Skip to content

Don’t Be a Ghost

December 9, 2014
by

So this week is an extremely busy one for me and so I’m going to just put up this short thought about ghosts because who doesn’t like ghosts? (My friend Les, that’s who.)

Some quick internet searching reveals that about half of all Americans believe in ghosts. Despite this, I have never run across anyone who is worried about becoming a ghost nor have I ever heard of any (modern) rite designed to prevent one from becoming a wandering ghost. Given that ghosts are generally thought to be the spirits of the dead one would imagine that someone would have put two and two together and decided that they should worry about getting stuck as a ghost. Why isn’t anyone out there trying to “help” you avoid ghostdom (or steer yourself towards it – I can imagine many worse post-death fates than haunting, say, the southern coast of Africa)?

There are two solutions to this and both offer interesting looks at the way we process the world of the supernatural:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. Some people (many, I’ll say, since I tend to think people are horribly inconsistent in their beliefs) believe that ghosts are the trapped spirits of the dead but have always assumed that getting stuck as a ghost only happens to other people. If someone really believes that ghosts are the spirits of the dead this should be integrated into one’s view of the afterlife but supernatural and “religious” matters are sometimes considered to be inherently illogical and so they don’t get a pass through the logic filter before being accepted. This also says a lot about how people believe things.
  • Ghosts need not be the spirits of the dead. Two other possibilities exist within “traditional” beliefs about ghosts. One is that ghosts are some sort of impression left by the departed. This fits in with some cultures that believe that anywhere someone has died is haunted by a malevolent ghost. In this case it is the person’s death that generates the ghost but the ghost left by your kindly grandmother is not your grandmother but some evil thing created by her death. The other is that ghosts are creatures, just not flesh-and-blood ones. At one point it was common to believe in a whole bestiary of unnatural creatures and one could always believe that ghosts are another species, just an incorporeal one. This is interesting because both options exist within other cultures and frequently get called “ghosts” even though we’ve now identified three different sorts of things that are not all clearly related. This speaks to the way we label unfamiliar traditions, perhaps especially when it comes to non-physical elements. If we were to conclude from the common overly-broad use of “ghost” that ghosts are common across many cultures would our conclusions make sense? What if we applied the same caution to theological terms?

Does Scholarship Erode Faith?

December 1, 2014
by

Working on a college campus I am familiar with a trend in which church-going, apparently-devout young men and women leave the faith in college. I am also familiar with several explanations for this trend.

The first explanation is simple: college is openly anti-Christian. The horrible liberals/enlightened humanists (pick your side!) who run college campuses pour anti-Christian thought into young people’s heads and it changes what they think. This is certainly a real thing but only an occasional one. It’s pretty easy to go to college and run into this sort of thing only as a sort of sideshow. I don’t think it explains enough of the trend.

The second explanation is more complicated: in college young people both learn more about the world (including being exposed to ideas very different than the ones they grew up with) and are forming their own identities separate from their parents. Inevitably some students form identities that align them with the new ideas they run across and not the faith of their fathers.

This has a second twist: some young people come to college with the world figured out. Then the world doesn’t fit that mold. They meet a gay person who doesn’t breathe fire and worship Satan. Their roommate has sex before marriage, perhaps even quite frequently, but does not rot from the waist down with hideous STIs[1]. These young people then leave the faith since it seems clear that everything they were told was crap. (By the way, this is a brief version of my manifesto against the Christian bubble.)

There’s a third, related, explanation: temptation. Away from the watchful eyes of their parents young people can explore heavy drinking, heavy petting[2], and heavy partying. However, to indulge with a clean conscience said young people must ditch their faith.

I would like to propose an additional explanation (just an addition, not a replacement). This particular one may be more of an issue in graduate school but it is certainly an issue for the studious. Many people leave high school with a child’s faith. That’s what they bring to an adult world. It just doesn’t stand up.

Imagine, for a second, sitting in an English class and analyzing what Milton really meant in “Paradise Lost”. Now go on to a science class and attempt to discern patterns in a huge pile of data. Now hang out with some friends and discuss politics because hey, you’re an adult now (and you think you can solve all the world’s problems at 18). In all of these discussions you are challenging ideas. Ideas are brought up, they are tested against the data you have available, and some die. Now you go to Bible Study. You don’t test ideas because God should not be tested. You read the Bible and maybe it looks a bit like a text from English class but you know you shouldn’t apply those methods to it – that’s being critical and you shouldn’t be critical of the Bible. At no point in Bible Study or in the discussion with your Christian friends afterwards do you take your faith and test it against data. Your faith never lives or dies in the trial – you simply don’t submit it for that kind of judgment.

