Saturday, April 28, 2007

“Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow

I remember when my wife and I met again after college. I was back in Nebraska for a year between graduate degrees, and formed a book-reading group with the manager at a local Christian bookstore. He invited some of his friends, I invited some of mine. He invited mainly women, I invited all guys. His friends came to socialize over a book, my friends came to manhandle the book, ripping into it to see how good the argument was. Naturally, the two groups mixed like oil and water. (Being a woman of uncommon discernment, Meg nonetheless grew to love me, although not until after a few related trials.)

I’ve always suspected that my experience with the book-reading group resulted mainly from the gender differences between the two subgroups. So I sympathize with the basic claim that one reason men don’t go to church in the same proportion as women is because the church has become feminized. The thing is, I don’t think that the solution is to re-masculinize the church (assuming that it was a one point "more" masculine), I think the solution is to be a biblical church.

But that probably doesn’t say enough. After all, a lot of practices are adiaphora, so simply saying that worship should be biblical is probably not enough to stop cooing soft-rock "worship" songs with verses like, “I need you, I love you.” So there have to be practical judgments made.

David Murrow argues that the church needs to make men feel more comfortable in order to induce them to come. As I said, I sympathize with much of his argument, but I am also uncomfortable with much of his argument. One distinction I think that he really should have made is the distinction between giving men what we ­want and giving men what we need.

For example, like the average guy in Murrow’s book, I don’t in general like hugging people, and have a particularly extended sense of personal space. If left up to me and my wants, I wouldn’t have changed. My wife changed some of that, but it was my son who dealt with it most severely. For some reason he bonded primarily with me, and was always touching me and wanting to be held. It drove me crazy early on. But he was a persistent (and stubborn) baby. He forced me to adjust my (overextended) sense of personal space. I think that was a good thing for me; something that needed to happen, even though I didn’t want it to happen.

The Christian men I work with in prison hug a lot, too. I think this is a good thing, effectively a “greet each other with a holy kiss,” as Paul and Peter commanded us five times in their epistles. It took a while for me to get used to that as well, but now it seems a bit cold to me in church on Sundays just to shake hands with other people.

Murrow makes a lot of suggestions based on what he admits are generalizations about differences between men and women. I do think that he makes some good points in the sense of making the reader think about the topic. Nonetheless, just as he fails to distinguish between giving men what they want versus what the need, he also fails to draw the critical distinction between “men” and between “American men.” For example, he says flatly that men don’t like to sing. Obviously Murrow has never sat in a beer garden in Germany. I’ve seen groups of the manliest of men spontaneously break out into song in German bars. It seemed weird to me, but it didn’t seem weird to the Germans. He even gets American men significantly wrong on occasion. He says flat out that men don’t like “ceremony.” Yet I dare say there is no institution in the U.S. with more ceremony than the military (even before it was gender integrated).

That being said, I think Murrow broad argument merits attention. Paul gave the Corinthian church the imperative to “stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Co 15.13). So there is positive content for Christian men to aspire to “act like men.” Just what this is, however, is the question. I think that Murrow gets some of it right – for example, to stop asking so little of Christians. (As a former pastor of mine characterized too many worship services: “a mild-mannered person telling mild-mannered people to become more mild mannered”).

At the same time, Murrow seems to me to get a lot of it wrong, insisting that the church conform to whatever it is that men want to do. At the end of the book he points to men who reject the "organized" church altogether, although, ostensibly, they do not reject Christianity. Murrow writes: “Will we accept these men as our brothers in Christ, even though they don’t partake in church sacraments or participate in organized Christian ritual?” (p. 228). Well, there’s more at stake in this question than whether we’re willing to “accept” men who reject the sacramental means of grace that Christ instituted and who reject gathering together with the church that he established.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Prison Volunteers and the "Outside" Church

I’ve noticed a tendency among prison volunteers to sneer at the church “outside,” and to prefer the church “inside.” (This refers to the church "outside" prison walls and "inside" prison walls.) While I completely reject it, it is in some ways understandable, although for the most part I think it results from illusion.

First, on the positive side. I don’t have a huge sample size, but I’ve visited maybe eight prisons in Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas as a prison volunteer. All of those prisons had what I would characterize as a vibrant church on the “inside.” By that I mean several things.

First, “he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Lk 7.47), and he who is forgiven much, loves much. Many Christian inmates particularly recognize that they have been forgiven much. Many can detail desperate lives of sin before receiving Christ's grace. As a result, like the woman Jesus spoke of to the Pharisee, they love much in return, and they are often very open about it. Christians on the outside often have not been forced to face their own sinfulness in as dramatic fashion as prisoners have. On balance, I’d say that Christian inmates express a deeper, more desperate, love of Christ than Christians on the outside. As a result, volunteers often find Christian inmates overall more vibrant and expressive than Christians in outside churches.

