I hope all of you had a happy Reformation day. I forgot to wear red today, but I did find myself thinking of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” throughout the day. It's always a good day to look up the 95 Theses as well, and use that as an opportunity to contemplate our own failings as the modern church. How often do we inadvertently suggest that if only you would help with this expansion project or that dinner that it will somehow help salvation? Sure we don't do it directly, but I suggest that as Christians today we do this all the same.
Four hundred and ninety one years ago today, the Reformation began.
For the midterm of “Acts and Paul,” we are going to have to write an in-class essay that focused 70% on the message of Acts and 15% each on how that message applies personally and to one's current place of service. In preparation, I wrote out a tentative draft of the essay. It is closed book exam this Thursday, so this is writing session was more to get the words “embedded” in my hands and processed in my head than a process of preparing a typical first draft. Still, I thought I'd make some sort of use of it, so I I am posting it here. If you read through it, let me know if you think I succeeded on the stated goal.
“A poem should not mean, but be.” So said one of the great poets of the twentieth century, Archibald MacLeish. Meaning is important – direction and description are crucially important to life, but few people are motivated by “meaning” alone. The cliché about actions speaking louder than words gets at the heart of it. Luke seemed to know that quite well and he applied that lesson in the Book of Acts.
This is a rather nicely done video from the organizers of the pope's “Youth Day” celebration last week. I thought it was worth sharing, in case you hadn't previously run into it.
I have been meaning to write about a new series I am teaching to my senior high students in Sunday School for a few weeks now. I received permission to drop the curriculum I had been working with and build my own summer series based on the Da Vinci Code. While not every student has done so, the objective has been to get as many as possible to read the book and then discuss given chapters each week in class. In addition, we've been delving into the backstory, loosely speaking, looking at the parts of history the Code claims to speak about.
I had already been planning to present my case on here for why every Christian should read the Da Vinci Code, but I got started the other day when Mark was airing more of his distaste for the books and I tried to convince him that he should first read that which he is complaining about.
The Da Vinci Code is an excellent tool to teach what the world believes about the church — a lot of people believe precisely what the book says. Too many Christians live partially or mostly in the Christian ghetto, unaware of what the world thinks about them other than that they are bad, bad people (or worse, “secular humanists”) that need to be rebuked. This is not fulfilling our mission to be salt and light to the world! So, we are working through the Code slowly and carefully, looking at the claims. Now, I could just tell them to read some polemic against it and then my students could go rattle off that polemic to others. But there is another route: I can help them engage the issues thoughtfully, in context, so that they can intelligently discuss them with others. Christians are far too good at keeping up on polemics with no idea what can be affirmed in the stuff they attack. Most things are not black-and-white evil.
For example, many Christians read books like the Kingdom of the Cults and get the idea that there are some serious issues with the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and other non-orthodox groups that claim to have the true Christian message. If that is all the ever read on the issues, they hear that someone is a Jehovah's Witness and assume the person has to be an idiot. Try having a discussion with a person with an attitude like that, and do you really think the love of Christ is going to come through from you?
That is the problem. Say you have someone come up to you and say, “I just read this exciting book, the Da Vinci Code, and listen to what it said about Jesus and Mary!” In response, you reply, “Ah, it's just a bunch of hogwash fiction with a horrible author who claims his work is fact.” Now, we have a disconnect, and the person who enjoyed the book probably assumes you are just another Christian with knee jerk reactions (not that you are, but too many Christians are). You have shown the person zero respect by downplaying their opinion while putting in no effort to actually understand it a bit. They could rightly become angry with you, since you have not even read the book and yet you are telling them what to think about it. Conversely, if you say, “yes, it had me on the edge of my seat too, but you do have to realize yadda, yadda, yadda is wrong with the historical background,” you'll be much better at reaching them and doing good for the Gospel. Isn't that the goal?
In relation to Jehovah's Witnesses, imagine if people read books like the Kingdom of the Cults, but did so as a resource while carefully and critically engaging with materials from the Jehovah's Witnesses themselves. If the Christian would do that, she would understand how the person she is talking to can be a rational, decent human being and still believe the stuff they do. Moreover, by being able to affirm the good of the material — things like affirming the family, acting like Christ to others, etc. — we can build a “bridge,” as one of my professors, Jerram Barrs, would say to help the person we are talking to see that their core beliefs are built up and not torn down by the Gospel.