That is the problem. In an academic environment everything that you would consider expressing as a belief goes through the trial of testing. If you expressed a belief about, say, the superiority of organic food and someone challenged you and it became apparent that you had not submitted this belief to testing then you would look stupid[3]. This creates a problem: you may believe that Jesus Christ rose from dead on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures but if you’ve never tested it you will feel fairly sure that your smart friends will figure this out and declare that belief stupid. And these are your smart friends – they help you punch holes in all manner of dumb ideas and clarify your thinking about difficult topics. Maybe their belief about your beliefs should be listened to, even if you’ve never had that particular conversation. Sooner or later you end up living in a world in which you know that your faith is a relic from your former life as a naïve person who believed things for dumb reasons and so you leave your faith behind.

This is the beginning of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Does scholarship erode faith? It can – if there’s no Christian scholarship to counter it. In graduate school I found a group of fellow Christian graduate students and we discussed the Bible with all the rigor I brought to the rest of my life. In science classes I might compare two ideas from noted thinkers in ecology and comment on which side I favored and why. In Bible Study I might compare great thinkers in the Church, ancient or modern, and comment on which side I favored and why. While I did in fact deal with the very first issue I mentioned in this article, an advisor who was openly hostile to Christianity, the irony was that his criticisms of Christianity were functioning on a lower intellectual level than my Bible Study. I remember distinctly his criticism of the Bible as an all-powerful book that removed the need for any further thought. It was easy to dismiss this criticism – I was surrounded by Christians who thought extensively about the Bible and I could articulate why the reading of the Bible that he disliked was philosophically naïve and did violence to the text[4].

Christians need to do serious thinking about Christianity. Christians have done this thinking for centuries but in the West it is often forgotten for a more populist, simpler message. The price of not thinking seriously is that we become a church where our brains are not engaged and that we subtly train ourselves that our faith is stupid and will not survive scrutiny. The problem of scholarship is not an inherent one whereby more careful thought leads to less faith. Instead, it is a problem of mismatch – if Christianity has no scholarly gear and the world around us does then switching into that gear will mean leaving Christianity. The solution to that is better and more Christian scholarship.

Read more…

Democracy and Depravity

November 25, 2014
by

Two things have happened in American politics within the last few weeks that all involve depravity. The first of these is mid-term elections. The second of these is a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown.

Just in case these events are not firmly on your radar let me review them. America (by which I mean the United States of America, a country which likes to believe it is all of the Americas there are) is a democratic republic. In 1775 the American colonies of the British Empire revolted and were (rather amazingly) successful in forming a new country. Also amazingly they managed to do this on the first try without falling back into anarchy multiple times as is the habit of new countries. The American colonists decided to break with their old system of governance and rejected monarchy for a convoluted system of elected representatives. America continues to have elections and had one recently. I’m sure this is all news to everyone.

In August 9th 2014 an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. This sparked mass outrage, huge protests, and widespread allegations of police misconduct in the town where the shooting occurred. Late in the evening of November 24th a grand jury decided that there was not enough evidence to indict Darren Wilson for this shooting. This is in some ways surprising – grand juries almost always indict people and let a normal jury sort out guilt or innocence. However, police officers are almost never indicted[1]. Indeed, some people think that police officers are generally let off the hook for things that ordinary people would not be.

The theological link behind these incidents is depravity, a topic I’ve written about before. Let’s start with American governance.

The reason I highlighted American rejection of monarchy in my unnecessary historical recap is that the rejection of monarchy is an issue of depravity. Monarchy would actually work better and faster than democracy or a republic if monarchs were perfect people (one reason that God’s monarchy is not more of an issue for people who dislike human monarchies). However, monarchs are never perfect people and there isn’t a good way to get rid of them or curb their excesses. The brilliance of the American system (in its broad strokes that are now found in many countries) is a balance of powers. This balance accepts that people are depraved and rather than asking voters to find the magically non-depraved people to elect it pits the depravity of various branches of government against one another. The entire electoral system is a way to bend depravity towards a good cause – if a politician doesn’t do what the people wants (i.e., if they act like a depraved monarch) they will easily lose their position to someone who promises to do better. The only way to keep power is not to abuse it (too much or too publicly). The Founding Fathers of the United States realized that it was basically impossible to ensure that politicians would be good people. Instead of building a system that trusted people in power they constructed a system that distrusts everyone and is much more resilient against evil people than monarchical or oligarchical systems.

