Twentieth-century liberal theology unraveled and lost a huge chunk of its following as evangelical scholars pointed out its fatal flaw: Liberals had cut the faith of Christ off from real history. By launching the events of resurrection and redemption into a realm of "salvation history" somewhere, at best, merely tangential to real history, liberal theology reduced salvation to a subjective experience and the Christian faith to a religion without firm anchors.
Leon Wieseltier suggests that President Obama is doing something like this with American foreign policy. His words are full of appealing platitudes; however, they are often contradictory, mostly airy, and have almost no contact with the ground of history (The New Republic, November 4, 2009). He writes concerning Mr. Obama's lofty foreign policy rhetoric, "His level of generality - his planetariness - is fine only for Sunday morning. For history is made selectively, locally, in the particular." And when it comes to the particulars, the President is acting - when he acts at all - in contradictory and confusing ways that seem to have little to do with what he professes or what should be the historical reality.
In many ways the same could be said about contemporary evangelicals. We profess lofty convictions and high ideals, but when it comes to boots on the ground, we're pretty much marching in lockstep with the materialist culture of our day. The faith of Jesus Christ is a history-changing movement. For 2,000 years the world has felt the impact of the coming of the Kingdom and and Christ's power to transform lives, cultures, and whole societies.
In our day, in secular America, that power seems almost to have ground to a halt. The power of the Gospel is given to be expresed "selectively, locally, in the particular" in the lives of believers. The presence of Kingdom power - for righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit - should be evident in all our conversations and through every relationship, role, and responsibility of our lives. This, however, does not appear to be the case. Contemporary evangelicals have "de-historicized" the faith of Christ by reducing it to pious proclamations without teeth in the historical realities of their everday lives. In that respect, we're hardly better than the liberals we denounced a generation ago.
Christians who are not living out their profession "selectively, locally, in the particular" spheres of their lives are not living the Christian faith, but only a shadow of it. Their "planetariness" of conviction has no power to affect the particulars of their own history. That's not the faith of Christ.
In spite of the many beautiful examples of Celtic Christian art that survive today from the period of the Celtic revival, we know the names of only three artists, and only one of them (Muiredach) because he told us himself, having carved his name on the base of the cross he sculpted. Celtic Christian artists appear to have had no interest in making a name for themselves or ensuring a continuing pecuniary reward from their labors. They simply wrote, carved, painted, and etched to the glory of God.
I thought of this recently as I was worshiping in a church that uses contemporary worship songs in their liturgy. There it was, both on the bulletin and on the screen projecting the words for the congregation - that licensing number, unique to each user, which says to anyone who needs to know that this church has paid for the right to use this music, so that the composers can get whatever royalty or fee may be due them from our worship.
Every time I see that little identifier I want to get up and start turning over some tables or ripping down a video screen. Today's Christian artists are happy for us to worship with their music, as long as we pay the pipers and make sure to acknowledge their "ownership" of the copyright. I'm all for copyright protections - it's just too tempting for someone to make changes or false claims about material he stole from someone else. But I have a really hard time with all this nickle-and-dime-ing the people of God for the right to use certain music in worship.
Perhaps we could put a vending device at each seat in the pew. That way, those who think the music is worth paying for could drop in a nickle or whatever for each tune. And those of us who think most of it isn't worth the paper it's published on can simply thumb through the hymnal, providing, of course, there's still a hymnal to be thumbed.
The "culture of narcissism" that Christopher Lasch described back in the late '70s was an alarming idea at the time. Had Americans really descended so low as to think only of ourselves in every decision, choice, and action? At about the same time, Robert Ringer sought to make a life philosophy out of self-interest. He wrote several best-selling books with titles like, Looking Out for Number 1. Many might have been attracted to that way of life, but the film, Wall Street, parodied the worldview of selfishness in a way that left most people nodding, "Yeah, that's right."
But the drift toward narcissism has only continued, and now, it appears, it has the stamp of approval even of the charitable community. Yesterday was the last day of our local classical music station's fall fund drive. I think communities should support their classical music station. Classical music provides an abiding witness to the power of a Christian worldview to shape the preferences and practices even of unbelievers. The beauty, order, wonder, and delight that characterize so much of the music from the 16th to the 20th centuries reminds people of abiding truths that our postmodern world - and much of 20th century art and music - want eagerly to deny.