Think of Harry Potter and how the Christian reaction has made the church look. Conversely, Prof. Barrs insists he can actually find the Gospel in even the first Harry Potter book. And, I think he is right. Christians were so upset at the possibility that Harry Potter would make “witchcraft acceptable” that they missed a really good series that can be used to affirm much of the Christian message! Harry Potter is far less dangerous than the Da Vinci Code, of course. Nevertheless, the reactions to the Code that I've seen from the best theologians and historians are wise enough to say, “yes, I too found it really exciting and well written, but here are the issues.” You can't say that if you haven't read it. And, given that it is possibly the most influential book on peoples' perspectives on church history in a very long time, it seems critical to be able to interact with people on it.
In interacting with it, I have read Evangelical responses, but I am also using Bart Erhman's book on the Code for precisely the same reason. Erhman is an Evangelical turned agnostic and a serious critic of the Church. But, he is also a historian of some merit, so his critiques of the book are extremely helpful. Moreover, if my students have not only read the Code, but also have heard critiques that are informed by Erhman's views, they are vastly more prepared to give answers outside of the Christian ghetto. (As an aside, Erhman said the book had major errors, but “like everyone else” he found it an engaging read.)
Are there factual issues throughout both Robert Langdon books (_the Da Vinci Code_ and Angels and Demons)? Absolutely. Are there glaring factual errors in virtually every piece of pop fiction in a book or movie? Yes. Sure the author claims some facts and he definitely pushes the limit on those fact pages at the beginning of each book. But get over that, and analyze the rest of the book as you would any other very influential work of fiction. That does everybody a whole lot more good.
Is it great literature? No, of course not. I am not going to even think about claiming that. But I enjoy my McDonald's double cheeseburger meal as a compliment to my pan seared chicken with alfredo and asparagus. I love Shakespeare, but when I'm in bed, getting ready to go to sleep, I'd rather have some fast food that allows my mind to wind down. Yes, even lit majors do read things other than literature at times.
So ends my catechism.
I recently read a book on Francis Schaeffer for class. Being a thorough look at Schaeffer, it inevitably spent time on Schaeffer's critique of Barth — indeed, it expanded the attack. It also applied Schaeffer's critique of culture to argue that Postmodernism is not a friend to Christianity.
Part of Schaeffer's issue with Barth was that he believed that Barth was agreeing to isolate faith from reason — that Barth accepted Kant's division between noumena and phenomena. However, I believe the fundamental misunderstanding on the part of Schaeffer and those like him is that they do not realize how far the postmodern critique goes, and therefore assume this is a discrediting of Christianity.
Rather, leaning heavily on Spirit-authentication and witness to the Word is acceptable, because it offers more certainty within a postmodern framework than we can provide to anything else. Postmodernism critiques not just religious knowledge, but also scientific knowledge. While Barth (and Calvin) both appeal to the primacy of what we might call a subjective authentication of God's Word, this is not relegating religion to some undesirable country, but rather showing it's uniquely authoritative status. Christianity has the singular status of being authenticated by the ever elusive center to which we otherwise are forced merely to circle around. Science, while remaining worthy, is not given such a handy escape and is left to continue to fend itself off from epistemological attacks.
To me, this seems like a satisifying answer to Schaeffer's critique, but I have only started to mull this answer over the last few days. What do you think?
The topic of Deconstruction and Barth is one I've dabbled with before, and I'm wondering if somehow I can link it to Barth's doctrine of election in the independent study I am in. I've been meaning to read Of Grammatology for sometime. Perhaps now is the time to do some of it.
I may have to stretch the connection because, primarily, it seems like Deconstruction works in conjunction with Barth's rejection of natural theology, not his work on the topic of soteriology. Nevertheless, something flickers in my head just beyond my reach as of yet that suggests there is a connection here that I am missing. So perhaps I shall pursue it a bit.
What I would like to spend more time, in general, is connecting twentieth century literary and theology movements. The other key affinity in my mind is that of T.S. Eliot with Barth, particularly the Eliot of “the Wasteland” with the early, Crisis Barth. Both the Wasteland and Der Römerbrief come out of the first World War. What other similarities appear? To what extent does modernist literature interact with Barth's neo-orthodoxy?
One of the classes I am taking this semester is an independent study on Karl Barth's alleged universalism. For a mere one credit hour this class is going to be a lot of work, but so far I can tell it is going to certainly be worth it. While I have spent enough time fooling around with Barth on my own, and I try to bring in his work when relevant to other projects, I am really enjoying focusing solely on Barth in a class. Given his significance, it just seems right.
Not for this particular class, but I'd still like to spend some time researching interactions between Barth and modernist poetry from the likes of T.S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish. I see a lot of synergies between some of my favorite poets and my favorite theologian. All of them have their styles crystalized by World War I too. The question is if there can be any useful connections drawn out of the trio, other than just mere time.