On to Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. One easy comment about depravity would be to simply claim that Darren Wilson is guilty of a crime and should have been indicted. However, I’m not the grand jury and I didn’t see the evidence. My own personal suspicion is that Darren Wilson did a bad, careless, and racist job[2]. Because he is a police officer and engages in violent conflicts with criminals and because he carries a gun his conduct eventually led him to a place where he killed a black teenager. If he was a pizza delivery man the same conduct might have led him to deliver a pizza late. Because he is a police officer the same level of mistakes led him to shoot someone to death. This is where the real depravity issue comes in – police officers are given a high degree of public trust, a lot of powers that no one else has, and are very rarely actually convicted of misusing those powers. There are a number of reasons why this may be (and I’m not talking about a low rate of accusations but a low rate of convictions) but it does seem that perhaps we don’t believe in depravity quite right.

There are two issues at work. One is that we misunderstand depravity. If my Senator is depraved will he do nothing but constant evil to the greatest extent of his abilities? No – he’ll do the evil that is easy, convenient, and doesn’t cost him more than it’s worth. He won’t build a death ray and threaten to destroy Canada because that’s a lot of work for no clear reward. But if we make it easy to accept large campaign donations in exchange for subtle political favors he probably will do that. Similarly, police are unlikely to start systematically abusing everyone. This is America and if the police start to remind us of the Gestapo a lot of police chiefs will end up out of work. However, it’s quite believable that a police officer who sees that you have an out-of-state license plate and probably won’t want to come back to contest a speeding ticket will slap you with a heavier fine than you actually deserve.

The second issue is trust: I would like to trust my government and my police officers (although I generally don’t trust my elected officials and make my decisions about police officers on a more case-by-case basis). If I believe that everyone in power is twisted by depravity will I be able to trust anyone? In short no, but in longer form yes. The central issue here is that one of the people I can’t trust is myself. Wherever I have power I will also be subject to the temptations that face all of humanity. What I should really learn from failures “out there” is that there are the same failure points in myself. Can I trust myself? Not really, but I’ve learned to deal with it. Can I trust anyone else? Not really, but I could learn to deal with it.

When bad things happen and people abuse power one of the first things we often decide is that this is because we picked the wrong people for that position. This is often true in some sense: someone out there is a moral paragon who wouldn’t have abused their power. In another sense, though, we just picked normal people and watched what happens to normal people who are subject to a lot of temptation and little restraint. If this is true it is true of us also. If everyone needs to be watched we need to be watched also.

A message of eternal moral vigilance isn’t pleasant. Everyone likes projects that can be solved and left solved more than ones that can only be solved for a short while before they need to be revisited. However, if we as Christians believe that people are depraved and that evil is active in the world then assuming that there are permanent solutions to evil makes no sense. The permanent solution to evil is Christ’s victory over evil and death and their final abolition. Until then evil will be a perennial crop.

This is the message I draw from the failings of the world “out there”. When I think about the failings of kings I ask myself, “If I had the power to do whatever I wanted, take whatever money I wanted, send whoever I didn’t like to the chopping block, take wives and mistresses without limits, have anything I asked for built or bought for me, would I abuse those powers?” The answer is “yes, probably – and especially if I had been brought up thinking all of this was what was due to me”. At best I might make a good king – a king who tried not to abuse people but was still, as king, totally divorced from what real people needed and whose actions would still be deeply flawed by the assumption of entitlement and a lack of understanding of the human cost of my privilege. When I think about the failings of police officers I ask myself, “If I had to deal with angry, unpleasant criminals every day and I knew I could get away with getting back at them in technically illegal ways would I?” The answer is almost certainly yes. The question then is “Since I would be a bad person with more power than I have now how am I abusing the power that I have?” It’s always easy to look at someone else’s failings and condemn them. I believe that as Christians we should look at the failings of others and see a warning about what we ourselves are likely doing. After all, depravity touches us all.

Read more…

Trust

November 17, 2014
by

I have had a number of research assistants over the years. Some have been good. Some have been amazing. A few (a truly small minority) have been worse than useless. I have been entirely unable to trust them to complete the tasks I give them.

Oddly, I have also had excellent assistants who I have been unable to trust to do certain tasks. I have had a project on the back burner for some time now that requires an extensive literature search – I have currently read more than one thousand scientific articles on a single subject and expect to triple that number at minimum. If I had someone help me and they did not do it right that would be actually make matters worse than if I had no help. I would believe that I had all the information I needed from certain articles but I would not – I might even have flat-out incorrect information. I have yet to find a research assistant I can trust with this task.

The kinds of trust in action here are very different. My awful assistants can’t be trusted because their intentions are not trustworthy. Almost all of my assistants have been either paid for their work or have received school credit. A few have attempted to do as little as possible to receive those benefits – their aims and mine are misaligned and I cannot trust what they are up to. When I have found myself unable to trust my better assistants to perform certain tasks the issue has been different. In the project I mentioned above the issue has been one of expertise. My assistants have all been undergraduates and they simply lack the skills to be trusted to get the job done correctly no matter how hard they try.

