Modernism Perpetuates the Problems it Abhors

BMA

Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew argue in their new book Beyond the Modern Age: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture that modernistic solutions only exasperate the problems created by the modernistic value system of our day. Unless our solutions can transcend modern techniques – we will not be able to properly move forward.

These authors understand modernism to come in primarily four shapes: The classical shape, the structural critique of it, the cultural critique of it, and postmodernism as the latest critique of it. In this way they say modernity is the mother of not one but at least four different worldviews. They show how all of these versions are variations of the same source – and while each worldview has some value, we need something more to move us past the problems modernism has created – such as deregulated capitalism, consumerism, progressivism, economic inequality, militarization, overworked laborers, environmental destruction, and many others.

This was THE crucial insight of this book for me: Modernism perpetuates the problems it abhors. On the one hand modernization presents the face of massive and ongoing technological, economic, and scientific development in our increasingly global world-society. But on the other hand modernization is also the face of the deep embarrassment felt by many people about the real-life consequences of these massive developments. To show this, the authors introduce the concept of “paralogy.” Paralogy refers to the logic behind apparently illogical paradoxes present in our modern world. For example:

  • The poverty paradox: Despite an unprecedented expansion of wealth, recent years have seen unexpected increases in poverty in the wealthiest societies.
  • The time paradox: For two centuries economists have predicted that increased wealth in modern societies could bring with it more leisure time for everyone. Instead, people in these societies find themselves working longer and harder
  • The care paradox: The capacity to provide care – including quality health care, is gradually declining in the wealthier societies while “diseases of affluence” such as obesity and diabetes are rising.
  • The employment paradox: Modern governments try to cope with the problem of unemployment by promoting higher economic growth. But they are seldom effective through these methods.
  • The environmental paradox: Why is it that advanced technologies, more economic resources available than ever, and a series of international agreements have not been able to lessen, much less reverse, the rate of environmental destruction?

The authors show how the presence of an ideology of material progress (again, a mostly modern phenomena) sheds light on these paradoxes and explains them. As progress becomes for modern people an iron law, so tensions emerge – and simply offering solutions of more the same thing (more technology, more progress, more consumption, more work) only makes things worse. In Hannah Arendt’s words, the perpetual warfare by modern men and women rages against their own self-created human condition! More could be said here, as much more is said in the book. But to conclude, I’d like to share a critique of modern culture from a Jewish philosopher named Walter Benjamin (pages 52-54 of the book). This one took my breath away:

Benjamin’s primary critique of modern Western society was that it appeared incapable of acknowledging or giving due weight to all of the sufferings it had imposed upon humankind. His views are forever linked to his remarkable interpretation of a work of art called “Angelus Novus,” painted by German artist Paul Klee in 1920.

Coll IMJ,
 photo (c) IMJ

Benjamin called this angel the “Angel of History.” On initial inspection we see an angel flying over a world that is obviously ruined. The angel gazes with large, pain-filled eyes on the suffering he observes in the world below. In response, he opens his wings to give a healing blessing. But it is clear that he is UNABLE to give that blessing, because a powerful wind coming from below pushes him backward. In Benjamin’s interpretation, the angel is tied to the past. As the Angel of History, he cannot see into the future.

Because of this, he is not aware of the great promises made to humankind about the arrival of a better future. He observes only the crushing burdens that have been laid on people in the name of a better future. He sees only the ruins and wants to bless the people who are suffering, but the wind prevents that blessing from happening.

And then Benjamin makes a biting comment: that wind, “das ist was wir Fortschritt nennen,” or “that is what we call progress.” Indeed, in modern society progress must always go on, in spite of the suffering, even great suffering it inflicts.

Following the requirements of progress has become our highest commandment. And our highest commandment leads to our worst sins. Modernism creates more of the problems it seeks to solve.

Advertisements

A Few Oft-Overlooked Motivators of Abraham Kuyper

Contours

I decided to read this book because the disconcerting description of Abraham Kuyper as “widely known but rarely read” is true of me. As the back cover of this book states, Kuyper was, by any standard, one of the most extraordinary figures in modern Christian history. His career included being a Dutch Reformed minister, a gifted theologian, a prolific journalist, the leader of a political party, the cofounder of the Free University of Amsterdam (where he was professor of theology), a member of the Dutch Parliament, and eventually prime minister of the Netherlands. This man wasn’t simply a reactionary, he was proactive in every sense of the word. A model political-theologian.

