Archives For Theology

Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

Brene Brown has become a rockstar! Her TED talks have amassed 28 million views, and three of her books are #1 best sellers on Amazon. The reason for her popularity is simple. Brene Brown speaks on a topic that deeply affects everyone—shame.

We all dread that painful sense of unworthiness and rejection, and work hard to hide our shame from others. The human experience with shame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid and covered themselves after disobeying God. Hiding and covering—the two trademarks of shame (Gen 3:7-8). Ever since then, the human family has been eager “to make a name for themselves” (Gen 11:4). So what is the cure for this pervasive dis-ease of shame?

Over the last couple of decades, shame has been the domain of psychologists. Both Christian and secular psychologists talk about empathy, vulnerability, connection, and friendships as solutions for shame. Obviously, those are all good things, but they address symptoms more than root causes.

The shame we sense before other people is a mere symptom of our larger problem—our shame before our creator, our disunion from God. Our sin exposes us to spiritual shame. Jeremiah confesses, “Let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God” (Jer 3:8). Ezekiel used the imagery of harlots, the most disgraceful members of traditional societies, to expose Israel’s sin, “How sick is your heart, says the Lord GOD, that you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen whore. … So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace” (16:30, 52).

The answer for this shame is not just vulnerability or empathy, but the work of God to remove our objective disgrace and to restore honor. God reverses our status from the pit of shame to a position of divine honor. This facet of the gospel is incredible news for the 80% of the world living in an “honor-shame culture.”

In summer 2015 I taught an elective course at EBC titled, “Theology of Honor & Shame.” During the break on day one, an elder lady graciously informed me that she was “skeptical of this honor-shame stuff.” Then during a break on the final day, the Asian-American gal sitting next to her thanked me, “I always assumed the more I wanted to follow Jesus, the more I had to become Western. But everything you said about honor and shame in the Bible explains my culture. I see how to follow Jesus as an Asian!” When the skeptical lady heard that, her opinion changed. Honor and shame are not just cultural or psychological categories, they are profound spiritual realities addressed throughout the Bible, and speak to the very heart of global cultures.

Students’ final assignment for the class was to creatively present the gospel in honor-shame terms. EBC student Zech Hogan made “Healing Honor”—a powerful (and short!) video. This video is an excellent illustration of the ultimate solution for shame—Jesus’ honor. Perhaps it too can get 28 million views! Enjoy watching!

We want God to do the spectacular through us and around us. Of course we do. I can remember times when I’ve read Acts and then prayed that God would shake our little prayer meeting room, just as he shook the room the disciples were praying in.

We read about the miraculous things that God is capable of, that he’s unleashed on the world before: fire from heaven, healing, literal resurrection, stopping the sun, parting the seas, etc. etc. etc. God has done such amazing things! It’s natural to read about these things and then long for God to do these same things in our lives today.

God is still capable of these things. Why not now? Why not in our lives?

Charlton Heston Parting the Seas

It’s not wrong for us to long for God to do the miraculous. But we do miss something important when we expect God to work in spectacular ways. Here’s why.

Everything God does is miraculous. Everything he does is filled with love, is saturated in power, runs counter to our natural way of thinking, undermines the evil that stains this world, brings life out of death, shapes us in ways we could never expect or even hope for. This is as true of the fire he sent from heaven to ignite Elijah’s altar as it is of the wife who somehow finds the strength to respond patiently to a difficult husband. It’s all miraculous. It’s all grace.

Missiologist Paul Pierson says it well:

“If we constantly want God to do something spectacular, we have to ask why. While we remain open to the spectacular and the extraordinary work of God, we must not forget that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, etc. We are called to embody those in our lives and in the life of the Church. In these days, love, joy, and peace may be the greatest miracles of all!” (The Dynamics of Christian Mission, 235).

When we are expecting the spectacular, we are setting the terms in our interaction with God. “God, I want you to act, and I want you to act like this…”

I do think it’s amazing that God once parted the sea for Moses. But that wasn’t common, even in Bible times. And when we consider that the biblical storyline covers thousands of years, the huge miraculous events recorded in the Bible are not as “common” as we might assume as we read it.

Again, this is not to say that God doesn’t act miraculously now. It’s simply a corrective to our assumptions, our expectations. We ought to be crying out to God when we’re in need. But we also ought to allow God to respond as he chooses.

Your situation may seem huge and impossible, and you may be inclined to believe that the only way God could solve your problem is by doing something spectacular and showy. But perhaps God has a better way. What if God answered your prayer by “subtly” changing your heart, rather than “spectacularly” changing your circumstances? Both are equally miraculous—surely it takes as much divine power to change a human heart as to calm a raging sea.

In the church, we handle glory on a regular basis. Every time the church gathers, we talk about topics like: the greatness of God, the fact that God became a human being, our longing for redemption and our inability to save ourselves, the fact that Jesus has conquered death, the reality that God himself lives inside of our human bodies through his Spirit, etc. In other words, the church’s conversations are about the most profound, awe-inspiring, life-transforming, tear-inducing, joy-invoking topics imaginable!