As Christians we talk a lot about trusting God and failing to trust God. However, we rarely discuss the fact that we can fail to trust God in multiple different ways. Like my trust issues with my assistants we can fail to trust God’s motives or His abilities. Moreover, we can fail to trust His motives and His abilities in more than one way.

Motives are the easy one. We can fail to trust that God intends good things for us. Frankly, this is sometimes pretty easy – following God in anything but the most superficial sense demands sacrifices and sometimes one has to wonder if the sacrifices are worth the reward. Are we doing surgery which hurts but has an end that is better than the beginning or are we just slicing ourselves up? Sometimes we see rewards – I think some of the success I’ve had working with people (which has been pretty valuable for me in my career) is because I try to treat people right. Sometimes we mostly see downsides – I hear that Christ brings peace and joy but I often feel like if I could take a day to be totally unchristian to the people who stress me out the most I could probably drive them off and increase my peace and joy quite a lot.

Motives can be more complex than this, though. If I pray for something good to happen to me I can trust that God wants good things for me or I can believe that God is mostly interested in teaching me hard lessons. A lot of the stress young adults face about choosing colleges and careers stems from this sort of thinking. The whole idea that there is one path for your life that God has ordained and that diverging from it is a disaster assumes that God is not the sort of person who will help you but rather the sort of person who will let you learn a hard and lengthy lesson for your mild disobedience. A lot of modern Christians have a similar sort of issue with asking God for things. What if God is mostly interested in teaching me how to do without? What if God’s idea for my perfect life is a rather Buddhist lack of needfulness for anything? Maybe I need a car for my job and I’m having trouble finding one I can afford but rather than pray for one I’ll assume God intends to teach me to be grateful even when I lose my job because I can’t get to work anymore. (The opposite of this, the idea that God wants to give us every stupid thing we can think of to want, is also a huge problem. In fact, sometimes we make the mistake I just discussed in order to be sure to avoid the mistake of the health-and-wealth gospel.) Ultimately this is about trust – do I trust God to want good things for me? Sometimes the answer is yes but only after “good things for me” has been redefined to look like things that will not be enjoyable any time soon.

Trust in abilities is somewhat more interesting to me. I hear this one referenced rather rarely and almost always in reference to miracles. “Don’t you trust that God has the power to create the world/raise the dead/heal?” However, Dallas Willard points out that what we are more likely to fail to trust is God’s ability to know what is best for us. Or, more specifically, we are more likely to believe that while God has some great moral advice for us His knowledge is mostly restricted to what we now think of as personal morality. God is not generally thought of as smart or clever – He doesn’t understand how the world works and so outside of a limited scope of actions He just can’t be trusted. Part of being Christian, though, is to assert that no one understands the world better than God. While this can create problems – turn the other cheek seems crazy, the economic system found in the Law would destroy Wall Street, and our litigious culture may find New Testament advice about lawsuits uncomfortable – it does seem more Christian.

There’s also room to discuss these different sorts of trust when we are talking about trusting people. In American Christianity it seems unfortunately easy to believe that because someone is a trustworthy person (their intentions are trustworthy) that they should be trusted with tasks that require a lot of skill. However, this could develop into a rather large side note of its own (do we believe that God will grant someone skills on the basis of their moral character or do we just not realize that “I trust you to do what is right” and “I trust that you know what is right” are different?) and so I will not pursue that line of thought further.

Often when I have run across people who struggle in some aspect of their faith I have heard this labeled as a trust issue. Perhaps it is. However, what I wish to suggest with this article is that this is an insufficient diagnosis. “It’s a virus” is a medical diagnosis but it matters quite a bit which virus. Much as medical treatment will take different routes depending on the species of viral infection our attempts to grow spiritually will probably benefit from a more careful diagnosis of our trust issues.

The Nature of the Church

November 10, 2014
by

I have never had anyone say, “Hey, let’s get coffee and talk about ecclesiology.” I’ve never been part of a church that said, “You know, we should run an ecclesiology class because a lot of people are really interested in that.” I’ve heard people wonder aloud what ecclesiology is (the study of the church) and why anyone would care.

Ecclesiology is very important. In the last two articles I’ve discussed ecclesiology. While I’ve never had anyone ask to discuss ecclesiology I’ve had a lot of people discuss it under other names – “Do you think the new membership system makes sense?” “Is our leadership system Biblical?” “I think so-and-so overstepped their bounds when they did that, don’t you?” Bad ecclesiology helps keep bad leaders in place. If you as a leader do X terribly you need only claim that the church is really about Y and so how you do X is mostly irrelevant. Alternatively, you can claim far-reaching authority that allows you to tell anyone to do basically anything and to respond to any challenge as a challenge to God Himself. One of the most visible things Christians do is church and so thinking about church should be a priority.