Kuyper was a passionate minister of the Gospel. But what motivated him? What energized him? What animated him to do everything he did? Kuyper’s public vision is widely referred to and respected. Indeed, this is the reason I first picked up this book and had even heard of Kuyper in passing. Everyone seems so helped and enamored by the way Kuyper sought the welfare of his city. As they should be. As am I. But as I read through this systematic summary of Kuyper’s life and work, I was particularly struck by three of Kuyper’s underlying motivations – three of his basic loves which catapulted so much of his thought and action:

Kuyper loved Scripture: He refers to it as a “cup of gold,” saying,

“Call this, if you will, an almost childish faith, outgrown by your larger wisdom, but I cannot better it. Such is my Bible to me, and such it was in the bygone ages, and such it is still, the Scripture of the church of the living God.”

Kuyper refers with approval to Kant’s statement that if we should ever allow Scripture to lose its authority, no comparable authority could ever emerge again. Kuyper notes of this statement,

“In Scripture we confront a cedar tree of spiritual authority that for eighteen centuries has pushed its roots into the soil of our human consciousness; in its shadow the religious and moral life of humanity has immeasurably increased in dignity and worth. Now chop that cedar down. For a little while some green shoots will still bud out from its trunk, but who will give us another tree, who will provide future generations with a shade like this?

This is why – not as a consequence of erudition but with the naivety of the little child – I have bowed my head in simple faith before that Scripture, have devoted my energies to its case, and now rejoice inwardly and thank God when I see faith in that Scripture again increasing. You know that I am not conservative, but this indeed is my conservatism: I will attempt to save the abundant cover of that cedar for our people, so that in future they will not sit down in a scorching desert without shade.” 

Secondly, Kuyper loved the Church: Kuyper compares the visible church to a scaffolding of a building that one day will fall away, and the glorious temple of the kingdom will be manifested as a result. As such, Kuyper believed that a BIG, Biblical view of Christ will result in a BIG view of the church. Just as mothers are indispensable to birth, growth, nurture and formation to maturity, so too is the Church. Kuyper argues that “Preservation” must remain the rallying cry of the Church, because the Church is connected to Christ! As Kuyper says of the organic and yet institutional church (which too often acts as a “slumbering giant,”):

“All power in the church of Christ must forever be traced back to Christ. He and He alone is our King. To Him alone is given all power in heaven and on earth. And just as the sun has been set in the sky above as the greater light to rule the day, so the Sun of righteousness shines out from above to exercise lordship over the church militant on earth. He is the Immanuel, beside Him there is no other. He is the ruler in Israel, but only after letting Himself be trampled to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

Kuyper’s passion for the church goes way back to his initial conversion. Kuyper was converted when reading a novel his wife sent to him titled, “The Heir of Redclyffe” by Charlotte Yonge. In Kuyper’s words,

“This masterpiece was the instrument that broke my smug, rebellious heart.”

In this novel Kuyper was struck by the role of the Anglican Church as the mother of believers in the novel, and according to him, it was from this point on that he similarly longed for a sanctified church. Kuyper lauds Calvin’s description of God as our Father and the church as our Mother, and this reminded him again of the novel when he said,

“And now, I saw in actual persons, in very fact, what miraculous, unutterable, almost unbelievable power a spiritually organized church may yet reveal, silently and unobtrusively, even amid the disintegration we had suffered, so long as she knows what she wants and allows her word to be the form of her essential thought… The restoration of a ‘church that could be our Mother’ had to become the goal of my life…

…That was what I wanted. Such a church I never saw or knew. Oh, to have such a church, a ‘mother who guides our steps from our youth!’…and so my ideal for churchly life came to me in this fleeting word…From then on I have longed with all my soul for a Sanctified Church wherein my soul and those of my loved ones can enjoy the quiet refreshment of peace, far from all confusion, under its firm, lasting, and authoritative guidance.” 

Lastly, Kuyper loved Palingenesia: The author of this book calls this the “Key to the Kuyperian Tradition.” Kuyper called it his “foundation.” Palingenesia is a New Testament Greek word that means rebirth. Kuyper says,

“I deliberately use the Greek word because it covers both personal rebirth (Tit. 3:5) and the re-creation of heaven and earth (Matt. 19:28).”

Kuyper realized that what is utterly central to Christianity is a living relationship with God through Christ and that this comes about through the work of the Spirit in one’s heart. This is in contrast to the danger of those who are brought up in the Christian faith, and assume it instead of owning it – (don’t miss Soren K.’s thoughts, soaring in the background).

Titus 3:3 says, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” Kuyper identifies with this before his conversion. Kuyper thought he was righteous and wise, but he came to realize that he was arrogant and foolish.

But Titus 3 continues,

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having gate hope of eternal life.”