For the 490th Reformation Day, I have written OFB's annual Reformation Day piece, this year reflecting on how Reformation Day applies to everyone in the Church — not just Protestants — and not in the divisive way some people may think. If you missed it last year, you may also want to check out Ed Hurst's excellent piece on the same subject.
I saw the film Jesus Camp yesterday at an open discussion held at my alma mater, Lindenwood. The film is… disturbing. It follows a particular “Evangelical” children's camp (which is heavily Pentecostal and, I would assert, more properly labeled Fundamentalist), following the director and several kids during the time before, during and after the camp. The camp presents many truths, but at the same time was truly disturbing. What tactics are proper for a camp to use to get children to “accept” the Gospel? For that matter, do they really accept a personal relationship with Christ if they are scared into it, or do they merely assent to propositions?
The video also raised some questions about the fundamental debate between the camp and its so-called “enemies,” the “liberal relativists.” I wrote the following in an e-mail discussing the film; the comments are somewhat stream-of-consciousness in form, but hopefully they are intelligible:
I've been mulling over “Jesus Camp” some more. I'm not sure if anything I came up with is worthwhile, and they aren't really unique, but for what its worth…
It was really very interesting, if a bit nauseating. Perhaps it is because I've been busy deconstructing my theology since Dr. Schnellmann's Criticism got me thinking about deconstruction, or perhaps my “Covenant Theology” class is emphasizing a “post-modern critique” aware “narrative theology,” or maybe all that is apropos to nothing, but I was thinking: isn't the whole debate essentially yet another airing of two ugly heads of the Enlightenment Project's (dying) beast? Maybe it is time I try to make a reference to Foucault. In fact, perhaps this is where Prof. Stevens was heading with his Foucault reference…
After all, the fundamentalist movement, and many of the “enemies” that Fischer worries about […] are products of the Enlightenment/modernist perspective.
While the homeschool mom, for instance, was busy attacking evolution, she was doing so with the assumption that the Bible speaks in essentially scientific propositions. That reminds me of Dr. Meyers's discussion on category errors with Genesis, and the “walk to work or eat your lunch” example. The “offensiveness” of evolution exists largely among Christians who buy into such a reductionistic, modernist worldview that the only thing that matters is the physical creation and hence see a creation viewpoint and evolution as necessarily opposed. For that matter, the pressure Fischer felt that she must use whatever rhetoric necessary to gain converts would seem to be taking a very naturalistic view of what is required for true conversion (what happened to God in this picture?).
The whole lack of grace among the Christians of the video would seemPerhaps the (seemingly ever increasing) antagonism between modernist factions will lead to their eventual collapse? Maybe I am overly optimistic there. Of course, then that would mean one thing (logically) in theology: a second wave of Neo-Orthodoxy! I can only imagine all the new books on St. Karl of Basel that would be written…
to come from the fact that they are primarily reading the Bible as propositions of law rather than a story of grace (to sound all deconstructionist again, they seemed to lack a sense of a redemptive
meta-narrative). Despite the “manifestations of the Spirit” there was little real sense of a relational understanding of Christianity.
Anyone here see this film? What did you think?
I was at the bookstore the other day, and I found myself flipping through several books by Jacques Derrida, trying to figure out if I felt up to the task of reading more of that most interesting and difficult of fellows just now. Though I am not entirely comfortable with every place Deconstructionism will go, the basics of it seem to fit the way things really work. I've spoken mostly of Deconstructionism in the sense of the hermeneutical spiral, but let's consider it somehow other than that.
Consider faith. We accept Christ. We try to make Him the center of our lives, and to that end Christians start and continue churches to be used by Him. The churches are meant to be centered around Christ with the aim to spread the Good News. But, our attempt is futile. In as much as we attempt to pursue “His goals” on our terms, we find that our churches are not so much accomplishing the spread of the Good News, but rather maintaining their self-perpetuating existence as organizations and finding ways to amuse our members with ever increasingly spectacular displays.
It isn't malicious intent, but rather the complete inability of humans to be centered. We are constantly slipping away from that which we most aim to do, and, in fact, our attempts in and of themselves are as effective as is the effort of pulling one's fingers out of a Chinese finger trap. It simply does not work.
The key of course, and the place where the Christian parts way with the agnostic Deconstructionist thinker is that something I hinted at above. The problem appears inasmuch as we depend on our terms. God certainly is powerful enough to do what needs to be done, but if He is going to use us, we need to quit thinking we can escape the gravitational force exerted by the phenomena we call Deconstruction and allow God to deconstruct our frameworks for us.