So what could the church do? A short list of the simpler possibilities might help clarify our thinking.

  • The church could be a teaching institution.
    1. This can be further subdivided into a teaching institution aimed at teaching outsiders (evangelism) or insiders.
  • The church could be a support network.
  • The church could be a charitable organization (this could also be tied to evangelism).
  • The church could be a temple in which worship occurs because God is especially present there (or because God has mandated that certain acts of worship occur in that space). The key here is that this explains communal worship – all Christians agree that worship is important, the question is why one would go to church to do it.

One reason I target the simpler possibilities is that when people go wrong about the church they most frequently reduce everything the church is to a single, simple axis. The simpler possibilities are also easy to trace to some sort of direct consequence or prediction. For instance, if the church is basically a teaching institution for insiders then it’s a university. In fact, church would be seminary, just done poorly and without any possibility of graduating.

If we run through the other options I’ve suggested we see similar issues. If the church is about evangelism then Sunday services aren’t particularly helpful and neither are Bible Studies. In fact, the church should mostly meet to assign people to run activities that would attract people or to engage with people in different parts of the local area. If the church is basically a support network we don’t need sermons, communion, or any actual study of the Bible. Coffee hour, however, would be critical and small groups (which might read the Bible only for uplifting thoughts) would be central. If the church is a charitable organization it’s just an NGO and there are clearly differences between a well-run NGO and a church. If the church is a temple then there’s no sense in Bible Studies (or any other small group) or any need to support one another or help outsiders.

Each of these extremes tends to attract different groups of Christians. Most of the people I know who veer towards option #1 are Reformed. Most of those who assume that #2 is what the church does are theological liberals, although they and my Anabaptist friends might also pick #3. #4 isn’t so popular amongst Protestants but it accounts for a lot of casual attendance in Catholic and Orthodox communities – get in, get the Eucharist, and you’ve done what God asked.

However, many people are smart enough to assume that any attempt to pick just one of these options is a bit silly. When I hear these sorts of simplistic mistakes being made they are often in a slightly different form: the church’s real purpose is X, but it does all these other things because they contribute to X. So, for example, the church is really about evangelism but it has a support network because outsiders will be attracted to a supportive community, it has Bible Studies because studying the Bible will make you a better evangelist, and it worships God together because this allows a supportive community, effective teaching for evangelism, and coordination of outreach. While this is better than attempting to pare away all activities deemed “non-essential” it seems to work partly backwards, trying to justify traditional church activities even when they don’t make much sense given what else you’ve claimed about the purpose of the church. I would actually find it a lot more sensible to work entirely backwards: we know what the church does, can we use that to figure out what its purpose is?

Of course, I’ve also framed this question as “what does the church do?” I do this because this is often what I’m asked, or the implicit question to which I am told the answer. The church is the thing that does X. However, I strongly suspect that the church doesn’t do, that instead the church merely is. Specifically, that the church is a community of God’s people. God’s people do things, of course, and they may arrange to do these things corporately, but the church’s purpose isn’t to do these things but merely to be a community in which God’s people work on acting like God’s people. This explains the teaching about God, the supporting of one another, the outreach towards outsiders, and the worship in community.

The first time I had to think seriously about ecclesiology was when the church I was part of decided that it would split into several locations and that one pastor would send sermons via video to the locations that he wasn’t physically located at. This decision seemed somewhat odd to me then and just plain stupid to me now, but figuring out why required asking all of these questions I have been reviewing. What was the church? If the different locations were one church was it sufficient that we were tied together by the same sermon? Didn’t that indicate that the church was mostly about teaching? If so, why couldn’t I have the sermon webcast to me at home? Or, more tellingly, if we were distributing the sermon because of its quality why couldn’t I stay home and watch or listen to sermons from some of the best preachers alive today?

Of course, as with so many things I think that the reason most people and churches adopt the models that they do is because they haven’t thought about them in depth. Something seems familiar or looks like it would streamline something and so people do it. But what we do in church and what we say the church is says something about what we think the faith is. If you ran across a supposedly-Christian church that wouldn’t talk about Jesus in church you would rapidly conclude that whatever religion was being practiced in that church it wasn’t anything like orthodox Christianity. The practice of the church would have said something about the nature of the faith. Similarly, a church that never gave to the poor would say something about the nature of that church’s faith. While these examples are easy to follow because they are extreme there are plenty of less-extreme examples as well. Each of the option I initially provided links to an idea of what the faith is about. For instance, if the church is about teaching then the faith is a body of knowledge. What we do in church comments on our faith. We should pay careful attention, then, to ecclesiology.