This shows Kuyper that salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit through the washing of palingenesis (rebirth) and renewal. This is a supernatural event – one humans cannot achieve. And so Kuyper believes the basis for our sphere of influence is not ethnicity or anything else – but palingenesis! Nothing good will happen apart from the fresh breeze of God’s Spirit.

Later, the ESV translates palingenesis as “in the new world” in Matthew 19:28. This is the time when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, and his followers reign with him. This is a passage about Jesus’ second coming. So our conversion is not just about our salvation, but is also about mission. The Kingdom of God aims at God’s reign, and our conversion is our invitation to become an active participant in the Missio Dei. Kuyper saw all his work in the shadow of this light. It is a result of the Spirit converting, and God reigning ever more on earth as it is in heaven.

My, oh my. In Kuyper’s legacy we see what God can do with a person who is in love with His Word, who is dedicated to His Church, and who is content to follow God’s call in the power of the Spirit for the purposes of God’s reign in every sphere of life. 

Six Different Types of Preaching Plans

SG

This book primarily answers three questions:

  1. Why do we preach?
  2. Why should we plan our preaching?
  3. How do we do (1) and (2)?

I like the way Gibson puts it when he talks about the goal of preaching. He says,

“We engage in what we do for the growth of men and women and boys and girls in the faith. We want to stretch believers to expand their faith and obedience as they grow in grace. Our goal is Christlikeness, and we know that believers in Jesus Christ will mature in their faith through faithful sermon planning and the preaching of God’s Word.” (13)

Notice he includes not just preaching, but also faithful sermon planning. Gibson reminds us, we want to provide food that’s both healthy and tasty, and while purposeful planning for preaching may take time, in the end it also saves time. So do it!

Scott M. Gibson believes, “For your preaching to reach the goal of maturing believers, you want to be purposeful – you want to have a strategy.” (107) In this book Gibson provides a framework to do just that – for purposeful preaching that moves men and women and boys and girls toward spiritual maturity, including a very helpful 15-step plan at the very end of the book that I plan on utilizing very soon. Gibson reminds us that for planning purposes – it isn’t very important how many people are in the pews – what is important is that we take note of where our congregants are at spiritually.

What are our strengths? weaknesses? idols? struggles? joys? sorrows? If each member of your congregation were placed on a bell-shaped curve, where are the majority of your people as regards to their spiritual states? Gibson says, preach to that! That way you aren’t just preaching what you want to preach, you are preaching what they need you to preach based on who they are and what their actual, current spiritual needs are at the moment.

While I look forward to utilizing Gibson’s prescribed process by which to plan sermons, I also appreciated reading about the different (legitimate) types of sermon series available. A few of these I’ve never seen and never tried myself (especially some of the ways to utilize different calendars for determining what to preach when).  It was helpful for me just reading through the different options and thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of each one. As far as I saw it in this book, the six main options include:

  • The Calendar Year Plan. This type of sermon series follows the calendar. One preacher in this mode begins his preaching calendar with Easter. Spring offers rich sermon topics (Easter is the big hook, drawing once-a-year visitors, and then there are relationship topics – Mother’s Day and Father’s Day), followed by Summer (creatively linked random topics), Fall (regrouping and spiritual life), Winter (the holidays and a strategic series that focuses on the mission and vision of the church), Bible book series (February and March, the longest series being ten weeks), and then what he calls “pre-Easter” (evangelistic focus, reminding people to invite friends to the Easter services). Other similar variations include:
  1. The Christian Calendar – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Etc.
  2. The Secular Calendar – January through December
  3. The School Calendar – Think in terms of “semesters” or “quarters”
  4. The Church Calendar – What activities is the church engaged in, and when? How should sermons be aligned with this?
  5. The Denominational calendar – Similar to above.
  6. The Preacher’s Personal Calendar – When will the preacher take vacation? What part of the year is most busy? Etc.
  • The Bible Book Plan. This can include preaching verse-by-verse, chapter-by-chapter, idea-by-idea or section-by-section. One preacher began in the first verse in Genesis and continued through the last verse in Revelation. Some preachers focus on particular genres. Martin Lloyd-Jones for example, favored preaching on the Epistles. He once preached on the book of Romans for fourteen years. Others, in an attempt at providing the congregation a well-balanced diet, will alternate between OT book and then NT Book. Another way of picking books may be to preach different genres throughout the year so as to provide a well rounded “menu.” Preach a prophet, then a law, then a narrative, then an epistle, than an apocalyptic, then a pastoral, etc.
  • The Church Attendance Plan. In this format, sermons are placed at strategic points during the year, based on the specific audience in attendance.
  • The Lectionary Plan. Usually utilizing the New Revised Common Lectionary, preachers follow the assigned years and preach from the texts already assigned.
  • The Special Days Plan. [Technically this probably falls under another bullet point, but it is such a novel idea for me that I put it here as completely separate.] Instead of planning for one Thanksgiving sermon, one Christmas sermon, and one Easter sermon, for example, they plan for five of each, one for each of the next five years. This prevents them from falling into the bad habit of using the same approach to these special occasions each year, and at the same time makes for broader, more balanced, more comprehensive preaching. (121)
  • The Topical Series Plan. This is when the preacher decides on a topic to talk about, how long s/he wants to talk about that topic, then picks passages to go with that topic. Gibson reminds us there are creative ways to do this, including:
    • Preach the series on only one Sunday a month.
    • A series may be sporadic. That is, say that you’re preaching through the Gospel of John intending to teach throughout the year about who Jesus is. But you want to vary the intake of the content with other series. Your intention to preach through John can be spread out over the year by preaching an eight-week series on John and then a different series. After the second series, you pick up the series on John for several more weeks.
    • Spread the sermon series over a two-year period of time.

