The Inescapable Destiny of the Age of Narcissism

Once again I delve into the philosophical . . .

There can be no doubt but what we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism. A person could argue when this age began – my guess is back at least as far as the 1960’s – but these shifts in worldview rarely come with crystal clear transitions. We don’t snap our fingers into a new way of thinking, we mostly just sort of ooze into them.

You really do not have to look any further to see the decline of community and a civics oriented approach to life than to look at the decline in the office of the presidency of the United States. I only know of the presidency pre-Ronald Reagan mostly from history books – although I was alive during the Nixon and Carter presidencies. A person could argue that Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and then Reagan all made the presidency about them (in increasing measure), but you can also argue that each of those presidents focused primarily on the health of the nation. Certainly with Reagan you can identify a growing sense of “celebrity” status about the presidency – he was an actor, to be sure. George H.W. Bush got in on Reagan’s coat-tails, but clearly with Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and now with Trump, the decline has been precipitous and, in my humble opinion, cataclysmic. The health and well being of our nation is but a talking point – the race to the White House now is all about the cult of personality, and the narcissism of Obama and Trump in particular was and has been, not to be too inflammatory, obscene. Judging from the crop of Democratic contenders for the right to oppose Trump in 2020, the fall from civility and civics will even be worse (if that’s possible).

But, let’s not just throw stones at the politicians. In every aspect of our American life, the self has utterly and completely replaced the concept of sacrifice and service for the community. In fact, there really is no concept of “community.” Look at the hideous condition of our judicial system. The victim of a crime is brutalized twice – once by the offender and once again when his or her “trial” only serves to minimize the offense and to call into question the legitimacy of the accusation and the right of the victim to obtain justice. Our entire judicial system has devolved into the protection and immunization of the accused, while the legitimate rights of the community, not to mention the victimized, to be protected from such criminals has long since been abandoned.

Consider as well our educational system. Education is, by definition, the acquisition of knowledge and experience that a person has previously not had the opportunity to obtain. In order to be educated, you had to have your ignorance exposed and either corrected, or completely eliminated. Or, at least, that used to be the definition of an education. Now, education is simply the reinforcement of previously held opinions and biases. Colleges and universities are no longer institutions where you attend to have your worldview challenged and expanded, they are now simply places where you go to have your prejudices given official sanction. Primary and secondary schools have become the principle avenue of leftist indoctrination. We no longer teach our children the basics of civics, and “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic,” we teach social Marxism, gender fluidity, and the skill of demanding one’s personal opinions as absolute rights.

Thank goodness the church is not affected, you say. Ahem, cough, cough. The church is probably one of the worst promoters of our age of narcissism. Consider the average “worship” song these days. Worship is all about “my” relationship with Jesus, my “bff”. We sing and talk about how Jesus died to save “me” and to make “my life” all better. Funny, but you rarely read the New Testament authors write such things. For them, Christ died to save the church – the community of God. While “I” am certainly a part of “us,” the emphasis in the New Testament is on the community, the church, the entire people of God. And, yes, there have always been songs such as “Amazing Grace” which focus on the “I,” (as do a majority of the Psalms). The emphasis of those songs, and Psalms, is on the collective “I.” In other words, there is a community that speaks as the “I.” This is made clear in any textbook that discusses the Psalms. It is a fascinating, and prevalent, viewpoint of the Israelite people. Then there is the purely narcissistic use of the personal pronoun, and what I hear in most contemporary Christian music is entirely that of the latter Americanized version, and not the ancient Israelite version.