Secondly, in my (limited) experience, worship in prison churches often reflects the worship of African-American and Pentecostal churches. Loud singing (1 Chr 15.16), hand clapping (Ps 47.1), hands raised (Ps 141.2), shouts of exaltation (Ps 47.1), and etc. Volunteers often compare this favorably to the quieter, often more sedate, worship in their own churches. I personally love worship services that follow ancient liturgical patterns, and in which Psalms are chanted and the pastor sings the liturgy responsively with the congregation. That being said, the Psalmist says “oh clap your hands all ye people,” and “lift your hands to the Lord,” and “shout to the Lord” and etc. I find little wrong, in principle, with loud, rocking worship services. They seem an honest way to express the joy of receiving Christ's forgiveness.

These two things seem most often to be the attractors of the prison church. On the negative side regarding the outside church, prison volunteers often express frustration at the lack of interest in prison (and other “Matthew 25”) ministries in their churches. They often take that as a sign of spiritual weakness. Volunteers can sometimes have a holier-than-thou attitude as a result of what they do and what most others in their churches do not do. This is unattractive no matter the reason.

In any event, I understand the attraction of the inside church. Nonetheless, I get very irritated with fellow volunteers who sneer at the outside church as being something less than the church on the inside. I take issue on several accounts.

First, in some ways it’s easier to love prisoners because they’re so needy. In some ways it’s more difficult to love the prickly church lady down the pew. But I don’t really see that we have a choice. Indeed, perhaps this falls into the category of “loving those who love you.” The guys inside are usually very expressive of their appreciation for volunteers who come in to fellowship, worship and study with them. I dare say that if the outside church expressed that much appreciation to every person who walked through its doors, that many of us would feel very warm toward our outside churches as well.

Secondly, the context in which volunteers interact with prisoners is typically very artificial. The fact is that no prison volunteer that I’ve ever met has 24-7 access to the inside church. Instead, we usually spend a couple of hours a week with the guys. The guys typically look forward to the volunteers’ visits. I’ve had a number say that when they interact with outside volunteers, they forget, for a while at least, that they’re in prison. So the guys are usually on their best behavior with the volunteers. I very much appreciate this, but then it makes the guys easy to love. It’s quite another thing to live with the irritating habits of your Christian “celly” (i.e., the guy you share your prison cell with) and respond continually in love. On the other hand, on the outside, we interact with Christians who are not on their best behavior when we see them. Further, it’s a definite reality check that many, if not most, of even the “strongest” Christian inmates will return to prison within a few years after their release.

Finally, and most importantly, Christ died for the church, both for Christians inside and outside. No Christian has a right to despise one part of the church which Christ died to save. If it is harder to love the church on the outside, so be it, we have no choice but to do so, for “by this the world will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Christology and God's Impassibility

Here's a question I wondered about as I read Donald Davis's book, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. A major starting point in the Christological debates motivating the councils was God's "impassibility," meaning that God does not, and cannot, suffer. (And, more generally, that God does not have emotions or "passions." In the book, it seemed to me that impassibility was also used to refer to the fact that God could not die, but I'm not sure whether my impression is correct or not.) Importantly, both orthodox and heterodox theologians and pastors agreed that impassibility is one of God's attributes.

That being said, an overemphasis on this attribute seems to have lead to many of the opinions rejected as heterodox: Given the centrality of the cross, and the suffering and death of Jesus, if God is understood to be impassible, then it does seem to raise a puzzle about how it is that Jesus who suffers and dies is or can also be God.

While orthodox theologians seem always also to have affirmed God's impassibility, I do wonder a bit whether the commitment to this attribute, or how it is understood, is mainly an import from Greek philosophy, and the division between rationality and passion. I see no reason from the Scriptures that "passion" should be identified wholly with the fallen world, and so I don't necessarily understand why we should think that God is without emotion (even when the Scriptures ascribe emotion) or that God does not suffer. To be sure, I would not identify what an eternal being feels with what a human feels, but I'm a little reluctant to write off scriptural predication as mere personification.

I'm not criticizing, mind you, I guess that I just don't entirely understand what rises or falls on insisting that God is impassible, or what we gain theologically from affirming the proposition that God is impassible. (I'd certainly affirm that God suffers only at his discretion. But that this is part of his glory -- that he condescended to suffer for his creation.)