Typically, my own church goes back and forth between the topical series plan and the Bible book plan. Most of the times our series don’t go for longer than three months – although our most recent series on I Peter lasted 5 and 1/2 months. The church I attended before my current church followed the lectionary and I loved that as well. However, after reading this book I’m intrigued by the idea of calendar preaching and want to think about if that would ever make sense for the congregation I’m a part of.

 

Preaching to Confront Racism Includes…

WW

In this book, Will Willimon argues as white people, our racial history is like toxic waste: we attempt to cover it up, deny it, but then it bubbles up or gives off its stench and we are finally forced to admit its toxicity. Instead of trying to cover it up, the author would like us to own up to our inherently racist society. Even more, as preachers, we ought to speak against it. And not just vaguely. As Willimon’s argument goes on page 20,

“The conscientious preacher must not allow himself to be browbeaten into vague, harmless generalities…Too many preachers have been like the cowed Israelites across the valley from Goliath, trembling at the reverberations of his authoritative voice. There have been, however, praise God, many Davids…who have picked up five smooth stones known as facts and hurled them with deadly aim and effect.” 

Willimon would prefer we preachers be more like David than the others. We should be willing to acknowledge our racism calling it by its proper name, repent of it, and then boldly and prophetically, preach against it. This is our way to “make the invisible visible and publicly addressing the unmentionable” (38) and upending the dynamic that makes racism “so dominant in this society that it just seems normal” (59). Willimon wonders if however difficult this may be to hear, the congregation may be already waiting for it. As he says,

“In my experience, we preachers tend to overestimate the possible resistance of our congregations to sermons on controversial matters and underestimate the number of people in the congregation who long to hear a sermon on a subject of importance” (54).

Willimon believes the Gospel gives us the means to be color-courageous, to talk about matters our culture would rather keep silent. The Apostle Paul says that in God’s realm, Jews and Greeks, slave and free, “all are one in Jesus Christ” (Gal 3:28). This is a baptismal call meant to be proclaimed – not for color-blindness or arguing that gender or race are inconsequential, but rather a theological affirmation that Jesus Christ enables a new eschatological community where conventional, worldly signifiers don’t mean what they meant in the kingdoms of this world. Therefore, “we must preach” (63).

This book was convicting for me, to say the least. Eye-opening would be another way to put it. Written in a prophetic tone – reading this book reminded me of what it’s like to read the Old Testament according to Walter Bruegemann. Similar style, similarly bold. Without getting into all the good details, I can’t do much better than to highlight the type of preaching that Willimon believes confronts racism. Willimon’s list includes, and I quote (from pages 126-127):

  • It speaks up and speaks out
  • Sees American racism as an opportunity for Christians honestly to name our sin and to engage in acts of detoxification, renovation, and reparation.
  • Is convinced that the deepest, most revolutionary response to the evil of racism is Jesus Christ, the one who demonstrates God for us and enables us to be for God.
  • Reclaims the church as a place of truth-telling, truth-embodiment, and truth enactment.
  • Allows the preacher to confess personal complicity in and to model continuing repentance for racism.
  • Brings the good news that Jesus Christ loves sinners, only sinners.
  • Enjoys the transformative power of God’s grace.
  • Listens to and learns from the best sociological, psychological, economic, artistic, and political insights on race in America, especially those generated by African Americans.
  • Celebrates the work in us and in our culture of a relentlessly salvific, redemptive Savior.
  • Uses the peculiar speech of scripture in judging and defeating the idea of white supremacy.
  • Is careful in its usage of color-oriented language and metaphors that may disparage blackness (like “washed my sins as white as snow,” or “in him there is no darkness at all”)
  • Narrates contemporary Christians into the drama of salvation in Jesus Christ and thereby rescues them from the sinful narratives of American white supremacy.
  • Is not silenced because talk about race makes white Christians uncomfortable.
  • Refuses despair because of an abiding faith that God is able and that God will get the people and the world that God wants.