The last three or four decades of church growth curriculum has focused entirely on the individual and his or her wants. This is nauseatingly evident in the “Seeker Sensitive” churches spawned by Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek phenomenon. However, it is just as present, although somewhat more hidden, in the “Emergent Church” folly of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Both the “Seeker Sensitive” church and the “Emergent” church reaction were focused on the wants and preferences of the individual. In the case of the “Seeker Sensitive” church the goal was to remove any aspect of “religiosity” from the church (a bizarre and irrational move, if you ask me), and the reaction of the “Emergent Church” was to restore the outward symbols of Christianity while gutting it of its most exclusive (and thus, embarrassing) claims. Thus, a person could be a member of a “Seeker Sensitive” church or an “Emergent” church and have all of their personal needs met, while not even remotely being confronted with the life changing and culture shattering aspects of New Testament christianity.

So, if we are firmly entrenched in the age of narcissism, what is our destiny? Consider, if you will, the parallels between our narcissism and the narcissism of the Roman empire. The emperors increasingly came to view themselves as divine – as gods. It started with their deification after they had been dead for a while, but soon that was not good enough. What good is being declared a god if you are not alive to enjoy divine worship? So, over time the emperors allowed themselves to be declared “gods” (or did so on their own) so they could enjoy the perks of divinity. Also, as the empire grew and became more diverse (losing its sense of “community”) it became more brutal, especially in regard to conquered peoples. Further, strict sexual taboos were weakened to the point of nonexistence. Finally, “Religion” became a matter of publicly placating local deities and was of utter inconsequence beyond matters of personal conscience.

As I see American culture, we are following in the footsteps of Rome almost exactly. Our politicians are increasingly demanding we submit to their cult of personality. In other words, we are to elect them, not for the service they have in the past or can in the future provide to our commonwealth, but simply because they are “divine” individuals and we owe our fealty to them. Our culture is growing more brutal by the year – note, for example, the stratospheric growth of the phenomenon of Mixed Martial Arts gladiatorial fights. We abort babies by the millions, and leave our elderly to die unattended and unloved. Sexual barriers are being dismantled wholesale. We now allow men and boys unfettered access to women’s restrooms and locker rooms just because they “feel” like they are women. The concept of religious belief has been eviscerated. It is okay to be religious, so long as you worship the pagan gods of modern culture, and if you keep your religion to yourself. Do not even dare to make the claim that Christ and his cross destroys the culture of the “prince of the power of the air” as Paul describes it in Ephesians 1.

So, what is our destiny? Where is the Roman empire? Or the Greek? Or the Persian? Or the Babylonian? Or the Egyptian? Yeah, I thought so.

Book Review – The Recovery of Mission (Vinoth Ramachandra)

Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission: Beyond the Pluralist Paradigm, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 284 pages, with extensive endnotes and comprehensive bibliography.

I get my book suggestions/recommendations mostly from my social media feeds, primarily Twitter (I follow a couple of major book publishers) and through blogs and other odds and ends kinds of sources. This book was recommended personally by a “digital” friend – someone I’ve never met in “3-D” but someone who corresponds with me via this blog. I was extremely hesitant at first because (hangs head in shame) I just was not convinced anyone with the last name of “Ramachandra” could write anything of substance regarding Christianity and the plague of pluralism. To my friend’s great credit he kept asking if I had read the book, and so I finally put it on my “wish list.” I eventually had the time slot and the money to buy the book, and I am very, very, grateful to my friend for consistently pushing me to consider it. It is worth every penny, and a significant addition to the conversation regarding where Christianity is headed. I have to note here that the publication date is 1996 – what would the author’s opinion be today?!

Ramachandra begins with a critique of three authors who, independently and with different emphases, seek to blend Christianity into what they would consider a healthy pluralistic religious amalgamation. They each object to any claim of exclusivism by Christians, and in varying ways attempt to prove that every religion has a common core that should be accepted and valued by everyone, and that no one single religion has a monopoly of what is true, or right, or normal. I have to say that this first part was extremely difficult for me to follow, as I am not at all familiar with Hinduism or Buddhism, and the writers the author critiques are related primarily to those East Indian religions. The main culprit of religious intolerance, according to each of the authors Ramachandra critiques, is clearly Christianity, and each of them suggests that it is Christianity that has the most to repent of in terms of humanity reaching a consensus of religious truth and tolerance.

