Monday, September 1, 2014

Is it substantially different from entrepreneurial Christianity among American evangelicals?

Now this from Lucinda Borkett-Jones, China’s plan to nationalise Christian theology | Christian News on Christian Today:
The Chinese government is planning to introduce its own brand of Christian theology, the state-backed China Daily website reported last week.  “The construction of Chinese Christian theology should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture,” Wang Zuoan, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs.
The comments were made at a seminar on the sinicization of Christianity in Shanghai, part of an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National Committee of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), China’s state-run protestant church.
The article announcing the move included information about a five-year campaign to promote Christian theology in China that began in 2013. The campaign “will provide theological guidance for church rostrums in China and will promote the positive and correct theological thinking with a range of publications, exchanges, discussions and evangelism,” the China Daily article said.
“This will encourage more believers to make contributions to the country’s harmonious social progress, cultural prosperity and economic development,” said Gu Mengfei, deputy secretary-general of the National Committee of the TSPM in the same article.  A spokesman from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said: “The emphasis on believers’ contribution to ‘harmonious social progress’ and the need for Christianity to ‘adapt to China’s national condition’ echo past remarks on the role of religion in promoting social harmony and national unity.
“Although Wang did talk in more specific terms about the construction of Chinese Christian theology, it is difficult to predict what this will look like in practice. The main purpose, however, may be to remind Christians that their allegiance is to the country, and the Party, first.”
Now, before you get all up in arms about this, I ask a simple question.  Is this substantially different from the entrepreneurial Christianity practiced among American Evangelicals in which the church is operated like a business, the "gospel" or theology marketed like a product, and the chief evaluator the sales volume or customer base of the church?

Of course, I am NOT suggesting that China's move is good or that it will render a faithful Christianity but I am admitting that this is the path (albeit non-governmental in our case) that a significant segment of American Christianity has chosen.  Even those not included under the category of market driven evangelicalism are not immune from the pressure to look, act, and sound like this force.  Perhaps China has seen that the best way to derail Christianity is to co-opt Christian theology, doctrine, faith, and practice.  Liberal mainline Protestantism and the mega church movement among evangelicals have done a pretty effective job of this so far (apart from governmental interference).  I will not go further that the American penchant to define religious freedom purely as the freedom of worship is not far off from an attempt to do in a democracy what China is doing in a communist oligarchy.  Just something for you to think about. . .

Good Advice. . .

Simplicity in the pulpit, charity in the confessional, and reverence at the altar. . .  Borrowed and amended from St. St Alphonsus de’ Liguori when he was appointed bishop of the small town of St Agata dei Goti in 1762. . .

Good advice, I think.  Simplicity in the pulpit; the pulpit gives no prizes for oratory.  We do not orate.  We preach.  Perhaps that is the problem.  Too many occupants of the pulpit orate, that is, they speak upon their own merits and by their own passion as if by their words they will convince.  Instead preaching acknowledges that we do not speak on our own or on our own authority.  Like Jesus, we are joyfully humble in admitting that the words that I speak are not my own but the Word of God.  We preach not as those whose passion convinces but as those who know the Word of the Lord will not return to Him empty handed but will accomplish the purpose for His sending.  I am not saying to preach simplistically (not children's sermons) but to preach with the simplicity of the Divine Word before, after, and thoroughly intermixed with all that is proclaimed.  I also think that I and most preachers attempt to do too much -- implying that the sermon is the only means of grace and that everything hangs upon the preacher.  Simplicity means not overburdening the sermon with too many points and taking people so many different directions they do not hear Christ and Him crucified.

Charity in the confessional; you are not judge and jury.  We hear the confession of those who come.  It is the very nature of confession that we own our sins with our own voices when we confess them -- out loud.  But we speak them not to invite the judgement of the Pastor.  Rather, we speak them out loud as the penitent who own our sins, who lament them before the Lord, and who believe that He forgives them because of the merits and mercy of Christ.  We speak them out loud and personally admit them so that what may also be spoken out loud and personally to us sinners is the absolution.  I forgive you.  Not some kooky psychology to diagnose and improve me therapeutically but Christ who is the Word who answers my sin with His cross, my shame with His suffering, my guilt with His blood, and my death with His life.  Neither is it some kind of dismissal of my sin as if they were not so bad.  No, the Lord did not suffer so and spill His blood because He could or He should but because my sin demanded it or I would not be free.

