Christian ‘Atheism’ – disbelief & the naming of cultural idols

Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).

The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.

In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.

‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Continue reading

The Joy of Ministry (part 1)

I am seldom eager to read another new book on ministry; thankfully The Joy of Ministry (WJK, 2008) is no ordinary offering (many thanks to WJK for a review copy).

This is not a how-to book on ministry. Nor is it a book that seeks to improve one’s mood or to offer inspirational nuggets of pastoral ministry. Rather, this book seeks to reflect on the beauty of the church’s theological task and the joy of the church’s ministry (p. 1)

Rooted in the writings of Karl Barth and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Currie III reminds readers that ministry is not properly thought about in terms of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ but in terms of ‘the gift and the task of pointing to Jesus Christ…its sheer existence is a gift of an ongoing miracle whose grace is both relentlessly embarrassing and surprisingly joyful.’

We have forgotten that joy is found not in busyness but in dependence; we do not find joy, but are found by joy in Jesus Christ. ‘We have grown busy but not joyful’, warns Currie, and in the midst of our churchly busyness the joy of the gospel that is ours in Jesus Christ remains ‘frustratingly elusive and oddly inarticulate’.

The joy of the gospel is that ‘deep confidence’, even ‘astonished laughter’, attending the discovery that there is One at work in our world ‘more central to our stories than we are to ourselves’. ‘Joy is the great gift of the gospel’ he urges,

but it is a gift that, like manna, cannot be turned into a commodity, something that can be bought or sold, or stored up for use of our own purposes. It remains ever a gift, Continue reading

Sung Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith

How do hymns display and express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition? And how does this sung theology shape and form our faith (belief, affection, and action)?

For the sake of the discussion, let’s focus on evangelical hymns. In American Evangelical Christianity, Notre Dame historian, Mark Noll, attempts to probe the message of evangelical Christianity through the medium of its hymns. In doing so, he identifies three distinct layers of hymnody that define the modern evangelical movement at its best. For our purposes we will consider just two: Christ-centered picture of redemption and social vision (the other is ecumenism). Even if you don’t identify with the evangelicalism Noll expounds, consider how the sung theology of your tradition shapes your beliefs – your credo.

The Scandal of the Cross Is the Scandal of My Forgiveness

“And can it be that I should gain An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused such pain? For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be That thou my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley)

The first thing to notice about this hymn is its characteristically evangelical focus on the individual person’s salvation. It casts the scandal of the cross primarily in terms of how the love and forgiveness therein could be for “me.” Wesley wonders over the radicality of Christ’s death and asks: “For me?” Continue reading