In part II, Ramachandra draws parallels between the three authors and addresses those parallels more generically. It is in this part that he introduces Lesslie Newbigin, which was enlightening to me. Having just recently started reading Newbigin, it was interesting to me to read a critique of Newbigin, although it is a favorable (and constructive) critique.

It was in the third part that I feel the value of this book lies (although, to grasp what Ramachandra says in part III you have to work through the first two parts!) In part III discusses “The Scandal of Jesus,” “A Gospel for the World,” and “Gospel Praxis” (a fancy word for ‘work’ or ‘practice.’) Here Ramachandra specifically points out that in order to be genuine, the Christian message must be scandalous. It is exclusive. It is not authoritarian (as in the mistaken form of Constantinian “Christendom,” but it is most certainly exclusive). The more acceptable a person tries to make Christianity in relation to the major world religions, the less Christian it becomes. In other words, you cannot make Christianity merely a sub-specie of the generic word “religion.” The belief in Jesus of Nazareth is unique, exclusive, and therefore exclusionary of the major tenets of these world religions.

I should add here that Ramachandra does a good job of pointing out a necessary corollary – people who insist that Christianity can be made compatible with other world religions (especially the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism) do not fully understand those religions, or intentionally misrepresent them. The deeper one understands those religions it becomes apparent that they are just as exclusive, and that they are completely incompatible, with Christianity. Stated another way, you really have to  change those religions as much as you would have to change Christianity in order to make each of them compatible with each other.

This point to a huge issue I have with so many proclaimers of Christian pluralists today. One, they utterly misunderstand Christianity. Two, they utterly misunderstand the world view that they claim is superior to Christianity, and that they try to make Christianity conform to. I believe most Christian pluralists today loathe Christianity, and their complete unwillingness to view the Christian faith from the pages of the New Testament, choosing rather to cherry-pick obvious failings of the Christian centuries (the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, etc.) makes it obvious their critiques are not genuine. Their blindness to the moral failings of the major world religions is equally disastrous for their agenda. You simply cannot overlook the atrocities committed by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others against persons of differing faiths.

Okay, I apologize for getting a little preachy here, so I have to get back to Ramachandra’s book. He does raise some questions (and points to answers I am not sure I can accept), but in general he remains faithful to what most would consider “creedal” Christianity – the Christianity of the first two or three centuries. Perhaps his most critical question is this – what is the eternal destiny of those who have never had a chance to hear of the saving work of Jesus? The pluralist wants to say that all roads (and religions) lead to God and heaven. Ramachandra will not go there – but he does suggest that the blood of Christ is effectual even for those who have not specifically heard of Jesus. This is a question that is just above my pay grade for me to answer, but as most pluralists will begin with this question in order to push their agenda, it is one that must be addressed by every disciple of Christ.

At over twenty years, this book is just beginning to get a little “long of tooth,” but it is contemporary enough to be valuable for Christians, and especially Christian teachers (preachers, elders, Bible school teachers) to read. Whether you agree with his answers or not, you need to hear and to consider the questions he raises. His deft, and in my opinion, powerful, responses to three different, but common, objections to the exclusiveness of Christ are important to consider.

This book is a valuable addition to the section of my library that includes Os Guinness and Lesslie Newbigin. They write from entirely different points of view, but each in his own way points in the same direction. The faith of Jesus Christ is exclusive, and to be faithful to Jesus his disciples must honestly and fearlessly present that exclusiveness. Any attempt to marginalize or minimize the message of the cross is simply heretical.

Why is that such a hard message for ministers of the church to understand?