Reverence at the altar; we have become the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy while standing upon the holy ground of His presence.  In our effort to throw off the artificial formality of a bygone age, we have become folksy and casual with the House of God and the things of God.  How foolish we are!  Even bidden, we acknowledge this is holy ground on which we have no right to stand except we stand in Christ by baptism and faith.  We are made to feel at home not by making God's House homey.  Rather it is the confidence of why we are standing here and in whose name we stand that we are confident.  Reverence is not stiff or artificial formality but it is the awesome realization of who God is, what Christ has done, and how His Spirit has bidden us come... come and hear.... come and eat... come and rejoice... come and give thanks.  I find it impossible to reconcile the formality and divinely instituted worship of the Temple with the faux informality of the modern worship space with its casual clothes, casual humor, and casual attitude toward the things of God.  Reverence is not a command but the faithful response of those who know what God has done.  “The priest at the altar”, says St Cyprian, “represents the person of Jesus Christ.”  Indeed, it is even more than this.  Christ works through the voice and hands of the Pastor to give His gifts to His people through the means of grace.  Casual???  I don't think so!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

When all else is gone, attention focuses on the Pastor. . .

Strangely enough, those who are uncomfortable with ritual and ceremony, even those who believe in the salutary use of the liturgy, are often suspicious of ritual and ceremony because they think it draws too much attention to the Pastor.  They believe in a liturgical minimalism as an antidote to what they find to be too much of the spotlight upon the Pastor and his actions as president of the Eucharistic assembly.  They tend to think too much is made of art and beauty as well.  There is nothing wrong with them, per se, but there is no real need for these either.

The problem with removing statues is that the Pastor becomes the only statue left.  Remove the art, stained glass, and liturgical painting and the Pastor is the only real imagery left.  Removed the ritual and ceremony and the Pastor is left.  Remove the liturgy and the Pastor is still left.  Remove the lectionary and the whim of the Pastor rules.  In other words, the liturgy with its incumbent ritual and ceremony does not emphasize the Pastor but insulates the people in the pew from the tyranny of worship in which the Pastor is the only focus.  Those who are suspicious of clericalism and those inclined to be wary of the cult of personality should be the folks most in support of ritual and ceremony.

The liturgical "audience" ends up sitting more than it stands or kneels and their role is ever more passive.  Yet that is exactly what happens when we steal the liturgy from the people, when we assign them the role of spectator, and when we deprive them of any participation in the ritual and ceremony that accompanies the liturgy.  The Pastor then becomes the sole center and focus of worship.  When will people awaken to the fact that the liturgy and its ceremonial are NOT enemies of the folks in the pew but their best friends.  The lectionary keeps the people from the whims of the Pastor's interests or favorites.  The liturgy prevents the people from listening to a monologue of the Pastor's humor, story telling, and homespun wisdom.  The ritual and ceremony of the church stops the Pastor from taking the people captive to his own preferences, feelings, and ideas of relevance.  The creeds inoculates the people from the ever present reinvention of the faith by the Pastor.

Honestly, if the people really are wary of the domination of the Pastor, the liturgy, its ceremonial and ritual, the lectionary, and the creeds are your best friends and allies.  Absent all of these, there is nothing left but the Pastor.  Sadly, that is exactly what some people and some Pastors want....

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fluff without much real stuff. . .

It has begun.  The first ordination of a woman as a priest of the Episcopal Church is being recalled with some creative memories.  The fact that the first women ordained were ordained illicitly, without sanction from the ECUSA, and were, in fact, an act not of prophecy but of rebellion has been conveniently overlooked.  The so-called evidence of women serving in the early church is conveniently vague and without serious review as to the circumstance or instance.  The reference to Orthodox ordinations of deacons is likewise non-specific. The reference to "civil rights" is dismissed as an unfair criticism yet the theological justification for the ordination of women is not even mentioned.  Again, God's call must trump Scripture, tradition, and all order or else the work of the Spirit is being stifled.  It is all quite familiar but, like the lies we tell ourselves over and over again, none of it constitutes truth or anything more than a creative view of history -- and then only a short period of history!  Perhaps the most scandalously humorous assertion is that determined historians have provided justification and precedent for such radical action -- determined to be what? anti-history? creatively historical? blind to the clear and unbroken historical witness of Scripture and tradition?  And of course it all ends with the challenge to test the spirits  and see the wonderful fruits that the ordination of women has brought to the ECUSA and to Anglicanism as a whole... Yes, what fruits!  Division, erosion of membership, adoption of GLBT agenda, general doubt or contraction of what Scripture says and tradition affirms with respect to just about everything except a radical social agenda -- all things that also happened during the past forty years of women's ordination.  I do not blame the women for these but surely it is not too far from the truth to tie these all together as a mindset, oblivious to Scripture and tradition, that contributed mightily to the slow and painful death of a once noble church body.

Read it and weep....  or watch it here.....

Friday, August 29, 2014

Awkwardness with ritual. . .

It is not untrue that the reason ritual has suffered is that we are less comfortable with ritual as a whole than we once were.  We are awkward with ritual precisely because we are not sure what to do with it.  We feel the need to announce the rituals we do, to explain what we are doing, and then to interpret what we have done.  All of this destroys the ebb and flow of liturgy in which ritual is essential.

I became aware of this only over time.  Watching the funerals of popes, papal masses on Christmas and Easter, and other large liturgies reported in the news, I heard commentators attempting to do just that -- to announce what was being done on the screen, to explain what was done, and then to interpret it to those unaccustomed to Christian ritual and ceremony.