Secondly, I wonder if I've been affirming an error. Drawing on Gn 15.17, where the theophany passes between the animal parts, by which God thereby takies the self-maledictory oath upon himself, I've been thinking in recent years that God took the curse unto himself on the cross, in a way that even the Father suffered (although I would never say that the Father suffered "on" the cross).

Here's what I mean: The curse of the self-maledictory oath in Gn 15.17 is separation -- literally to be split in two, food for the scavenging birds. Consistent with this, I then wonder whether when we say that Christ takes the curse upon himself, that, on the cross, God the Son is somehow separated from God the Father. There is, as it were, a rupture in the Godhead because God takes the curse into himself because he so loves humanity.

This rupture cannot only injure Jesus, because God the Father is in as close relationship to God the Son as God the Son is in fellowship with God the Father. So whatever causes God the Son to suffer must also cause God the Father (and the Spirit) to suffer as well. As death is separation, then God very truly dies in the crucifixion (although only the Son dies on the cross); God suffers for his creation.

As I understand it, there seem to be (at least) two problems with this. First, if God is impassible, then neither God the Son nor God the Father can suffer. That would seem immediately to short circuit the argument above.

Secondly, although relatedly, another possible problem with my view is that it pushes the consubstantiality of divine and human nature in the one person of Jesus too far, by pushing the suffering of Jesus' human nature into the Godhead. To be honest, though, I've never quite understood when it is proper to predicate attributes of Christ's divine or human nature to his entire person, or to ascribe attributes of one nature to both nature (as in calling Mary the theotokos, or in saying that God bleeds, Acts 20.28, or that God died on the cross, etc.). I'm not disputing them, rather, I don't understand the assignment rule that tells when that sort of predication is permissible and when it's impermissible.

And, finally, even if the two points above aren't really problems, then I wonder if I'm on thin ice by predicating suffering on the part of the Father as a result of the rupture in fellowship with Jesus (and particularly, in predicating a rupture in the Godhead, however understood).

So I don't know. Usually I stay away from Christology because it seems like a minefield, and even the orthodox arguments make my head swim (which is why I'm largely happy just to receive the conclusions of the councils). Perhaps I've unwittingly stumbled into the minefield in spite of my best intentions.

What prompts the move is my interest in understand the cross as a monotheistic event as well as a trinitarian event. But maybe this sort of parsing is best left to the experts. ("Don't attempt Christology at home . . .)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Israel as a "cordon sanitaire" -- A good thing in the OT; a bad thing in the NT

I'm just thinking out loud in this post, hypothesizing. The argument is not very clean right now. I'm hoping that writing it would will help me think through some of the issues. I don't intend the argument to be original, I'm just trying to think through some implications. The argument also is not intended to be exhaustive.

Here's the claim I'm thinking about: Nothing about Israel's basic vocation changed in the move from the Old to the New Testament. Given the planned obsolescence of the Law (which I take to be the extended argument of the book of Hebrews, but also a major argument throughout much of Paul), this barrier was a good thing in the OT but a bad thing in the NT. A major line of argument in Jesus and Paul aims to persuade Israel that the fulfillment had come in Jesus, i.e., Jesus' mission fulfills the law and thereby is creates its obsolescence, and so it was the appropriate time for Israel to give up being a barrier between God and the world. Part of Israel resisted giving up their traditional vocation; Jesus told them that God would remove their barrier one way or the other.

First, Israel served as a barrier between God and the world in the Old Testament, and that was a good thing. Because Israel served as a sort of cordon sanitaire, it meant that the world survived and would not be ended by God's judgment. God could tabernacle with fallen men (in the holy of holies), yet the world would continue, in spite of being fallen. To be sure, Israel had to do the "works of the law" in order to live (Gal 3.12) -- obedience when possible; sacrifice for disobedience -- but nonetheless, Israel had real, albeit, limited fellowship with God. This priestly nation then mediated God's grace to the world, serving to protect an unrighteous world from destruction from the unmediated presence of God.

Then Jesus comes -- God incarnate -- and tabernacles with humanity himself. In him, the barrier is removed; God now fellowships with humanity (Mt 27.51, Heb 4.14). This does not cause the world's destruction because God in Christ has assumed humanity's judgment. God has redeemed his promise to Abraham, that Abraham's seed would bless the nations.