The Nature of the Faith

November 3, 2014
by

Two weeks ago I discussed the nature of Scripture with specific reference to the scriptures of other religions. The basic idea that there may be a range of functions that a body of sacred writings can fulfill is workably demonstrated by pointing to other religions. However, these examples are marred by two problems: first, few people are familiar enough with more than one religion to easily characterize how various religions act towards their sacred texts. Second, since my intended audience is Christian, I have to assume that most of my audience will understand other religions through a Christian-tinted lens. If you don’t know how Shinto, say, uses its sacred texts but you are familiar with how Baptists read the Bible you’re likely to unknowingly and unconsciously assume that Shintoism has some sort of Shinto Bible (not true). Given this, I began to think of how else to represent the range of functions a central text could have. This, in turn, opened up several interesting paths to follow in thinking about reading the Bible.

I restricted myself to central texts because it’s obvious that the Bible is a central text. One could have a large body of rather miscellaneous texts that aren’t clearly agreed upon, which nobody reads all of, and which some people ignore altogether but that would not be a useful analogy for the Bible. However, one can have very important central texts that vary widely in their function. To illustrate this imagine two disciplines: the 500-meter sprint and the history of Vietnam in the second century BC. Let us imagine that both have a central text – that there is a single volume that every serious 500-meter sprinter knows contains the best and most comprehensive material concerning the 500-meter sprint and that there is a similar work for the history of second-century Vietnam.

There are some obvious and immediate differences between how these texts will be treated. The history text is the very essence of the discipline – the discipline is a body of knowledge and the collection of that knowledge into a book makes that book the central item in the discipline. If such a book existed for the history of second-century Vietnam no one could do serious work in that discipline without engaging with that book. If the book was authored by a few people rather than being a collection of works by dozens of already-recognized experts those few authors would attain great status in their field by authoring such a work.

Compare this to the hypothetical central text of the 500-meter sprint. The essence of the 500-meter sprint is the act of sprinting for 500 meters. The book neither sprints nor causes people to sprint and is therefore much more on the sidelines. Someone who reads the book or even someone who rigorously tests its claims and extends its methods may still be a terrible sprinter and there may be excellent, world-class sprinters who have never read the book. Authoring the book would be a nice addition to one’s resume but not nearly as impressive as being or training a world-class sprinter.

This is the difference between a field which is centered on a body of knowledge and a field that is centered on the accomplishment of some task. To illustrate this difference more starkly let us consider the illiterate historian and the illiterate sprinter: one is a joke and the other perfectly plausible. But what about the illiterate Christian? Is Christianity a body of knowledge or a thing that one does? (Most people will say that it isn’t exactly either but where does the balance lie?)

Without answering this question let me turn to a question I raised last week: what is the nature of the Church (or of the local churches)? If Christianity is a body of knowledge this is an easy question to answer: churches are universities in which one is taught the body of knowledge that comprises Christianity. The sermon is central and serves primarily to teach (not to inspire any sort of emotion) and the rest of the service is less important. The character of the preacher is also largely unimportant unless it interferes with preaching and learning. So, for instance, a preacher who cannot focus long enough to really ponder a section of text would be more of a problem than a preacher who was mentally sharp and focused but also a jerk. (It does matter whether a student connects emotionally with a teacher but much less so than it does in the case of a client connecting with a counselor. So while no possible role for a minister allows one to be a jerk without consequence in some roles the penalty for such behavior is lower.) In this hypothetical church good works are also relatively unimportant. While it might be odd to have people who claimed to believe that God loves everyone but never gave to the poor what would be important was the intellectual assent to the proposition that God loves everyone and not the actions.

Most people will reject this idea of the Church (although parts of it lie very close to the evangelical standard, especially when it comes to the intellectual frameworks by which people explain how churches function). Given this there are two options: assume that since this is not how churches should be run that Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge or assume that since Christianity is mostly a body of knowledge then objections to running churches this way are groundless. While the second option is often thought to represent clear, logical thought because it prioritizes theory over current practice it is actually guilty of a major logical mistake. We are not without evidence of how churches were run in the New Testament (nor are we without the qualifications for church leaders in that era). While working from general principles is fine when there is no other data to work with the data we actually have from the Bible tells us that this hypothetical church focused entirely on knowledge is not what the apostles created. When data contradicts theory theory loses.

This circles us back to the original idea through several steps. If Christianity were mostly a body of knowledge (like history, chemistry, biology, or mathematics) the institutions of Christianity (the churches) would function in a way that doesn’t match what the apostles set up. (Incidentally, my examples of bodies of knowledge illustrate the reason I think so many Christians think of Christianity as a body of knowledge – science and math are “serious” and so Christians trying to insist that what they think about is also serious unconsciously mimic “serious” disciplines.) Therefore the apostles were either unclear on what Christianity was (have fun with trying to make that claim!) or Christianity is not mostly a body of knowledge. If Christianity is not primarily a body of knowledge how do we relate to its central texts?