Two Hundred Years in a Couple of Minutes

Every once in a while I like to back up a little bit and try to take a “bird’s eye” picture of what is happening. In recent years that process has been defined as taking the “view from 30,000 feet.” Curiously, I’ve never known of a bird flying 5 miles above the surface of the earth, but I suppose anything is possible. When we back up and look at the entire forest, it helps us understand the current condition of each tree that comprises that forest. Now, if I have not completely mixed all my metaphors to the point of obscurity, let me move on.

Consider what was occurring “on or about” the year 1819. The “Second Great Awakening” was gathering wind. It was a heady time. The smoke from the Revolutionary War could still be smelled if one tried hard enough. It seemed as if the United States was quite literally at the vanguard of a new millennium, the blessed arrival of God’s Kingdom on earth. Alexander Campbell had been in the United States barely a decade, and the “movement” that he would become so much a fixture of might have been toddling, but it certainly was not running quite yet. It would still be another decade before Joseph Smith would publish his novel, The Book of Mormon. Religious fervor was, quite literally, in the air. The Holy Spirit was running amok, or so some would say, and the Shakers were not the only ones left shaking in the wind.

Flash forward to 1919. The brilliant hopes of the Divine Millennium, the earthly Kingdom of God, had been crushed first by the Civil War, and most recently by the War to End All Wars. The smoke from that war was clearly still hanging in the air, but only in Europe, not in the blessed United States. Stateside there was a renewed religious fervor, albeit not quite as rambunctious as that seen one hundred years earlier, but still robust. The eighteenth amendment had been passed in 1917, and in 1919 it was ratified. The next year prohibition would be the law of the land, and with “demon rum” removed from Satan’s arsenal, surely God’s Spirit would not have as much opposition in the battle for man’s heart. The “Roaring Twenties” were just about to get going, and the “Great Depression” was simply a bad nickname for the Grand Canyon. Adolf Hitler was just an unemployed former corporal, and a world-wide peace that he would soon obliterate was not just a hope, but for the majority, it was a reality that could not be shaken. It was perhaps not the full-bodied Kingdom of God as envisioned one hundred years earlier, but it was still a peace – or so it was believed.

Flash forward to 2019. Nothing of 1919 is recognizable anymore, and certainly not anything of 1819. Not only is “demon rum” legal again, but so is the most decadent, the most horrific, obscene pornography. Homosexual marriage is not only legal, but glorified. Biologically born men are removing the physical attributes of maleness and are becoming “women.” Same with biologically born women, surgically removing their breasts and ingesting massive doses of testosterone so as to appear “male.” Millions, not just thousands, of babies are aborted under the umbrella of “freedom of reproductive rights” (nothing could be more of an oxymoron!!). The millennial fervor of the early 1800’s is just a footnote in some dusty history book, and not even a whiff of the resurgent spirituality of the early 1900’s remains. All that the world sees of the “Kingdom of God” is an anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit, institutional “church.”

Sorry to be the source of so much joy and happiness – but from where I sit this is the “view from 30,000 feet.” In a scant (speaking geologically) 200 years, the United States has moved from being on the doorstep of a realized and eternal Kingdom of God on earth to being a bastion of narcissism the likes of which this world has never witnessed (and, taking into consideration the narcissism of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, that is saying something!). Barely 75 years ago legions of 20 something year-old men were dying from the beaches of Normandy to the outskirts of Berlin, sacrificing their lives in the cause of freedom. Today those young men are dying on our streets, the result of unrestrained gang violence. Today the greatest existential crisis occurs when a biological male is called a “he” that he is, instead of the “she” that he wants to be. Life is simply unsustainable if the WI FI goes down at the neighborhood Starbucks. We can no longer allow a dissenting voice on our university campuses (something archaically enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution), we have to insure that only one voice – the voice of unrestrained paganism – be spoken to the tender ears of our future leaders.  We are living what Os Guinness has labeled A Free People’s Suicide. (I highly recommend the book by that title). I could go on. The view from 30,000 feet is expansive.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer could identify his world as a “world come of age,” what would he say of America in 2019? Above I described the church as being “anemic, lethargic, and basically complicit” in what has transpired. Fighting words, I grant you, but does anyone dare dispute me? When, in the last 100, or 75, or 50 or even 25 years has the church stood up and dared to be sent to its crucifixion by proclaiming in Christ and only in Christ is there to be health and wholeness? We have ministers of the gospel defending behavior that the Bible describes as an abomination to God. We accept the most reprehensible behavior in our Presidents (Democrat and Republican) simply because they represent our chosen political party. We depend on scientists to answer all our questions and politicians to solve all our problems. We depend on the government to feed and house the poor, we depend on the government to take care of our elderly, we depend on the government to educate our children, we depend on the government to protect our right to assemble and the right to speak freely and forthrightly. Well, since we have surrendered every other responsibility to a pagan government, it should come as absolutely no shock that that pagan government has no interest in protecting the freedom to protest what we have carelessly ceded to it.

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. – Matthew 7:6

The churches and religious organizations in the United States have attempted to domesticate a serpent for the past 200 years, and it has not turned out pretty. You can domesticate just about every animal on earth, but a snake – and here I am thinking about a rattlesnake or a water moccasin or a cobra – cannot be tamed. They are by nature serpents, and it is not by accident that the Bible first speaks of Satan as a snake.

After 200+ years, we are not going to change things by electing more “Christian” politicians. We are not going to change things by appointing more “Conservative” judges. We are not going to change things by getting more strict and “moral” laws passed. We are not going to change things no how, no way, at all.

What we can do is pray that God breathes fire back into his church. We can pray that God revives and restores us, the body of his Son. We can begin by acting like we fully believe what we have been preaching. And, we can pray that God in his power and wisdom will give us the chance to once again be his “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18) before he decides to permanently purify his creation.

Two hundred years – from literally the threshold of heaven to the basest pit of hell. Maybe, if it went that direction when we turned our backs on God, just maybe it can go the other direction if we return our hearts to him. (See Jeremiah 18:7-10; 26:3, 13)

Book Review – Signs Amid the Rubble (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, Edited and Introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 121 pages.

As I have “reviewed” (my reviews rarely constitute what would properly be called a book review) a number of Newbigin’s books recently, my comments on this book will be much shorter.

This volume was not written by Newbigin, but is rather a collection of speeches that has been collected and edited by Geoffrey Wainwright. In fact, I have discovered that a number of Newbigin’s books originate with speeches that he presented to various missionary meetings. I like this, because I do not get the opportunity to sit in lecture halls anymore, and reading these lectures gives me the opportunity to stretch my “listening” muscles as much as I can through the printed page.

Basically, this book reinforces what I appreciate so much in Newbigin. To wit:

  • Newbigin has the ability, and the courage, to analyze and to call out the weaknesses of our contemporary culture as few authors I know of. In many respects he is ruthless in nailing our hides to the wall. His utter repudiation of the idea of “progress” in these speeches is worth the price of the book. He has the knack of seeing what so few people are able to see, and he has the courage to “call it like it is.” His candor is truly refreshing.
  • Newbigin is relentless in his belief that presenting the gospel as fact, and not opinion, is the only way the church will confront this deteriorating culture. As he states in a number of his speeches throughout a number of books I have read, if there is no purpose to history, if all of this is just one gigantic mistake, then secularism is about the best we can do. But, if there is a point to history, if God will eventually bring all of history to a grand cataclysmic end, then it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will save mankind. This gospel does have a political component, but the gospel itself is not political (that is, humans will not usher in the kingdom of God by our human efforts).
  • Being a devoted student of the American Restoration Movement, I cannot help but hear echoes of the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb as opposed to the millennial utopianism of Alexander Campbell. In Newbigin’s observations, the major thrust of the evangelical churches repeats the post-millennial view shared by Campbell (a point ably defended by Richard Hughes), while Newbigin himself paints a more apocalyptic vision, where only the power of God will set things right in this world. To recall Richard Hughes again, it was the loss of Stone’s and Lipscomb’s apocalypticism that has severely stunted the health of the Restoration Movement, and it is strangely reassuring to me to read Newbigin’s comments, knowing that he is writing primarily as a missionary, first in India and later in his life to the thoroughly secular (or pagan) culture of a postmodern England.
  • I read today a passage that explains to me both (a) why some promote Newbigin as the father of the “Missional Church” movement and (b) why those people really have not read Newbigin carefully. Here are two sentences, and note how he deftly suggests the first while in reality denying it:

Today we have all learned that mission is not marginal to the life of the church, but definitive of it, central to its being . . . The church is God’s sending, His mission. (p. 95)

There you have it, the church is God’s mission, God sent the church just as he sent Jesus. The church does not have a mission, it is God’s mission. Nothing could be clearer, right? Except that one sentence later Newbigin says this,

But by the same shift of perspective, mission now often appears to be everything rather than something. (p. 95)

And that is the major argument I have against the “missional church” movement even as it is being promoted within the Churches of Christ. I distinctly remember reading a blog of a young preacher who was so proud of leading his church into be a “missional church” and pointing to their most recent “missional” accomplishment. What was that accomplishment you ask? Cleaning up a stretch of highway near their community. That’s right, God’s mission includes highway beautification. When God’s sending his Son into the world includes picking up trash, that is when the word “mission” loses all of its meaning. Now, mind you, I am not against cleaning up trash. I am certainly not against a church doing so. It can be, and probably is, a great community service project. I just rebel at the thought of using a highway clean-up day as a way of presenting God’s mission to a sin-sick and dying world.

And, so, once again I encourage those who have never read Newbigin to give him a read. I will say this about this particular volume, the editor’s introduction provided much needed biographical information about Newbigin, and explains a little more of Newbigin’s theological background. After reading a number of Newbigin’s books, I wish I had this information much earlier.

Now for the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read in this book” warning. Newbigin comes from a much different theological background than I do, and his Calvinistic leanings do show through here and there. I cannot defend everything he says any more than I can defend the writings of B.W. Stone, David Lipscomb, or Alexander Campbell. I read with care, and I expect others to use their God given intellects as well. I do recommend the purchase and reading of many books, not because the authors are inspired and their words are equal to Paul’s or Peter’s, but because they cause me to think, and because God can use less than perfect men (and women) to present his perfect truth.

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

[Note: this post was written almost a year ago, June 21, 2018. Once again I am reading through Ezekiel and noted how many times this key phrase was repeated. I thought to myself, “I need to write a post on this.” Sigh. I already have written it. So – although I might change a few things here or there, I simply decided to re-post this. When will we (the church) learn that God will, eventually, prove that He alone is God? The world has an excuse – it is an unredeemed world. We, the church, have no excuse. God, save us from our ignorance and our rebellion!]

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

Book Review – Foolishness to the Greeks (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 150 pages.

For those who have followed this blog for any length of time, this next paragraph is old hat, but I am an inveterate learner. For the overwhelming majority of my life that has meant the pursuit of some level of education – college, graduate school, doctoral degree in ministry. Everything I learn just teaches me that there is something else out there to learn, that I have just scooped a thimble full out of the all-encompassing ocean of knowledge. Alas, I am out of money and, quite frankly, brain power to pursue another formal degree, so I satiate my hunger for learning by reading books. One author that I just recently discovered (although, I had been introduced to him in a round-a-bout way some years ago) is Lesslie Newbigin. For most contemporary theologians, Newbigin’s name is well known. For me, reading him is almost a breath of fresh air. He never ceases to astound me. Foolishness to the Greeks is, I believe, the third book of Newbigin’s that I have read.

Simply stated and I hope without over-stating the thought, Foolishness to the Greeks is perhaps the briefest, yet finest expose of western culture that I have read (and I have read many). I think maybe I know the answer to my own question, but I simply cannot understand why Newbigin was not required reading for my Doctor of Ministry courses in post-modern theology. (The answer is, I am guessing that the professors assumed we were all familiar with Newbigin, and therefore did not think it necessary for us to include him in our reading. A very wrong assumption for me, and having Newbigin as background would have been invaluable as we were assigned so much Brian McLaren, et.al., in our course work.) If you are looking for a brief, very readable, and penetrating examination of where we are today as a culture and as a church confronting that culture, this little volume would be my go-to choice.

Newbigin is, in addition to being a deep-thinking theologian, what I would consider to be a true renaissance man – in the sense that he is just as equally adept at discussing philosophy and science as he is theology. I am amazed at the depth of his reading – and of his comprehension of extremely complex cultural issues. As has been said of so many other thinkers, if I had just half of his brain I would be exponentially smarter than I am. (Twice as smart just does not quite cover it.) Newbigin returns to the very cradle of our culture to examine the “plausibility structures” that have created who we are and why we think the way we do. Working not only with influential philosophers, but also intimately with leading scientific minds, Newbigin lays bare the skeleton that frames our “common” way of thinking. And, as staring at a bare skeleton can sometimes be disarming (pardon the pun), so having the bare elements of our culture revealed can be uncomfortable.

As just a brief overview, Newbigin begins with the question, What would it be like if we attempted to address this modern, western culture as a missionary? How would we analyze it? What forces have created this culture? Why is the message of the gospel so strange, in fact, so repugnant to a culture that, at least on the surface, continues to refer to itself as “Christian”? Why is the gospel still as much “foolishness to the Greeks” today as it was in the days of the apostle Paul? The book is divided into six chapters (the book is actually an expansion of a series of lectures, so there is no expansive wasting of words. The chapters are brief, but as they were previously given orally, they are loaded. I like that – excessive wordiness kills many an otherwise fine book!) Newbigin writes for the reader in mind – he uses simple clues (1, 2, 3, a, b, c) and repeats himself efficiently but not obnoxiously. The chapters build on themselves, and if the reader gets lost it only takes a turn of a page or two to get back on track. For simple minds such as mine, this is a genuine benefit.

While reading this book one question kept coming up in my mind, “How could a book with a 1986 publication date be so relevant over three decades later?” I guess, in answer, that our culture has not changed direction during those three decades, but the cracks and fissures that Newbigin identified in the late 20th century have become gaping chasms in the early 21st century, so I have no hesitation but to recommend the contents of this book for anyone who is searching for an answer to the challenges that the contemporary church faces.

This little volume is not just about theory, however. Newbigin was a missionary and a high-church leader, and he writes not just with questions or analysis in mind, but always with answers. True to form, in the final chapter he provides seven “essential” responses for the church to engage if it is going to be effective in confronting this “post-enlightenment” and “post-Christian” culture.

I have recently read where Newbigin is considered by many to be the father (or at least significant promoter) of the missional church movement, or the Mission Dei movement. If so, I think he has been co-opted by that movement. If that is true I am either seriously misreading Newbigin, or I am seriously misreading the missional church people (especially those who remain connected to the Churches of Christ). I would recommend, if you have hitherto been uncomfortable about picking up Newbigin because of this presumed association, that you put that idea out of your mind and read Newbigin for yourself. I am so grateful that I was able to put aside this “guilt by association” and consider Newbigin on his own merits.

OBNOXIOUS, BUT SEEMINGLY NECESSARY CAUTION: I do not agree with everything Newbigin says or writes. He comes from a theological tradition that I find to be problematic. He makes assertions that I do not believe are valid, at least biblically speaking. As a mature Christian I hope that I can recommend a book without claiming that the author to be impeccable, or being blamed for his (or her, for that matter) errors.

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly  attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.