So Susie and I typically support our local classical music station. But yesterday's closing appeal was too much. Listeners were encouraged to give - and act of sacrificial generosity, concerned only for the need of others - for themselves!We should give, we were told, because it was in our best interest to do so; it was good for us and would make us happy; we would feel good about doing something to give us pleasure all year long.
That won't surprise any of us. Almost all appeals for funds these days are based on self-interest: Give and we'll send you this premium. Give and we'll enroll you in this special club or group. Give and you'll feel better in your conscience. Give and you'll show that you are a true conservationist/Republican/American/Civil War buff/you-name-it. Christian organizations and churches are no better. You'd think that believers have to be bribed to give, what with all the premiums, testimonies of prosperity to follow, and reminders that this is all in your best interest. Who knows? Maybe we do.
The idea that giving is a gesture of selflessness has been entirely sapped by narcissistic motives and ends. Christians ought not play this game, for, when we do, we add to the influence of narcissism and detract from the influence of the lay-down-your-life worldview that is the Gospel of the Kingdom. Believers should give, to be sure; but we should make sure that, when we give, it's for all the right reasons.
Yesterday, after having rallied Democratic Party big-wigs to stump for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds - including the President himself - the Obama Administration tossed the likely loser under the bus.
It must have become really clear to the President that Senator Deeds couldn't win. Bob McDonnell's lead is just too big to overcome, and besides, Mr. Deeds is not nearly as photogenic as his Republican rival. Or whatever.
At any rate, Administration spokespersons began distancing the White House from Creigh Deeds yesterday, saying that, Oh well, they tried to help, they recommended an approach that they were just absolutely certain would secure the victory, but Deeds decided to go a different way, and, well, what can you do? If he won't let us help him, then he'll just have to lose on his own. It sure as heck isn't our fault.
Because there are no losers in the Obama Administration. Nor are there any lost causes. If it looks like you're going to be a liability to this White House, you're gone. If your policy seems a little shaky, look for someone else to own it and take the blame (Max Baucus, call your office). You're under the bus. If you don't have that winning way, that charismatic style, that Obama touch, then you don't belong.
So the President shoots his wounded. Susie suggested to me, on a positive note, that perhaps this is the proof I've been looking for that Mr. Obama actually is a Christian?
I encountered this phrase in a review by Andrew Klavan of John Derbyshire's We Are Doomed (The New Criterion, October 2009). Derbyshire is a resolute conservative whose book debunks the world of "political correctness" and its silly ideologies of "hope and change" (my new favorite bumper sticker: "So how's that 'hope and change' workin' out for ya?"). Derbyshire insists, and Klavan agrees, that we must not be pollyannish about the future; the world will always have its inequalities, and liberal wishful thinking and iterating over and over it ain't - or shouldn't be - so will only make things worse.
But I think both men go too far when, as Klavan summarizes what he recommends as the conservative outlook, "the mendacity of hope is poison to intelligent discourse." We must not hope beyond what we can see or have already seen. To talk about anything other than what is real is not worthy of constructive discourse. The world, Klavan insists with Derbyshire, is in a bad way because of false hopes hopefully foisted on hope-starved people. Better to be realists and accept that inequalities exist, differences are real, and merit is the surest way to the best of all possible worlds.
But isn't that a kind of hope? The hope that the world could be content with no more hope than what we can see? I, for one, would not be willing to sign off on that, for I think there is more to hope than what we can see or have ever seen before. Indeed, the Christian faith - which both Derbyshire and Klavan politely eschew - is promulgated on hope, on the hope that they who believe can engage and express the glory of God. By engaging God's glory believers go beyond themselves and what they can see into a realm that truly exists and in which the faithful may participate; from there they go forth to bring that realm to concrete expression in every area of their lives - thus going beyond what they've ever seen in themselves before.