Let’s return to the illiterate Christians I asked about several paragraphs back. How much of the Bible do they need to have someone read to them or explain to them to be good Christians? Would it be possible for a kind, wise, illiterate Christian who couldn’t tell anything more than the basic plotline of the Bible to “out-Christian” a Christian who was so learned that he read the Bible in the original languages and wrote commentaries on theology? I think the answer is yes – many of the early Christians were illiterate and yet when we find pastoral letters to these communities they rarely say, “Learn more Bible stories.” Instead, many of them are focused on behavior.

Now, before someone claims that I’m working around to disregarding the Bible let me point out that when someone like Paul says, “Do X,” (say “include the Gentiles”) they do so by drawing on theology (“because God’s Messiah was always meant to draw the nations to God”). Unlike the 500-meter sprint the doing part of Christianity stems from a body of knowledge that isn’t accessible without spending some time learning in a more “organized” sense than practice. This does make the theology that we draw from the Bible very important – but important in a different way than the knowledge I draw from a mathematics textbook is to math.

It is not easy to think through and explain all the ways this might change the way we view Scripture but I think one easy application is close at hand: there is no reason to learn theology or the Bible just to learn it. Being able to quote chapter and verse of every one of the Gospels is pointless if it doesn’t translate into being transformed by those books. This isn’t a way to say, “You don’t really know the Gospels if you don’t ‘do’ the Gospels,” but exactly what it sounds like: nobody should care if you know the Gospels if you don’t do them. It’s nice that you read a 300-page book on running but if watching the Boston Marathon on TV makes your legs hurt you need to do more than read. Ideally one reads a book on running in order to run better. Similarly, one should read the Bible in order to do God’s will better.

Harboring Rotten Eggs

October 28, 2014
by

This blog is a hard place to follow breaking news. With a fixed update schedule (that I frequently don’t quite hit) it’s hard to respond immediately to a piece of news that I think is worth commenting on. However, there have been some interesting changes in the world of American Evangelical Protestantism in the last few months. These changes involve a pastor named Mark Driscoll. Driscoll founded the Acts 29 church-planting network, a network that kicked him and his church out in early August. He was also the founder and senior pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, a position that he no longer holds as of October 14th.

What makes Driscoll’s fall more interesting than the usual sort of fall from grace is how it occurred. Often when a celebrity pastor is fired or forced to resign it is directly linked to a specific incident – adultery, a financial scandal, or something of the sort. The incident becomes news and in direct reaction the pastor is disciplined. However, in Driscoll’s case there is no clear incident. Yes, Driscoll was accused of plagiarism (without, apparently, much effect) in late 2013. Yes, he weathered a storm earlier this year when it became clear that his church spent a lot of money to get his new book on a bestseller list. However, these incidents were over for months by the time Acts 29 acted against Driscoll. What appears to have actually brought him down were complaints about his abusive, autocratic leadership style. However, there have been complaints about this for years.

I suspect that within a few months Driscoll will have more or less fallen off the edge of the evangelical world. Already a number of evangelical leaders and groups seem to have decided that the “neutral” position on Driscoll is to dissociate from him. As more scrutiny has been brought to bear on his church more unpleasant things are turning up (including what may be the start of some major financial scandals) and I suspect that there is simply no fast turn-around for Driscoll after this. However, the people who have disowned Driscoll now will have trouble answering why they didn’t disown him last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. There’s no sharp line between now and then, just a slowly-cracking dam of public opinion that has finally let go.

This is what makes Driscoll an interesting case. (Disclaimer: I also find Driscoll interesting because I once attended a church that thought he was pretty cool. This is one reason I left that church. However, I’m interested in a lot of random things that don’t become articles on this blog.) It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that many evangelical leaders supported a bad leader for a long time. Many, many people (including myself) are entirely unsurprised that Driscoll ended up this way. We’ve been predicting this for years and see it as a natural conclusion to a ministry marked by arrogance, condescension, and just generally acting more like a schoolyard bully than a pastor. Why, given all of this, was Driscoll tolerated for so long? Can we learn anything useful from this to avoid giving safe harbor to another such leader? Can we figure out rules that let us figure out when the naysayers have a case and when they don’t?

Why was Driscoll tolerated for so long? The first reason is Christian charity. Few Christians want to believe that other Christians are unpleasant people without good evidence. Even when (as was the case for Driscoll) some of the incidents of unpleasantness are extremely public Christians often embrace the possibility of reform. Indeed, Driscoll was supposedly undergoing a period in which he was supposed to be working on his issues. Acts 29 claimed that insufficient progress had been made when they separated themselves from him but there’s reason to think that lots of people wanted to see Driscoll work through these issues. For a lot of groups at the fringe of this conflict this is probably a fine reason. Does a Christian bookstore want to refuse to sell the books of a pastor just because they bring about some controversy? Probably not – everyone interesting stirs up controversy. However, there are some real limits to how charitable people are willing to be in the face of repeated offenses.