Personal apology, and confession: Both the first and the second-to-last bullet points may be the ones that makes me most squeamish. Clearly, I have some prayin’ to do.

 

Popologetics and Christians Needing Not To Embarrass Ourselves

popologetics

This book was wayyyyy better than I expected. For at least three reasons, I wasn’t expecting too much insightful substance. For one, I hadn’t heard of the author before I bought the book (which isn’t unheard of for me by any means, but it doesn’t happen as often anymore). Two: The book had a cool looking cover – therefore warning bells instinctively began ringing in my ears. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be an unwritten rule in the field of Christian theology: The prettier the cover, the more useless and superficial the information. Three, and to make things even worse, it had a coolish sounding title: “Popologetics”. Really, I thought? They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but really, what do they know? Even though a respected professor recommended I read it, I saw the cover and figured I had better things to read.

So, I purposefully stalled. I bought this book three years ago but hadn’t picked it up until now because I figured I should get to the weightier ones first. By that I mean, the other books on the “to read” list which didn’t have trendy titles or cool looking covers (thank God!), and were written by authors who I already knew were respected. As far as I can tell, I don’t have time for riffraff these days. But what a pleasant surprise! This book functions as a Christian primer for popular cultural exegesis – and while I’ve read quite a few on similar topics, I’ve never encountered another work better suited for this task than this one. At over 300 pages the attention to nuance and detail is crucial and extraordinary. This topic is what the author Ted Turnau does for a living, and it shows.

Turnau’s section on pages 7-18 titled, “Seeing the Tree for the Forest: What is a Worldview?” is the most helpful definition and explanation of “worldview” I have ever encountered. “Worldview” is a favorite topic for evangelicals and has been written about ad neauseum with only recent balances to the pendulum from people such as James KA Smith and others. I was both surprised and delighted to find such fresh delineations and insight on “worldview” so late in the game. In these pages Turneau shows the multiple layers within a worldview: including our presuppositions, the world-story, life-philosophy, applied beliefs, and of course, lived behaviors. Then in the next chapter he shows how popular culture influences that same complex, always in-process “worldview.” Again, just really well done. Turnau is a thoughtful writer. He is easy to read, and his examples are constantly engaging and illuminating.

My favorite chapter of the book was Chapter 10, where Turnau puts forward his recommendations for how Christians can and should engage popular culture Christianly. And more importantly, how to cultivate in his words, a “Christian-critical imagination” (214). This chapter should be required reading for every youth pastor on the planet. Part of the reason it’s so good is because he offers good questions to ask of popular culture pieces, including (from page 215):

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that)?
  5. How does the Gospel apply here?

Additional questions we can ask of popular culture pieces as we seek to exegete them Christianly would be (From pages 229-230):

  1. What counts as “good” in this world? What counts as “evil”? Is evil real, or only apparent?
  2. What is beautiful in this world?
  3. What makes relationships work or fail here?
  4. Where is God? Or is this even an important question? What is worshipped in this world?
  5. What makes life worth living in this world?

Turnau’s review in Chapter 10 of what it means to thoroughly ask these questions of a popular culture work proves his expertise and passion. What a helpful model for what it can look like for Christians to engage with the world as salt and light. Of course, all this work is a lot of work. But Turnau would remind us that we are already doing the work of watching the shows and seeing the art. Why not do it in a consciously Christian way? And what is the alternative? When we Christians engage culture in unchristian ways, we do a disservice to the name of Christ (see Turnau’s part two, Chapters 5-9). Speaking of disservice…

I was recently reminded of why it’s so important for Christians to learn how to engage popular culture well. And thus why a book like Turnau’s is so valuable. Because when we Christians don’t engage culture Christianly, it’s embarrassing! Case in point. On August 8th, Kevin DeYoung posted a short article on thegospelcoalition.org titled, “I Don’t Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones.” Unfortunately, it is an example of the opposite of engaging popular culture in a Christianly way.

While the title is just barely combative and dramatic (and thus cool?) enough to solicit a lot of reads (woohoo!), it got worse when DeYoung admits, ” True, I haven’t seen it. Not an episode. Not a scene. I hardly know anything about the show.” That fact alone should be a big hint to the author of the article. If you haven’t watched show X, you may not want to write an article about show X. (To be fair, this point is addressed in DeYoung’s follow-up article. Unfortunately, DeYoung doesn’t really give any real answer to it).

As well, dude just became the new Senior Pastor of a large church. Like, it just happened. How does DeYoung have time to write condemningly about a show he hasn’t seen to a bunch of people he doesn’t know? And why would he make time for that even if he DID have time for it? Part of me just wants to say, “brother, you are a Pastor, try focusing on just doing that! Is that work not important enough?” Granted, Kevin DeYoung is concerned about all the sex in the show, which, to be fair, IS concerning, from a Christian point of view. But to outright condemn Game of Thrones because of apparent sex scenes is to show an outright lack of expertise in dealing with popular culture in a particularly Christian mode. It is simplistic. judgmental. unhelpful. and just rude. At the least, it is to only ask one question out of the 10 that Turnau would recommend we ask. What would the article have looked like if DeYoung actually watched the show, and took the time it takes to thoroughly exegete it from a Christian perspective, such as how Turnau would recommend? Perhaps there would have been many less “bazillion blogs and Facebook comments later” – which I’m still assuming would be a good thing, right? Or, am I wrong?

Now, I understand what-with-all the American Christian celebrity culture and what-not, that once you write a few books it is a normalized phenomenon for big masses of people to then expect that same author to then (pretend!) to be the authority on everything. But legit Christians should know NOT to buy in to that madness – as tempting as it is. So, for Kevin, who IS a legit dude, to take time to write an article about his exasperation about other people watching a show he’s never seen? Why, but for madness sake?

Here is where I wish a Kevin DeYoung would read a book like one I’ve just read and take it to heart. Because in the book, there is a straightforward format that lays out a much more robust and faithful exegetical formula – and thus if practiced would most often lead to a much more helpful sort of response. While I realize we don’t always have to go through every 10 steps or ask every question Turnau would ask before we can assume we are “properly” speaking Christianly of a cultural piece, I do think people notice when we do. Keller, of course, is a prime example of someone who takes both Biblical and cultural exegesis seriously. And people notice.

I’ve wondered this about other great preachers in the past, and I also wonder it about DeYoung. How can a guy be so thorough in preaching Scripture from the pulpit, and so nonchalant in preaching cultural analysis from the pew? You would wish the level of carefulness in one arena would trickle down to the other. More than that, I wish we Christians weren’t so prone to embarrassing ourselves.

But, praise God, Turnau’s book can help us eliminate some of that embarrassing cultural technique and instead, engage with the world and popular culture in respectful and loving ways. As Turnau says on the last page of his book,  when trying to engage with culture, “Giving in to anger only defeats the purpose of your cultural engagement.”

 

 

 

The Ethics (and Marketing) of Evangelism

EoE

Somehow the question of the ethics of evangelism has tended to be avoided both within academia as well as within evangelical communities. One the one hand, there are many religious peoples in the world who see evangelism to be a divine command and therefore would never consider NOT doing it. However, many other peoples see religious proselytism as necessarily annoying, unhelpful, unethical, and even potentially evil. This, partially because in the popular mind persuasion (let alone religious persuasion) is often associated with a wide variety of phenomena including brainwashing, mind control, hypnotic suggestion, mass conformity, coercion and propaganda. But is religious evangelism or persuasion always unethical, necessarily?  In this first-of-its-kind full length book, Elmer John Thiessen addresses this question head-on.

Elmer John Thiessen’s book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion is the most extensive ethical analysis of evangelism to date. In it, Thiessen clarifies and answers objections, defends the possibility of ethical proselytizing, elaborates criteria to use to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of proselytizing, and applies these criteria to actual forms of proselytizing. In Chapters 3-5 Thiessen clarifies and answers particular objections to proselytizing such as, among others:

  • A distrust of persuasion tactics in general because it is seen as an invasion of privacy
  • The seeming arrogance of some proselytizers
  • Relativism, pluralism and skepticism calls into question the idea that any one person could really have access to any capital “T” truth and thus proselytism done in the attitude of religious exclusivism is inappropriate.
  • Religious claims are not entirely rational or verifiable and therefore people should not try to persuade one another of the veracity of their own religious beliefs.
  •  Proselytism is in some way a violation of the freedom and integrity of individuals or societies because:
    • Proselytism is sometimes coercive – physically, psychologically, socially, or emotionally.
  • Proselytism is colonialism
  • We should be tolerant of people of other faiths and leave them alone. Therefore, proselytizing is unethical.
  • Proselytizing leads to social disunity, hatred, and bitterness between peoples.
  • Proselytizing is only done when people are insecure and religious adherents engage in proselytizing as a way of dealing with their own doubts and insecurities.
  • Proselytizing peoples desire to gain power or control of others

After answering those above objections, Thiessen then defends religious proselytizing and gives his version of a positive approach in Chapter 6. Chapters 7-8 are written to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing, and chapter 9 is the conclusion. In appendix A, Thiessen summarizes the 15 Criteria (discussed in Chapters 7-8) to distinguish between ethical and unethical proselytizing. They include:

  1. Dignity criterion
  2. Care criterion
  3. Physical coercion criterion
  4. Psychological coercion criterion
  5. Social coercion criterion
  6. Inducement criterion
  7. Rationality criterion
  8. Truthfulness criterion
  9. Humility criterion
  10. Tolerance criterion
  11. Motivation criterion
  12. Identity criterion
  13. Cultural sensitivity criterion
  14. Results criterion 
  15. Golden Rule

The most intriguing part of the book for me was Thiessen’s constant comparisons between religious proselytism and marketing advertising. He uses these comparisons in some contexts to warn religious proselytizers of what unethical proselytism looks like. But in other contexts in the book, Thiessen makes the comparison to show that religious proselytism is indeed defensible.

For example, in discussing the nature of conversion as trying to change someone’s belief, behavior, identity or belonging, Thiessen reminds us that this happens to us all the time in America and we the potential consumers don’t hardly ever fight it. Take for example the area of commercial advertising and marketing. What is oftentimes really being attempted in these advertising contexts is to bring about a conversion in us. He points to the commercial success of Amway, which is short for “the American way.” Amway is all about selling a certain lifestyle. McDonalds is another example of propaganda. The examples could be added ad-infinitum.

Naomi Klein’s study shows how many items are marketed through a “branding” process, which tries to associate a product (through its logo), with a lifestyle or worldview, so that the consumer is buying not only a product, but an identity. Marketing brings about not only a change of behavior (buying a product), but also a change of identity (belonging) and of course also a change of beliefs (this product is better than its competition). Yet, we allow for this all day long, every day of our lives. The average American sees thousands of ads per day. In the words of David Loy,

“The aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.”

If all of this is true, then we must admit that we constantly and readily allow marketers to proselytize us. Why then would we not allow religious adherents to do the same thing? Why is it ethical for marketers to proselytize, but not religious people?

On the other hand, Thiessen urges caution, reminding religious proselytizers to not proselytize in the same way as marketers do. In our pluralistic environments, it is tempting for religious peoples to mimic marketing strategies. Peter Berger says it well,

“The religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed. It must be ‘sold’ to a clientele that is no longer constrained to ‘buy.’ The pluralist situation is, above all, a market situation. In it, the religious institutions become marketing agencies and the religious traditions become consumer commodities.” 

But Thiessen argues that it is this dynamic that often leads to the rightful charge of unethical conduct. While such competition can be friendly, it can also lead to a “war for souls.” This kind of marketing-Christianity is unethical because,

“Put through the meat grinder of market analysis, the gospel becomes a ‘product,’ the unchurched become ‘consumers,’ Christians become ‘salesmen’ and the ‘needs’ of the unchurched become a potential tool of manipulation.” 

Very well said. So while marketing and advertising shows us that proselytizing can and often should be “put up with” in our society, it also shows us how proselytizing can go horribly wrong.

 

 

Apostle(!) vs. Genius :(

E of A

I just finished reading Myron Bradley Penner’s book, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Generally, I’m a fan of Christian apologetics so I knew I would disagree with the author’s main argument right out the gate. However, I’m open to changing my mind, and had heard decent reviews of this book so figured I’d pick it up as a sort of intellectual challenge.

Penner’s argument is that we shouldn’t do Christian apologetics anymore. Or at the very least, we should be doing it very different. He makes a pretty interesting argument on page 59 when quoting Terry Eagleton, Penner points out that,

Christian apologists and the New Atheists are, in fact, mirror images of each other. Faith for either side boils down to a kind of positive scientific knowledge that tends to reduce the substance of faith to an intellectual debate over the reasonableness of a theoretical entity: the proposition ‘God exists.'”

Penner can say this because he believes the overwhelming majority of Christian apologists rely too heavily on the epistemological paradigm of modernity (as do the New Atheists) and thus Christian apologetics is no longer very helpful now that we find ourselves living in a postmodern society. Penner would say in our (modernistic) attempts to justify (and prove!) Christianity to be logical, rational and “true”, we are missing our postmodern audiences. Penner believes we should switch from an epistemological to a hermeneutical strategy. Our Christian witness should be more focused on personal and meaningful appeals vs. debate-style coercions. We should focus more on edification rather than justification. Our witness should be characterized more by the sympathetic, prophetic, and apocalyptic than the logical, scientific, or rational.