The idea that hope is a lie is itself part of The Lie. The Christian's hope is real and tranformational. The fact that we see so little of it in evidence among the followers of Christ today does not render the Biblical promise invalid. It merely testifies to the fact that perhaps the vast majority of Christians have embraced the wrong hope. If it is a believer's highest hope that he will go to heaven when he dies, then he will surely consider this life of little account, even though he hopes to postpone his "highest hope" as long as possible because he really suspects it will turn out to be little more than the better of two alternatives. This hope is not the Christian hope, although the Christian hope encompasses this. The Christian hope - the hope of glory - is the daily, moment by moment expectation of meeting God in His glorious presence and being, participating in that transcendent reality, being delightfully shaken and reformed by it utterly, and then going forth by word and deed to radiate that glorious reality by every possible means.
Last night on the Fox News Network Bill O'Reilly reported that a recent poll indicates the country is turning right, that conservative political philosophy appears to be once again on the ascendancy. As many as 40% of all Americans identify themselves as conservatives while only 26% say they're liberal in their views.
Which leads me simply to shrug. So what? I'm sure there are important political and economic implications bound up in the idea that conservatives might once again control the national government. But, frankly, I don't find that very encouraging. Because the really big issues of life are neither political nor economic. They're spiritual and moral, and anyone who is prone to believe that having Republicans back in the saddle and steering the vessel of State means we're going to see a renaissance of "traditional values" is simply deceived.
The country has become so marinated in relativist philosophy that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" only mean something in relationship to one another, but not in relationship to any absolute moorings. If American Christians think that conservative politicians are going to return the country to its pre-1960s moral base, they either don't understand politics or can't see how far contemporary conservatism has departed from its historic roots.
All of which is just to say to Christians, let's not get blind-sided yet one more time by thinking that Republicans hold the keys to the Kingdom. They don't. They may win the keys to Washington, but, once inside, it'll be same song, next verse, and we'll still be whining and complaining about the loss of "traditional values" and why doesn't somebody do something? The way forward toward a greater presence of the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit which characterize the Kingdom of God is through prayer, holiness, loving service to our neighbors, sacrificial giving to the needy, and bold witness in the Name of Christ.
And you won't find any of that in the Republican platform.
I keep coming back in my mind to that phrase, "the mendacity of hope", which I mentioned the other day. I couldn't help but wonder if the writer meant all hope or just the flimsy and false hope of politically correct politicians. So I wrote to Mr. Klavan to ask for some clarification; if he responds, I'll let you know.
In the meantime, I came across this from the late Polish-American poet, Czeslaw MIlosz: "hope...is neither chimerical or foolish. On the contrary, every day one can see signs indicating that now, at the present moment, something new, on a scale never witnessed before, is being born: humanity as an elemental force consicous of transcending Nature, for it lives by memory of itself, that is, in History."
Milosz, a Christian, believed that, after the disaster of the 20th century, humankind would rediscover itself as having been created for transcendence, for a relationship with God, and that history would be the vehicle to lead to that rediscovery. The poet's task, as he saw it, was to ground his art in history and reality, and coax out from these the testimonies to transcendent reality they strain to declare.
So, is the world ripening toward revival? Aleady we hear reports of spiritual renewal in China, Africa, Latin America, even Russia. American Christians remain unconvinced of the need for revival. I mean, look at all those mega-churches. Listen to that cool Christian rock. Check out the televangelists and their adoring throngs. These, of course, are not true signs of revival; they may, indeed, be merely the symptoms of Laodicean's Disease, a spiritual malady in which sufferers are tricked into thinking everything's going great guns when, in reality, they're just about to be ejected from the heavenly court (Rev. 3.15-17).
Milosz, I believe, was right to hope. God, after all, is faithful and invincible. It is inconceivable to me that His purposes and plans will not prevail. The Christian does not hope in good times, big ministries, or seemingly unlimited reources. The Christian hopes in the Lord, and this is a hope which cannot fail.
For as long as I can remember, American foreign policy has been promulgated on an economic basis, primarily in the form of economic aid and trade. Diplomacy aids this agenda, with military involvement a sort of last resort. American administrations have set a course which insists that freedom comes with wealth, wealth comes from development and trade, and so economics should be the driving force in foreign policy.