The second reason is a siege mentality. The people who clung on to Driscoll the longest (besides the groups he had actually founded) were the people closest to his theology. Now, it’s common enough that if someone shares your views but acts like a jerk that you take pains to distance yourself from them. This changes, though, when you are hard-pressed and need every ally you can find. Driscoll was happy to ally himself to both Calvinist and complementarian camps and it’s hard for anyone to turn aside a willing ally. Complementarians, especially, tend to feel under intellectual siege (not without warrant). However, the power of Christianity comes from doing right. If Christians embrace wrongdoers as allies of convenience (something that happens almost inevitably when Christians get into politics) we lose much of our power.

The third reason is the most interesting to me – a vast oversimplification of Christianity and the church. This oversimplification comes about in part through the sorts of mechanisms I discussed in my last article where the church absorbs ideas from its environment without really processing them. In fact, Driscoll or one of his assistants appears to have directly borrowed a number of corporate buzzwords to discuss running the church.

The simplification runs like this: Christianity exists to spread itself. The core of Christianity is the gospel, which consists of a few short sentences about Jesus saving you by dying for your sins. The purpose of the church is to facilitate the spread of Christianity. The outcome of this simplification is simple: if someone is saying the correct few sentences about Jesus dying for your sins they are preaching the gospel (which is tantamount to saying that they can’t be accused of teaching bizarre fallacies – to do so would be to focus on “non-essential matters” when said teacher is getting the core issues right). If someone is saying the correct sentences and their church is growing they are doing the Lord’s work and the Lord’s work is even more or less measurable by doing a headcount of the congregation (with some awareness that demographic factors play into congregation size).

This simplification worked really well for Driscoll. He said the correct sentences and his church grew very large very fast. There’s also something to be said for part of the simplification – we don’t want to allow ourselves to get too bogged down in non-essentials. However, there’s a lot wrong with this simplification.

There’s another thing in the news that exists only to spread itself: Ebola. Is Christianity just a viral idea? Under this simplification it more or less is. Like real viruses once one has caught Christianity the rest seems to happen by itself. Unlike Ebola “the rest” doesn’t seem to involve a lot of life change. However, that’s not Christianity in any orthodox sense. Christianity is supposed to change your life. The Church is supposed to be the place where that happens. It’s actually unclear in the New Testament whether evangelism is a church activity or the activity of solo Christians who are supported by the church. What is clear is that spiritual growth is supposed to happen within the church. Indeed, spiritual growth is essential to good evangelism – the next set of evangelists will need to have “grown up” spiritually. Most Christian can think of large churches that don’t teach correct doctrine and so are in theory aware that proper spiritual development is a necessary follow-up on conversion. This leads naturally to the next issue – is it actually sufficient to preach a short “core” gospel?

The short answer is “no”. Mark wrote the shortest of the gospels and it’s sixteen chapters. None of the Epistles manages to give only the “core” gospel. This whole idea appears to be modern marketing applied to the Bible – and the “core” is often phrased in such a way that it actually draws on some specifically Protestant ideas about the mechanics of salvation. However, leaving aside the fact that it is not sufficient to preach this core and this core alone (and that it’s not really the core anyway but parts of the core with some additional speculation about divine mechanics thrown in) would preaching this core be a sufficient defense against charges of doctrinal weirdness? Of course not. If I preached this core and also sacrificial worship to the old Aztec gods the presence of these core beliefs would not make this entire message the gospel. Much of the worry about Driscoll’s teaching takes this form. For instance, Driscoll made being a Godly man (emphasis on “man”) a major focus of his teaching. (He also pulled ideas of what it means to be a man from an era centuries after the New Testament – would that all I had to criticize was his terrible scholarship.) One primary objection to this teaching was that Driscoll’s idea of a Godly man was actually just a macho misogynist. However, many people attempted to claim that as long as Driscoll was also teaching “the gospel” it was effectively unfair to bring this up.

Of all the reasons Christians can harbor bad leaders it’s this last one – simplifying the life out of our theology and ecclesiology – that worries me the most. Sure, we need to think about who we’re being charitable to when we are charitable to leaders to make sure that we aren’t simultaneously uncharitable to the badly-led. And yes, the Christian siege mentality and the willingness to accept offers of aid from all sorts of bad characters is a real problem. However, if we fundamentally rewrite what it means to be the Church and to preach God’s word so that it allows bad leaders to flourish and claim to be doing good work then the rest hardly matters. There won’t be anything to rescue from the other problems.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers