New Monasticism

I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).ATI

In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)

When We Lack Ecclesiological Structures

I read here today that the NAE has developed a code of ethics for pastors.  Certainly there’s nothing wrong with wanting to promote integrity and purity among pastors, but would this be necessary if evangelicals were properly rooted in ecclesial traditions and confessional frameworks that emphasized more than just Bebbington’s big four?

What do you make of the implications of this code?  Is it an important corrective?  A problematic development?

 

The Church and The Arts: Some Queries

It’s difficult for a student at St Mary’s College, which is home to the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and a husband of someone who is an artist to ignore questions about the relationship between the church and the arts (taken broadly to include painting, film, sculpting, dance, etc.).  Indeed, even if one has no personal ties in this connection, it’s tough to avoid hearing the recurring calls for the church to ‘engage’ more robustly with the arts.  A product of the Third Lausanne Congress, The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action (Hendrickson, 2011) urges,

In the world of mission, the arts are an untapped resource.  We actively encourage greater Christian involvement in the arts.  We long to see the Church in all cultures energetically engaging with the arts as a context for mission by: (1) Bringing the arts back into the life of the faith community as a valid and valuable component of our call to discipleship; (2) Supporting those with artistic gifts, especially sisters and brothers in Christ, so that they may flourish in their work (p. 37).

I’d like to make two comments (with questions appended) and then hear some of your thoughts on these kinds of calls for Christian involvement in the field of art.  None of this is meant to denigrate the role of art in human existence, for it is undoubtedly a wonderful gift of God.  It is to probe a little as to whether (well-intended) calls for artistic engagement are appropriately directed toward the church and its pastoral leadership.

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The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Part 1)

I introduced Tom Bergler’s new book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity in a previous post (read it here). Chapters 1-7 chart juvenilization  from the 1930’s through 1960’s, then Tom draws the argument together in chapter 8.

Chapter 1 traces the response of various American Christian denominations to what was being called the “crisis of civilization” during the 1930’s. As Tom describes it, “As the traumas of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War followed each other in quick succession, people started to speak of a ‘crisis of civilization.’ They had reason to fear that their children might see the end of economic prosperity, democracy, and religious freedom” (19). By focusing on the general fear about the youth of the day, Christian leaders focused their attention on young people to catalyze change in America. In doing so, Tom argues, “Youth leaders believed they were catching the wave of the future and channeling the innate power of young people.” However, they were inadvertently building “one of the engines that would drive juvenilization in subsequent decades.”

In addition to advocating to the wider public for the influence that youth can have to revitalize America, during the 1930s and 1940s Christians responded to the challenge of the youth problem in various ways. Evangelical groups like Youth For Christ responded by launching youth revivals. “Youth for Christ leaders considered their movement a success against the crisis of civilization. They modernized revivalism, won respect in the secular press, and appealed to young people by combining entertainment, an appealing spirituality, and the powerful language linking youth and the crisis of civilization” (32). In contrast, Roman Catholics attempted to mobilize youth to save America, “on the battlefield, in the factories, and in their schools” (32-36) and African American Baptists, unlike their white counterparts, focused on social justice but through integrating the youth into the life and mission of the church rather than start new youth organizations (36-39).

Tom describes the overall effect of these efforts during the 1930s and 40s as follows:

Youth leaders and those they influenced got in the habit of thinking of youth, not adults, as the most important reformers in church and society. The people who most often heard this message were the young Christians who participated in the many large youth gatherings of the era. These future leaders learned that youth would always be the most important political and social force in the world, and by implication, not to expect much from themselves or others once they reached adulthood. According to this line of thinking, if adults were to accomplish anything of value in the political realm, they needed to become more like young people (40).

I find Tom’s closing statement to be one of the more interesting observations in the chapter: “From then on, almost any innovation could be justified in the name of saving young people. Who could worry about the long-term impact of youth work on the church when the fate of civilization hung in the balance?”

Questions

In light of all this, here are a couple questions for Tom when he has the chance (feel free to pose your own): do you think today’s youth see themselves as forces for change because of the shifts in perception you trace here, or are there are more influential causes for the recent upsurge in youth activism? How does the mission of YFC during the 1930s and 40s shape YFC’s mission today? Should we see this as a strength or weakness?

The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Intro)

A colleague of mine at Huntington University, Tom Bergler, just published a book on the influence of youth culture on American Christianity, The Juvenilization of American Christianity. The next cover of Christianity Today will highlight the book and include an article by Tom. I am going to review the book chapter by chapter over the next few weeks, and Tom will join in to respond to questions and comments.

A good place to start: what does Tom mean by the term “juvenilization”? As he defines it in the introduction, “Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of faith (4).” In other words, as the American church sought to reach young people in the 2oth century it incorporated aspects of adolescent development and culture that ultimately shaped the faith of adult Christians and the way the church today understands spiritual maturity.