Now there is undoubtedly some truth in this view. But there are two problems with it. First, China may not be getting the point. A report in The Economist (October 24th) questions the idea that growing Chinese wealth will create political freedom. In fact, the report suggests, there are indications that just the opposite is true. Many Chinese seem content with their authoritarian regime, especially since, when push comes to shove as in this recession, the government can intervene on citizens' behalf - to the tune of $600 billion - without having to go through all the politics essential in a democracy for getting things done. Moreover, in spite of huge economic gains over the past decade, there is little indication of a let-up in political repression in China.
The second problem relates to our own history. It wasn't wealth that led to freedom in America. Rather, it was religion, the intellectual and moral consensus of a Christian worldview that obtained for generations up to the Founding, and that served as a framework for the documents and system of government which allowed a free people to prosper.
But why doesn't anyone suggest to an American president that perhaps the best way to promote freedom abroad is to encourage religious liberty, in particular, the freedom to worship and serve God which provided the basis for our own freedom? Do we consider that the American experiment is a one-and-done proposition? Are we too fearful of offending other religions by pointing to our nation's history as a guiding factor in American foreign policy?
Christians in particular should be encouaging this approach to foreign policy. We are part of the worldwide Body of Christ; we know that Truth, not wealth, makes men free; and we should be concerned that our government would so easily deny its own heritage and experience for the false god of wealth.
Wealth can never make us free. That is the job of Truth, and Truth awaits all who will seek it in the faith of Jesus Christ.
On the same day Democrats in the House unveiled their plan for health care reform - a sweeping, 2,000 page bill that includes what Speaker Pelosi is wont to refer to as a "robust public option" - Treasure Secretary Tim Geithner was on the hill arguing for more executive branch power to limit the size of banks or to take them over when it considers such action necessary.
At about the same time, gloating over GDP figures that indicate a 3.5% growth in the economy during the last quarter, President Obama was congratulating himself and his stimulus plan with a twinkle in his eye that seemed to suggest he might just pop for another.
The federal government continues to reach into sectors it has never penetrated so deeply before in order to shore up its grasp on America's economy. But that also means strengthening its hold on our freedoms. We can't keep ceding to the federal government areas of American life that were formerly the province of the private sector without compromising our status as a free people.
Government's message is clear: Washington knows better than the marketplace, the taxpayer, and free individuals how to manage, control, and prosper the most important areas of our lives. To continue to grant this political hubris is to agree with Washington's assertion about its supreme wisdom, to forfeit precious freedoms and responsibilities, and to make ourselves increasingly dependent on government largesse. More taxes, less productivity, and less freedom will surely be the result.
Washington's reach is expanding; its grasp is growing firmer each day; and if we don't resist this tendency now, government's hold on our freedoms will become sure and unlikely to weaken any time soon. Like Saul, usurping Samuel's prerogatives as priest, the federal government is overstepping its bounds before a public reeling from recession and, so it seems, ready for someone else to take responsibility for our lives.
Three reports out yesterday should cause us to question the federal government's ability to manage large-scale economic or social enterprises.
First, sources reported that it is highly unlikely that taxpayers will ever see any of the more than $80 billion in bailout money "loaned" by the federal government to Chrysler, GM, and CIT. That money is simpley gone $80 thousand million.
Second, Americans standing in long lines to receive H1N1 vaccines, many of them being turned away for lack of medicine, were chagrined to learn that vaccine had been sent to Gitmo to make sure the detainees there didn't come down with the flu.
Third, a report from Oregon that the government stimulus program is responsible for "creating or saving" 9,000 jobs in that state was deflated a bit when it was explained that 6,700 of those jobs were with the state government, which is Democratically controlled. An overbloated government takes our tax money to pay another overbloated government to overbloat itself even more - all in the name of economic recovery?
To say the least, such reports do not inspire confidence in our government's ability to manage large projects effectively. But we shouldn't be surprised, because managing large economic and social projects is not what governments are supposed to do. So why are we getting ready to hand over 16% more of our economy over to this government? Because we really aren't very smart? Or because we have just become so used to the idea that government should be able to solve all our problems that this just seems the right thing to do?