Some in Israel opposed this. Some didn't want to give up their special relationship with God, perhaps out of pride; others may not have recognized that the Law's vocation was historically contingent; others rejected Jesus as the One who would fulfill the promise to Abraham, and thereby perforate the cordon sanitaire that Israel and the Law created. That Israel were also children of Adam as well as children of Abraham did not make this task any easier. So many opposed Jesus' mission to fulfill the law, and to fulfill Israel's mission, in himself. Some opposed it so vehemently, that they wanted Jesus dead. (In the greatest of ironies, their move to kill Jesus, and his consequent death, was the very event that perforated the Law, accomplishing precisely the opposite of what Jesus' opponents sought to accomplish by his death, 1 Co 2.8.) Jesus warns Israel over and over again, that they have constituted themselves a barrier to the movement of God's grace outward to the world. Israel could either deconstruct the barrier themselves, by aligning themselves with God's messiah, or God would remove the barrier himself.

Nonetheless, the Law is not, and was not, bad in any overall sense, and God's attitude toward the Law did not change. Rather, circumstances changed as a result of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Communion of Saints

Protestants don't talk much about "the communion of saints"; Roman Catholics seem to focus only on it meaning that we commune with dead saints.

I take it primarily as a summary statement of the communion we have with one another in the church (and specifically in the visible, local church). As in Paul's comment in Ro 12.5, "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."

Paul here seems to teach that we're not just all individually united with Christ, but that we're united with one another as well. Because we are united vertically with Christ, therefore we are united horizontally with one another. Therefore we rejoice when another rejoices, we weep when another weeps, & etc.

This "communion" seems to me to answer how it is that those who leave "house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for my sake and for the gospel's sake . . . shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the world to come, eternal life" (Mk 10.29-30). We receive a hundred times as much because we are united with Christ's body, which is to say in being with Christ we are united with all others who are united with Christ. As a result, we have what they have, and so we gain hundreds more of what we left.

Jesus seems to say that the expression of our communion with one another is one means by which the world recognizes us as his disciples: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13.34-35).

I don't want to go all misty-eyed here, but my sense is that the church -- and local churches in particular -- really need to ratchet up this aspect of their life together in Christ, both for their own good (and just to "be" the church that Christ intends us to be), but also in order to speak to non-Christians (and nominal Christians) in this age. While I gag at the phrase "authentic community" -- the existence of "authentic community" seems inverse to the number of times the phrase is invoked -- I do think that striving better to live out "the communion of saints" in our churches is one way that the Spirit can use to show Christ to those who are alienated from God.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


One thing I did again wonder about while reading The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787) was why "middle" ground seemed so absent in the Iconoclastic dispute that resulted in the Seventh Ecumenical council.

On the one hand, there were the iconophiles who thought we should reverence (but not worship) the pictorial images of Jesus, Mary, other saints & etc. On the other hand, the iconoclasts argued that even making the images and having them as art in churches was wrong.

I always wondered where "my" position was in this dispute: that there's nothing wrong with making the pictures, but that we're not authorized to reverence them. (Although, my position "may" be that the line between reverencing and worshipping an image is so fine, that as a pastoral matter we should avoid it.) I don't have the book with me now, but as I recall, the council insisted that it's appropriate to reverence the images; so I'm pretty sure that it condemns my "middle" view as well.

One other note on this: As I understand it, the iconoclasts all insisted to a person that the only authorized image of Jesus Christ that we could reverence is the Eucharist. I had a discussion some months ago about the real presence and reverencing the Supper. I noted that someone had said that you can tell whether a person believes in the real presence by whether they reverence the Supper. My friend argued that that was just like reverencing images, and so was idolatry. I responded that it's not idolatry if Jesus is really present. We're not bowing to the bread and the wine, we're bowing to Jesus who really inhabits the bread and the wine.

I thought it was telling in Davis's book that the original iconoclasts expressly excepted the Supper from their argument -- indeed, the authorized image in the Supper was the point of contrast for the iconoclasts because Christ was truly present in the Supper, while man-made images do not share his real presence. My friend's iconoclasm was so extreme that it would have been condemned by the iconoclasts themselves.

Early Christology

Continuing to work my way through Wayne's book list, I read Leo Donald Davis's book, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. I don't have much to say about the book itself, I don't know that much about the era. The councils' doctrinal content are largely consumed by Christological controversies. One can perhaps see the hand of providence working in how these very political councils nonetheless seemed largely to reach the "right" result.

From what little I know, the councils do seem to fit the pattern of defining orthodoxy against an assertive heterodoxy. That is, the orthodox position was left largely unsystematized and was developed only in response to the assertion of heretical opinions.

A few weeks ago I again read through the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, a very early pastor, who wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom in the early second century (circa 110 A.D., as I recall). I plan to blog more on his letters at some point, but one thing that struck me in his letters is his very high Christology. He unremarkably refers to Jesus as God at a number of points in his letters. While, obviously, this is a very limited sample of early Christian writing, that a bishop could refer so unremarkably in these letters -- not arguing for the claim, but simply assuming it while discussing other things -- seems to me to provide pretty strong evidence that the church had a high Christology pretty much from the start.

