The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.

Make My Life Easy, Lord

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down and said, “Abram, pack your bags and leave this place. You need to know what it means to trust in me, and you can’t do that if you are comfortable working your native soil.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You’re going to have to be uncomfortable living in this desert for a while until you learn what it means to trust me. It was nothing for me to get you out of Egypt, but apparently it is going to take a little bit longer for me to get Egypt out of you.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

The Lord looked down and said, “You know, it might be in a fiery furnace or it might be in a lion’s den, but you are going to have to learn to trust me again so I can lead you out of this strange place. But you will never know what it means to be forgiven unless you feel the whip of punishment on your back.”

The people said, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

And the Lord looked down to Peter and Paul, James and John, and said, “I called you boys for a purpose, and you can’t get that job done unless you hear the jail doors close behind you. The brightest diamonds are forged in the greatest heat. I didn’t call you in the hope that you might become great, I called you because I already put the greatness in you. Now get out there and shine!”

And the people cried out, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy!”

And the Lord said there would be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and pestilence, and starvation. The rivers will dry up and the deserts will get bigger. Men will kill each other and women will kill their own babies. Philosophers will call evil, “good” and the good they will call evil.

And the Lord asked, “Will you believe me anyway? Will you trust me anyway? Will you seek justice and love righteousness, will you defend the defenseless and speak for the powerless? Will you have the courage to ‘march into hell for a heavenly cause’? If you get tired running against men, what will happen when you have to race horses? Don’t ask that I make your life easy, ask me to give you my strength – and you will never grow weary!”

And I kneel by my bedside and pray, “Make my life easy, Lord, make my life easy.”

I think I have a long way to go in this faith business . . .

The Addition of One Word Alone

It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.

If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.

The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.

Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Which brings me to the book of James.

Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)

The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.

This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.

I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.

All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.

I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.

May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!

 

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt.3)

Sometimes really smart people do strange things. And then, because they are smart, other people follow them in that strangeness. Pretty soon you have a whole bunch of really smart people doing strange things, not because they really want to, or even because they have really thought about it, but because following the first really smart person seemed so, well, smart. It is called “group think,” and sometimes that strange thing that the first person thought up is just simply innocent and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be malevolent and have some really nasty results.

For years now, maybe even generations, people have been asking the question, “how do we instill faith in our children, indeed, how can we instill faith in anyone?” Over the past few years that question has reached a fever pitch because of the (almost) incessant reporting of how many young people are leaving the church, and how many people now report that their religious affiliation is “none.” They claim to be spiritual, but just not religious. Devoted church members are right to be concerned, and the providing answers to stop the exodus of these individuals is a growth industry within Christian journalism.

But, have you noticed something deeply troubling about all the answers? I did not – until I read Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

No one asks the question, What is faith?

Here we have a massive group think going on because some smart person, actually many smart persons, thought up a solution to why people are losing their faith, and dozens of others have chimed in about why it is occurring and what can be done about it.

And no one, at least to my knowledge, has bothered to sit down and ask that very simple, and fundamental, question. It seems that if we are going to try to form something, we had better be certain of what it is that we are trying to form.

This is why I think Root’s book is so critical at this time, and agree with him or not, at least he has gone back to the core issue. If we do not have a certain grasp on what we are trying to accomplish, I dare say we are never going to be very successful in accomplishing it.

In my own experience, whenever faith is discussed there is an automatic, almost knee-jerk, response to quote Hebrews 11:1 as the definitive answer to the definition of faith, and then move on without much deeper thought. That is, faith is an mental assent, an agreement to a concept or a doctrine. We can’t see it or touch it or taste it, but we believe it, therefore we have faith. While not ever specifically addressing Hebrews 11:1, Root basically identifies this understanding as actually being part of the problem – not that the text is a problem, but our secular understanding of Hebrews 11:1 is the problem.

I am going to simplify tremendously here – and summarize in just a few words what Root does in several chapters – but Root proposes that the core issue we have in forming faith is that all we attempt to do, and all we do if we are successful, is convince people to accept a doctrine or set of doctrines; we really do not form faith. I see this so clearly within the Churches of Christ. We teach someone to accept a set of beliefs about the church, or certain practices of the church, and if they agree with us we baptize them and assert that they have been “converted” from denominationalism or from the world or from whatever, and a few years later they are gone. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, something must have happened to have made them lose their faith.” No – they had their minds changed, just like we changed their minds before we baptized them. We did not form faith in them, we just made them to be “Church of Christers” for a brief period of time (and, I hate that moniker with a passion that approaches psychosis).

I heard it expressed like this years ago – and the truth of this aphorism is damning – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

After a thorough and rather ruthless examination of our secular age (and what has created it) in chapters 1-6, and after a transition in chapter 7 (which, by the way, is critical to understanding the rest of the book), Root goes on in chapters 8-11 to unpack this fundamental question – what is faith? He does not resort to proof-texting Hebrews 11:1, but rather turns to the apostle Paul and Paul’s pregnant phrase, “in Christ.”

In the briefest of summary – Root’s exploration and explanation of faith is thoroughly Pauline. The core of Root’s understanding of faith is found in Acts 9 – the story of Saul of Tarsus conversion to Christ. From that event Root goes on to examine Paul’s ministry, and through that ministry to define the terminology that Paul uses in his letters. (Aside here – his discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 blew me away – and opened up an entirely new vision of the self-emptying of Christ.) Now, as I did in my first review, I will warn you that Root uses technical theological terminology that many may not be familiar with, and if not, will find confusing (kenosis, hypostasis, theosis, among others). Root demonstrates that faith is formed  through experiencing death, and allowing the death of Christ to transform that death into a new life – a life of service and ministry. Faith is formed when someone (or maybe many someones) minister the death of Christ to us, so that, by our death we become “little Christs” through the death of Christ, and as a result we minister that death to others.