It's not right. It won't be just. It will empower government to violate the eighth commandment in the name of compassion and fairness. And at the end of the day, the blame for the mess this will (continue to) make will lay on the shoulders of "we the people."
"The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD." Psalm 33.10-12
The Economist reports (October 31st) that fertility rates worldwide are falling and that, before too much longer, the world will reach a point of populationstability. Just enough children will be born each year to replace, but not increase, the existing population of around 9 billion.
The reasons for this trend are mostly economic - families wanting fewer mouths to feed now have access to birth control methods formerly unavailable; young women are finding work and its rewards more satisfying than raising a family; increased wealth seems to make people less inclined to procreate and more inclined to indulge.
Some may find comfort in this trend, but I find it disturbing, and that for two reaons. It is a sad testimony on the growing popularity of Mammon worship that people in many nations appear to be setting more stock in material wealth than in children, families, and the future. Since the beginning of the 20th century the Christian faith has expanded more rapidly than all other religions, and than at any previous time in its history. But where is the evidence that this rapid and widespread expansion has encouraged the values of Jesus and His Kingdom rather than of Mammon and Molech?
This trend toward population stabilization also represents a (doubtless unconscious) denial of the divine mandate for men to fill the earth. Again, where is the evidence that widespread acceptance of Christianity has contributed to the embrace of this mandate rather than its repudiation? An article in a recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly explained just how relatively sparsely populated America actually is: all the people in America could exist in a square mile of their own property comfortably within the state of Oregon. That being the case, there is surely room for more than 9 billion people on planet earth.
So the report is troubling not so much for what it reveals about the values of secular people, but for what it suggests about the nature of the Christian faith that is being preached, taught, and believed around the world. Apparently Christianity is believed and practiced in a way that makes it possible for Christians to fit in to developing social and economic trends rather than to transform them according to clear Biblical guidelines.
If we won't take seriously the mandate to fill the earth, will we take seriously the command to make all the nations disciples?
Sitting here looking at a book galley I need to read - a book entitled Your Church is Too Small by John Armstrong - I'm reminded of a book from a generation ago by J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small. In that book Phillips examined and debunked a number of popular, but false, conceptions of God, on the way to presenting a more Biblical view of the Lord. John intends to do something like this for our view of the Church by encouraging more openness to one another in the Body of Christ and exploring ways of working together to express the oneness we have in Him.
Somebody needs to write a book like that for the Gospel - Your Gospel is Too Small. I continue to be dismayed at the shallow and ineffectual representations of the Gospel that come from pulpits, periodicals, and publications by popular evangelical preachers and writers. From these sources the work that Jesus accomplished boils down to forgiving our sins, securing a place in heaven for those who believe, providing a resource for comfort against the vicissitudes of a dark and sinful age, and perhaps lighting the way to some kind of prosperity here and now.
Now those may well be aspects of the Gospel. But they are not the Gospel. Saying that Jesus is an excellent example of compassion and love, and the greatest teacher who ever lived, are both true statements, right out of the Bible. But they aren't the Gospel (unless, of course, your theology is liberal). The Gospel that Jesus preached is not about forgiveness and eternal life in the first instance. Rather, these are aspects of the Gospel Jesus preached, which is the Gospel of the Kingdom.
The Good News that Jesus proclaimed, and the Apostles after Him, is that the Kingdom of God has come near to men, even into their midst. A new era of redemption, renewal, and reconciliation has begun. A new power is unleashed among men, bringing life and transformation into the image of Christ. A new Ruler is sovereign in the affairs of men, and He has launched a new economy of grace and Truth toward a new agenda that makes building the Church and seeking the Kingdom top priorities for the followers of Christ.
The "good news" of this Kingdom is that it provides salvation, transformation, renewal, and power to go beyond our human limitations in loving the Lord and our neighbors. All this is available by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, empowering those who believe to turn their world upside-down for the Lord and His Kingdom.
Oh yeah? you say. So where do we see any of that taking place? Precisely my point: We see so little of this because this is not what we are being taught. Simply put, our Gospel is too small. In fact, it isn't the Gospel at all, but another gospel.