is the comprehensiveness of these ideas to an individual’s whole life. By the time a student achieves his freshman year at college, his community and the practices associated with it are fairly intrenched. To begin a radical shift in educational paradigm at that stage is very, very late in the game. (Several of professors in this volume expressed a need even to be sensitive with students who may not buy into their project or who might not even call themselves Christians.)

To demonstrate the contentions about Christian practices most convincingly, one must start at the very beginning, with children. The authors would agree that the issue is not the presence or absence of a community of identity and its accompanying practices but rather which community and which practices are being nurtured. Through the practices that they instill in their children from the earliest age, parents nurture the inclinations and affections that shape their children’s identity with certain types of communities.

The educational overhaul needed is not just altering pedagogical techniques but a more comprehensive reorientation of the goals of education. Christian practices are not techniques (and I’m not saying that these college professors would claim that they are) but are real, historical actions that demarcate the historic Christian community. I concur with the author who expressed the need for an accompanying “church community beyond the classroom to provide a place for continuing apprenticeship in such practices” (34). The church needs to to take an active role in perpetrating those distinctively Christian, liturgical practices, applying them when needed in an academic environment, and nurturing all her children’s affections toward Jesus and His kingdom.