The effects of juvenilization have not all been negative. Yet, with certain gains also came loses, mainly the exchange of spiritual maturity for adolescent immaturity. Tom describes it this way, “By personalizing Christianity and creatively blending it with elements of popular culture ranging from rock music to political protests, youth ministries helped ensure the ongoing vitality of Christianity in America. But these same ministries also sometimes pandered to the consumerism, self-centeredness, and even outright immaturity of American believers.”

It seems that Tom’s biggest worries have less to do with the pragmatics of contemporary American Christianity – like the elements of corporate worship or evangelism strategies – and more to do with how American churches of all denominations understand and seek spiritual maturity. “Maturity” has come to be understood according to the dynamics of adolescent spirituality, and this only inhibits the efforts of churches and individuals to foster maturity as it has been traditionally understood (something I wish Tom would have said more about in the introduction. What is the foil of “adolescent” spirituality we might call “maturity”?).

The argument seems to go something like this: the American church of the twentieth century (beginning in the 1930’s) juvenilized the Christian faith in order to reach adolescents, and that strategy has created the accepted norms for mature, adult faith.

For example, Tom singles out the emotionally charged nature of adolescent faith and suggests how this dynamic comes to be the norm for adults:

Adolescent Christians see the faith as incomplete unless it is affecting them emotionally. They are less likely than adults to settle for a faith that offers only a dutiful adherence to particular doctrines, rules, or institutions. On the other hand, they have a hard time keeping religious commitments when their emotions are not cooperating. They are drawn to religious practices that produce emotional highs and sometimes assume that experiencing strong feelings is the same thing as spiritual authenticity. They may be tempted to believe that God’s main role in their lives is to help them feel better or to heal their emotional pain. Juvenilized adults agree that a main purpose of Christianity is to help them feel better about their problems (12).

I am curious, have you experienced this in your church? What does it look like? How do you recognize it?

A Ministry of Self-Forgetfulness and Simplicity

I have been slowly journeying through the first volume of Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939 [Banner of Truth, 1982]) and have been at various points taken in by the Welsh preacher’s aversion to self-absorption and to ‘bells and whistles’ in ministry even in the midst of his apparent pastoral fervor and spiritual vitality.  Indeed, in this aversion to anything like the personality-driven ministries that are so prevalent in our time, ‘the Doctor’ might have even resented this blog post, were he still alive.  Nevertheless, certain dimensions of his story are, I think, remarkably suggestive for Christian ministry today and are worthy of our consideration.

A couple of the episodes recorded by Murray distill Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to getting himself out of the way in the proclamation of the gospel and to ensuring that the church was borne along by the power of God’s word and Spirit rather than by clever human devices.  For Lloyd-Jones’s initial visit to preach at Aberavon, the site of his soon-to-be first pastorate, the church secretary (E. T. Rees) had put up a large poster to advertise the advent of the exciting prospective minister.  Murray relates the Doctor’s response:

‘I don’t like that, don’t do it again,’ he told E. T. Rees in authoritative tones (p. 119).

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Schism and Spiritual Unity

In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity.  As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.

For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith.  However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land.  This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity.  Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this.  Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism.  Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):

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Owen on Preaching

For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74).  Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that.  Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.

First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’.  In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76).  Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’.  Put forcefully,

[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.  And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself.  If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).

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Sabbath and Lord’s Day

I’ll extend the Calvin kick for another post, one that centers on his view of the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in the Institutes, one stemming partially from the tension I might experience on Sunday as I both engage in spiritual and ecclesial activities and also head out to the pub to take in a Liverpool match.

For Calvin, the fourth commandment has three main functions: 1) to foreshadow and to promise to Israel spiritual rest which God will bring as the sanctifier of his people; 2) to provide a day for the assembled worship of God’s people; 3) to prevent oppression and overexertion of laborers (2.8.28-9).  In the old dispensation the Sabbath promoted meditation on the forthcoming ‘perpetual repose from our labors’.  However, its figurative and ceremonial aspect is no longer in force after Christ’s resurrection (Col. 2:16-17).  By participating in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:1-14) we begin to participate in that promised rest and ‘[t]his is not confined to a single day but extends throughout the whole course of our life, until, completely dead to ourselves, we are filled with the life of God.  Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days’ (2.8.31).  In this connection, Calvin also reasons that meditation on that transformation work spills over into the other days of the week (2.8.34).

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Rome, Evangelicalism, and the Regulative Principle

In his theology of worship, Calvin was quite keen on simplifying the church’s weekly services  and judged that Roman Catholicism’s elaborate ceremonies were a throwback to the old  covenant era, a continuation of things now out of place in the worship of God’s people on this  side of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.  With an eye to helping those less  acquainted with spiritual matters, he writes,

As a child (says Paul) is guided by his tutor according to the capacity of his age, and is restrained under his tutelage, so the Jews were under the custody of the law (Gal. 4:1-3).  But we are like adults, who, freed of tutelage and custody, have no need of childish rudiments….Therefore, if we wish to benefit the untutored [in this era of redemptive history], raising up a Judaism that has been abrogated by Christ is a stupid way to do it.  Christ also marked this dissimilarity between the old and new people in his own words when he said to the Samaritan woman that the time had come ‘when the true worshipers would worship God in spirit and in truth’ (Jn. 4:23).  Indeed, this had always been done.  But the new worshipers differ from the old in that under Moses the spiritual worship of God was figured and, so to speak, enwrapped in many ceremonies; but now that these are abolished, he is worshiped more simply.  Accordingly, he who confuses this difference is overturning an order instituted and sanctioned by Christ (Institutes, 4.10.14).