Truth be told, the heterodox Christologies have always bored me somewhat. While I completely grant the need for the definitions, it was something of a chore to get through the book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Inaugurated, but not Overrealized, Eschatology

That's the trick, isn't it?

That's the big now/not yet tension. We are saved today, and our new life has begun. But the fullness of that salvation, and the fullness of our new lives in Christ, has yet to be fully manifested.

That's one reason I think it's important to be careful always to point to the Christian's hope being resurrection and the new creation, as opposed to our hope being heaven.

I don't think it's strictly inaccurate to say that our hope is heaven, but it's so incomplete as to invite the Hollywood misinterpretation -- that the Christian hope is eternal life as a disembodied spirit.

In contrast, the Apostle's creed rightly physicalizes our eternal hope, placing the "resurrection of the body" just prior to "life everlasting."

But just as importantly as insisting on an inaugurated eschatology, is not overrealizing it, and pulling in too much of the world to come into this age. And so Christians live in tension in this age, receiving a foretaste of the age to come, but yearning for its fullness.

Jim Jones & Socialism

Last night's PBS series, The American Experience, broadcast a documentary about Jim Jones' "People's Temple." I caught about 30 minutes of the program.

I of course vaguely recall the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. I knew nothing more about Jones or his movement.

I guess I just assumed that Jones was always way off in left field. That's certainly where he ended up, but the program portrayed Jones and his movement as pretty-well connected up to the point that they moved to Guyana.

Jones started in the 60s, reaching out to the poor (particularly to African-Americans), and promoting a version of what he himself called socialism, albeit socialism motivated by Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the mount. Church members pretty much lived communally. When he moved the temple to San Francisco, he provided large numbers of members for demonstrations and electioneering. His assistance apparently proved pivotal in a close election between a liberal mayoral candidate and a conservative mayoral candidate. Upon winning the election, the liberal candidate appointed Jones as chair of the city's Housing Board.

This apparently perked things up a board meetings -- PT members would show up en masse to attend the meetings, standing up when Jones entered the room, and often cheering and applauding when he made a comment. This performance ultimately attracted the attention of the press, which then prompted the wholesale move to Guyana (although the land had be purchased for some time).

Things soon swung out of control in Guyana, as Jones became increasingly paranoid.

The documentary interviewed a number of surviving PT members, including Jones son, Jim Jones, Jr., and the documentary also showed a lot of film or video of Jones preaching in the temple, leading services, speeches & etc. His work was squarely aimed at ministering to oppressed peoples, and his worship services evoked services at many black churches.

I had other things to do, so I stopped watching when they made the move to Guyana. In any event, the show was disturbing enough up to that point, even if the mass suicide didn't occur.

I don't want to make too much out of Jones' left-wing orientation. Still, it was disturbing to see (and hear) Jones appeal to the Sermon on the Mount to justify the extension of control over every facet of his congregants' lives. Further, he preached against setting one's hope in a future heaven. He said that the only heaven that is, is the heaven that they make in the here and now.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Jn 12.26 - "Where I am, there shall my servant also be"

In saying this in Jn 12.26, I "think" Jesus is mainly talking about the cross (Jn 12.32-33). So I'd take this as John's version of the synoptics' "take up your cross and follow me."

More broadly, we find Jesus in Word and sacrament (which is not distinct from finding him on the cross).

But in Mt 25, Jesus also tells us where he is -- he's in the hungry, the thirsty, he's in the stranger and the naked, he's in the sick and the prisoner. Because Jesus is there, "there also shall his servants be."

As I've mentioned before, this also sort of inverts the idea of who's serving whom in Mt 25. If we meet Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and naked, in the sick and in the prisoner, then isn't it us, the "servant" who is in fact receiving from Christ?

"What shall I say, 'Father save me from this hour'?"

Related to my March 1 post, "Heb 5.7 -- Did God the Father Actually say 'Yes' to Jesus’ Gethsemane Prayer?" is Jesus' response Jn 12.27-28:

"Now my soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I came to this hour."

Recall that the traditional view of what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane is that he prayed to be spared the cross. But Jesus dismisses precisely this prayer in John 12. It's a reductio -- how I can I pray to be saved from this hour, since this hour is the purpose for which I came.

Importantly, rejecting the idea that Jesus lost his nerve in Gethsemane and asked the father to be spared the cross (a prayer, according to this view, that the father said "no" to), does not entail therefore that the cross was a cakewalk for him. In Jn 12, Jesus says that his soul is troubled. But he expressly rejects the idea that he would ask the father to save him from the cross.