As I have said before – it is a deep argument, skillfully presented, and worthy of serious study and reflection. I cannot – and I probably should not have even attempted – to summarize it in one paragraph. You may not agree with it. But I will say this with the seriousness of a broken leg (something I know about all too well) – if you disagree with Root you had better have your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, because Root’s argument is serious, and at least in my humble opinion, 99% correct. I will save my major quibble with Root for tomorrow.

As I have done in each of these “reviews,” I urge you to purchase, to read, and to study this book. It has reminded me of some things that I have been taught in the past (although not put together in the package that Root does), it provides a philosophical understanding of our “secular age” that I found to be gripping, and his presentation of what it means to have faith, and therefore to form faith, was convicting, and to be perfectly honest, embarrassing.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (Pt. 2)

I want to “extend and revise my remarks” regarding Andrew Root’s challenging work, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. For my initial response, see the previous review Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

I suggested at the beginning of that review that, as I was reading this work, I could not help but feel like I had been there before, I guess sort of a deja vu moment. More than once after digesting some of Root’s conclusions, I thought, “Reading this book is like returning to a place I have never been before.” Then something hit me – I had been somewhere close before, but not exactly in the same place. Let me explain.

Many years ago three professors within the family of the Churches of Christ created a minor firestorm with the publication of a deceptively short book, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, 2nd ed. 1991, 107 pages). While so much of the book needs to be reviewed here, just a couple of quotations will suffice:

We see the church floundering between two equally disastrous paths. On the one hand are those who advocate a rationalistic orthodoxy which arrogantly imposes its own limited scheme upon the Bible and places human restrictions upon God. On the other hand are those who are increasingly attracted by a generic Protestant pietism – sprinkled generously with therapeutic terminology – which eagerly caters to the shifting whims of the surrounding society. We have little sympathy with either of these secularizing options. We plead for a return to our historic roots in the central message of the Bible. (p. x)

We seek to reaffirm the great biblical truth that authentic Christianity stems from faith in God, not self; from worship of God, not self; from reliance on God’s power, not on the power of self; and from living out Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33) (p. 3)

The secular church’s adaptation to modernity, and particularly its wholesale adoption of the utility principle, leads directly to fundamental theological problems. The most far-reaching of these is a loss of the sense of transcendence. (p. 17)

When Christians forget who they are and who they are called to be, no amount of technique or programming will restore lost integrity. The church does not simply need more experts in communication, counseling, or church growth. It does not need more leaders who are clever and successful. But it desperately needs more leaders who are wise and faithful to the crucified one. (p. 22)

I really could go on for quite some time, but these themes are precisely what Root analyzes in Faith Formation. In going back to Worldly Church, I am struck by the phrases, “therapeutic terminology,” “secularizing options,” “authentic Christianity,” “transcendence,” and “faithful to the crucified one.” You do not even have to be a careful reader of Root’s work to hear those concerns being raised again and again. Now, I grant you that the audience to whom Allen, Hughes and Weed wrote is much more narrowly defined than the audience to whom Root addresses, but I just cannot get past the similarity in themes, and in the underlying similarity in the solution(s) they present.

There are differences in the two works, to be sure. For one thing, Allen, Hughes and Weed are primarily historical theologians, and, from my perspective anyway, Root is a philosophical theologian. What I mean is that, while Allen, Hughes and Weed reference some non-theological works, they do not attempt to locate the problem of “modernity” in anything close to the precision that Root is able to do. Root provides in his first 6 chapters the equivalent of a semester of university studies in a survey of the philosophical underpinnings of modern thought. (Aside here – the footnotes Root incorporates are prodigious, and provide an additional wealth of material and thoughts to consider, in addition to his main line of argumentation). The two works converge at a central point, however – the cross of Christ, and, I might add as a second point of convergence, the transcendence of God.

C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes followed The Worldly Church with a number of other works, each fleshing out in some greater degree a specific emphasis that they considered to be critical for the Churches of Christ. Allen called for the church to return to a cruciform nature. Hughes, for his part, called on the church to return to its apocalyptic heritage – as viewed primarily in the writings of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb. (Allen also shares in this call to an apocalyptic worldview). Andrew Root has studied and written about the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his own way, offered an apocalyptic vision of what the church is called to be (although, perhaps, not in the same terminology that Stone or Lipscomb would use).

So, in what can only be described as a very powerful, but in some ways very discomforting way, so many threads of my Christian journey have met in a mighty confluence of parallel themes. Going back 200 years to Stone, about 125 years to Lipscomb, about 75 years to Bonhoeffer, and now to my contemporaries Allen, Hughes, Weed – and now Root – I keep hearing the same voices, the same concerns, the same “prophetic” response. The church is caught – in fact always seems to be caught – in a vortex of secularizing powers that batter from without and corrupt from within. The answer today, which appears to have been the answer for Stone and for Lipscomb and for Bonhoeffer, is not more adept analyzing of the contemporary world so that the church can copy what is successful, but a total and unrelenting return to the basics of discipleship in Christ. Stone, Lipscomb, and Bonhoeffer might have expressed it differently, but the core concept is what Root identifies as an emphasis on biblical faith.

I have much more to say about Root’s book – it has utterly captivated my imagination. But I just had to unload this particular observation first. I apologize if it has been far too personal, but maybe will help explain some later remarks I make about Andrew Root’s powerful study.