By its very definition, ritual is repeated action.  Indeed, if we try ritual or ceremony only once or twice or even a half dozen times to see how it feels, to see how it works, or to see how it will go over with the folks in the pews, it is not yet ritual.  Ritual is repeated action -- repeated so often that it is no longer novelty and does not draw undue attention to itself or to us doing it.

Ritual is when you instinctively reach for the light switch even when you know that the electricity is off.  In other words, when the action is so ingrained within you that it no longer is something you think about or even decide to do.  It happens.  For many Lutherans this is the power of the salutation.  The old joke is that when Lutherans first saw Star Wars and heard the line from onscreen "The force be with you" they responded in unison and out loud "and also with you."

In some respects we find Jesus' ritual actions strange to us (such as making a poultice of spit and clay and applying it to the eyes of the blind) because the ritual acts instinctive to His day and culture are no longer repeated among us or familiar and significant to us.

The sign of the cross is for the Christian one of the most instinctive and evocative rituals.  It draws our attention to the Trinity or the cross of Christ but it also had an earlier significance.  In an earlier time the T or tau was associated with Ezekiel 9:4-6 where God command that citizens with a tau on their foreheads and repentance in their hearts be spared His judgment.

Those suspicious of worship have forgotten Romans 12:1-2 where St. Paul ties true spiritual worship to the body -- loving God is not merely a function of the pneuma (spirit) or the nous (mind) but also of the soma (body).  Spirit and truth includes and even implies bodily ritual (present your bodies as living sacrifices).

Our familiarity with ritual happens when the rituals themselves are so familiar to us that they no longer draw attention to themselves but proceed from within us as instinctive gestures that reflect the inward direction of the heart and that which occupies the mind. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Primacy of Relevance. . .

Worship today is the realm of relevance and everything what happens on Sunday morning is the primacy of relevance over doctrine, truth, and the means of grace.  This relevance is achieved through dialog, a casual style of conversation in which self-expression is the ultimate goal.  In pursuit of this kind of religion, an encounter with God is no longer the chief priority but an awareness of and expression of our true selves -- a spiritual encounter with "me". 

Perhaps we were once concerned by the tension between the two opposing paths of affirming self or seeking God where He has promised to be found, but we seem no longer ashamed to hijack this thing called worship and make ourselves the center of all that happens and the criteria by which we judge its success.

God would not want me to. . .   Well, you finish the statement.  God would not want me to worship in a way that was not to my liking.  God would not want me to sing what I do not find meaningful.  God would not want me to give offerings that might deprive me of something I desire.  God would not want me to be uncomfortable.  God would not want me to be part of something I do not fully understand.  God would not want me to worship in a way that is not relevant or modern.  God would not want me to be part of a church that I do not like or feel at home in.

We feed ourselves these lies because it justifies our abandonment of Scripture and our disconnect with tradition in both doctrine and practice (liturgy).  We look little like the Christians who went before us and we like that.  We want to be thoroughly modern even in our pursuit of nostalgic trinkets from a bygone era.  They are souvenirs but they have no relevance to us or to worship except to provide ambiance.  Liturgy, ritual, reverence, awe, attention, and devotion are antiquated concepts to the church of me. 

We come to church on Sunday morning in order to be affirmed.  We may sin but we are not sinners.  We may screw up but it is only an occasional lapse in judgment and not a defect of our nature.  We come to be reminded when we feel low that we are not really bad but only slip up now and then.  We come to given tools to help us be better and the better we want to be is truer to self.  We define our worst sins as when we have put someone or something ahead of ourselves or our desires and the freedom we seek is the abandonment of any and all restraints.  Entertain us a bit, give us an instructive but relevant sermon on obtaining our best life now, celebrate the lives of our loved ones with the consolation of memories when they are gone, and give us something equal to the money we put into the plate and we will be glad to be religious, spiritual, even Christian.

This is what so many mainline and evangelicals have been taught, what they find on Sunday morning, and what passes for faith and religion.  Lutherans so tempted to improve our statistics think that we can emulate their methods while preserving our doctrinal integrity but it cannot be done.  There is no methodology or style that is not inherently infected with substance and doctrine.  That is true for modernity and for the ancient faith as well.  Thirty years ago it was all the rage to believe that style and substance were different, disconnected, and distinct.  We drifted from the realm of the means of grace into the uncertain ground of feelings and personal preference and now, some Lutherans, fear giving up the mall like campuses and full service programs even though they understand that it is no longer possible to drift by degree.  In fact, what we are all realizing, across the religious spectrum, is that the modern Christianity with its pursuit of relevance is not a different style of Christianity but a completely different religion from the creeds, confessions, liturgy, catechesis, and doctrine of old.  Cleaning up our mess is not easy but if the folks on all sides of the spectrum are honest with themselves they know that Christianity cannot survive this schizophrenia of me or Thee.