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The Church as an Extension of the Incarnation?

Following on Kent’s reflections about how to approach Barth’s work, I’ve  found myself interested to post on something from Barth’s treatment of  divine omnipresence.  The discussion of omnipresence in Church  Dogmatics is intriguing in its own right (even where one disagrees with  Barth) and exhibits the dialectical tack with which, as Kent mentioned,  Barth often operates.  However, it’s the way in which Barth’s notion of  Christ as the focal point, or ‘basis and constituent centre’, of God’s ‘special presence’ might meet current talk of an ‘incarnational’ view of the church  and its mission that has caught my eye.

In Barth’s discussion of the difference between God’s presence in Christ and God’s presence among his people, Barth remarks that, since in the Son God personally takes upon himself the human nature of Christ, this union is qualitatively different from our adoption.

But God is himself this man Jesus Christ, very God and very man, both of them unconfused and unmixed, but also unseparated and undivided, in the one person of this Messiah and Saviour.  This is what cannot be said about any other creature, even any prophet of apostle.  Jesus Christ alone is very God and very man.  And it is on the basis of this unio, but clearly differentiated from it, that there is an adoptio (CD II/1, p. 486).

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Paedobaptism

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on different features of the doctrine of the church and would like to hear some thoughts on Bavinck’s ten propositions concerning ‘the validity of infant baptism’.  As someone reared in a Roman Catholic family but converted in a Baptist setting, I’ve been intrigued for some time by the paedobaptist teaching of the Reformed, whose tradition I find salutary with regard to so many areas of theological enquiry.  Here are Bavinck’s big ten in summary (see Reformed Dogmatics 4:525-32):

1)  At the inception of the church it was natural for baptism to concern primarily adult converts and this is what we see in the New Testament.  However, because valid inferences as well as explicit statements of biblical teaching are binding for the church, the legitimacy of infant baptism doesn’t depend on it being explicitly narrated or commanded in the NT.

2)  Baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision, which was, of course, granted to the infants of Abraham’s family in the Old Testament.  Baptism and circumcision are of the same essence, but the former exceeds the latter in grace, not least because it is given to both male and female.

3)  Covenant and election are two distinct categories and the former (in which sphere the sacraments are administered) concerns persons in their historical existence in communion with one another.  In the OT, children are ‘regarded in connection with [parents]‘ and God ‘established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing’.  ‘While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.’

4)  In the NT, children are still regarded as participants in the covenant and this is evidenced as Jews in the Gospels reject Jesus and in response Jesus calls into question their status as God’s people but still in kindness regards Jewish children as ‘children of the covenant’.

5)  The apostolic ministry proceeds along the same lines, with the church taking the place of Israel and households as organic wholes in the book of Acts converting to Christ and sharing in common blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14).  ‘Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age.’

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The Latest Affront to Catholicity

In People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, the final book of his four-volume series with Westminster John Knox Press, Michael Horton deals with the concept of catholicity in a particularly poignant manner.  In his mind, the most urgent threat to the catholicity of the church presently is the mindset of consumerism that has pervaded even the gathering of God’s people and given rise to ‘rival catholicities’:

The current phase of ecclesial division is actually welcomed in the name of mission.  It is not the catholicity of ethnic bonds or race.  Though closely related to socioeconomic status, it is not exactly the same.  Rather, it is the catholicity of the market.  Not only separate churches, but also separate ‘churches-within-churches’ are proliferating, each targeting its unique market (p. 206).

Put more sharply, ‘Ecclesial apartheid is expanding, as each generation and demographic market is treated to its own study Bibles and devotional materials, small groups, and ‘worship experiences’ (p. 205).  For Horton, the carving up of the church according to individuals’ cultural preferences, far from affirming diversity, ends up undermining the properly multigenerational and multiethnic character of the church and turning out discrete, homogeneous clusters of persons who operate in their own niches.  Recalling Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians’ factious approach to the Lord’s Supper (‘For do you not have homes for eating and drinking?  Or do you despise the church of God?’), Horton discerns a parallel in our market-driven strategies: ‘Do we not have our own homes and social networks for pursuing our tastes in music, style, politics, fashion, and hobbies’ (p. 208)?  He is critical of the contemporary ‘incarnational’ ministerial impetus and advocates a recognition of the local church as a ‘strange assembly of spiritual relatives we may never have known, much less chosen, in our ordinary course of life’ (p. 212).

Do you think Horton is on target here?  If so, what are some of your thoughts on moving forward?

Tough Words from Owen

Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense).  Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?”  The prescribed response:

An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.

Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”

The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it.  For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people.  The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.