While I agree that the majority of apologists probably (and unwittingly) behold themselves too heavily to a modernistic understanding of reality, I think Penner pushes his argument too far. It’s not as if there aren’t still major echoes of modernity in the hearts and minds of current audiences – even educated ones – whether we like it or not and whether that is a good thing, or not. Additionally, Penner makes it seem that we could pick between a hermeneutical stance and an epistemological one, as if one is NOT reliant on the other. Anyways, in the end I still think Christian apologetics is a worthwhile endeavor and so Penner hasn’t convinced me. But he did open my eyes to one of the strongest critiques of apologetics I’ve ever heard – he does this by pointing to Kierkegaard.

Penner argues Christian apologetics does more harm than good because the apologist debater functions something like an expert witness who is uniquely qualified and highly trained – and therefore especially qualified – to articulate and defend Christian truth in a way the rest of us cannot. Penner believes the apologetic industry buys into the “culture of experts” that in the end hurts us more than helps.

Kierkegaard addresses this modern secular condition by drawing a very careful distinction between a genius and an apostle. For Kierkegaard, a genius is something like our concept of an “expert.” A genius is the highest person on the intellectual totem pole, the first in our pecking order of whom to believe. They are the “leaders in the field.” They know more than the rest of their peers (and us), and their claims carry with them the weight of rational deliberation, insight and brilliance. What separates them from us is that they are MORE brilliant, intelligent, and rational than we are, and this supposedly puts them in a better position to ascertain the truth. They are ahead of the curve, so to speak, so these geniuses seek to speak authoritatively about how the rest of us believe.

Kierkegaard then connects the modern emphasis on genius and the modern concept of reason. At the end of the day, the modern appeal to genius (or expertise) as the final authority for belief and practice directly corresponds to the authority accorded human reason (as objective, universal, and neutral) which is of course, a primarily modern concept – separate from both premodern and postmodern viewpoints, respectively.

The apostle on the other hand, appeals not to reason but to revelation as the basis on which claims are warranted. A genius is born, Kierkegaard points out, while an apostle is called. Whereas genius is a quality that distinguishes a person from other humans comparatively – by being MORE rational or brilliant or intelligent – the apostle’s constitutive identity comes only from the call of God.

Subsequently, the apostle’s message is one that no one else can improve upon or add to because it is dependent on God’s action alone. There is nothing extraordinary about apostles prior to their call to apostleship. Apostleship does not depend on any particular human abilities. In this sense, every human being is equally capable of being an apostle, regardless of their circumstance or natural endowments – because their source is God Himself and God’s revelation. The apostle is authoritative NOT because it is demonstrably rational or exceptionally brilliant, but because it has a word from God.

Notice, God’s word in this context does not come to us as the result of human calculation. It is not particularly brilliant but at the same time it cannot be improved upon, nor will it ever become obsolete. Because it’s God’s Word! Additionally, the apostle doesn’t need to play to the crowd en masse, while the genius must. The genius cannot ground its claims in any way that is final or absolute outside of the rational consensus of “the power-craving crowd”. The genius succeeds (or, is legitimized) when it achieves the widest possible number of adherents. All the while the apostle doesn’t need the crowd because the apostle is already speaking a different message anyways – a word from the divine outside.

Penner believes “the privileging of geniuses means apostles lose their voice.” And he also believes the Christian apologetic industry, with its tours, books, dvds, and degrees perpetuates the climate of geniuses and even encourages it. Another way of saying it is that Penner thinks apologetics is a celebrity-driven enterprise – which ends up more as a unique form of Christian idolatry vs an example of Christian salt and light.

Kierkegaard (and Penner along with him) believes Christians should be fighting AGAINST the modernistic phenomenas, not WITH it. Kierkegaard objects to Christian apologetics partially because it is reliant on the entire modern epistemological paradigm which was never Biblical to begin with! Penner despises the fact that “Christian apologetics” attempts to ground faith in genius or secular reasons. He believes modernity and all modern enterprises empty faith of its Christian content and robs it of its true authority. In this way the genius/apostle distinction suggests modern apologetics is ITSELF a symptom of the incipient nihilism at the core of modern thought. It is not the solution, Christian apologetics is the problem.

So, to summarize: We don’t need more geniuses, we need more apostles!

Now there is an argument of weight – I’ll be working on that one for the next little while. Gotta love Kierkegaard’s constant twists of insight.