And yet we are numb. The fact that I could type the above sentences without falling on my face and/or break dancing means that I’ve grown callous to truths that ought to be overpowering me at every moment. Think especially of what this is like for pastors: They stand in front of the faithful week after week and talk about the greatest mysteries, struggles, and triumphs in the universe. How can we keep these powerful truths fresh? How can we continue to see and value the glory that the Christian life puts us in contact with at every moment?

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

Makoto Fujimura: Consider the Lilies

One significant answer is this: we need artists in our churches. We don’t need only artists, but we do need artists. Art is a gift that God has given humanity so that we can explore the significance of life. Textbooks and newspapers present us with the facts of life; art presents us with the meaning and significance of those facts. If art is God’s gift (it is!) and if this is what art does (it does!), then how can we afford to ignore the role of art in our churches? (We can’t!)

Pablo Picasso: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

J. R. R. Tolkien: “We need to clean our windows so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”

Madeleine L’Engle: “Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new.”

As a Bible college professor, I spend a lot of time in classrooms talking about theology and life and ministry. But some of my richest times in those same classrooms come when I teach my class on Christianity and the Arts and my students share the art they’ve created. It takes those same powerful truths we talk about and pushes us to view and handle and (almost) taste them in ways that bring them to life again. The insightful artist can, in a sense, restore sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, feeling to the numb.

Speaking as a pastor to other pastors, Eugene Peterson says:

“Everyone needs artists. Pastors especially—and especially this pastor—need them, for we spend our lives immersed in forms of glory, in the world of salvation become incarnate in Jesus. If because of overfamiliarity and too much talking about we no longer see the glory contained in the form, no longer touch the salvation in the body and blood of Jesus, we are no longer pastors. I want to tell all my pastor colleagues, ‘Make friends with the artist. Let him rip off the veils of habit that obscure the beauty of Christ in the faces we look at day after day. Let her restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become disembodied in a fog of abstraction.’”

I do think that some churches try too hard in incorporating art into their services. I often get the impressions that churches “get artsy” just so that they can appear “relevant” or “with it” to younger generations. I’m not advocating that we drape every inch of our church buildings in art or that pastors don skinny jeans and adopt the persona of a bleeding heart artist (but it’s okay if your pastor does).

Donal J. Forsythe, "The Long Night," 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

Donal J. Forsythe, “The Long Night,” 12 box construction. (http://www.donaldforsythe.com/boxes/longnite1.html)

I actually don’t think that incorporating art into the life of our churches should be all about what happens on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it should mean hosting artistic events. Certainly it will mean giving artists regular opportunities to share their art with people in the church. It’s really not about a strategy or a model; it’s about valuing and discipling the artists in our midst and imploring them to use their God-given gifts to enrich our lives and our worship. We should also go so far as viewing our artists as missionaries and sending them out into the world with Bibles and paintbrushes for the sake of our common mission.

Becoming a more artsy church is a lame goal. But acknowledging the power of art and the value of artists is essential. And until our churches figure out how to incorporate the gift of art and the gifts of artists into our common life, we will be depriving ourselves of a powerful means of tearing away the veil and bringing ourselves into regular contact with glory.

For more on this, click here.

For an extended list of solid books on the subject, click here.

In this post, I’m going to argue that the Church ought to be (1) a place to feel at home and (2) a place to feel like a foreigner or a pilgrim.

WelcomeGod has so constructed the Church, created as it is through the building material of the gospel, that we can feel fully at home in the Church. There are many places in our modern world where we feel out of place. (I would guess that you’d feel out of place in at least one of these locations: a court room, a bar, a black-tie event, or a boxing match.) But the Church is no such place. The Church is a place to feel at home, to know that we are accepted, to know that we belong.

This complete acceptance is because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We are accepted regardless of what we are or who we’ve tried to be. It is a gospel fact that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The gospel grabs hold of us gently and declares that we are washed, cleansed, re-created. It places us within the Church as full members of the Body of Christ.

Through the gospel, we’re not just given a seat at the table, so to speak, but we become indispensible members. Paul argues that we are such a part of the Church Body that if one of us were missing, the Body would be crippled (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:12–16). We belong in the Church.

The same can also be said cross-culturally. No one needs to leave their culture at the door when they enter the Church. This question was settled in Acts 15 when the apostles decided that Gentile converts did not need to first become Jewish (culturally) in order to be Christian. The gospel cannot ever be expressed without culture (we must use cultural forms like language), but the gospel is not bound to any one culture. The gospel can be fully at home in any culture, so we as gospel-made people can be at home in the Church regardless of our culture.

Missiologist Andrew Walls calls this concept the “Indigenizing Principle.” Throughout history, the Church has made itself a place where people can fully belong.

And yet the Church is also a place to feel like a foreigner. This is what Andrew Walls refers to as the “Pilgrim Principle,” and it stands in tension with the Indigenizing Principle.

While the Church truly is a place to be at home, to fully belong, the Church always calls us to change. We are fully accepted in the Church, yet we are always being called into something deeper. While we are accepted as we are through the gospel, the gospel also transforms us ever more into the image of Christ.

Traveler

This, too, can be viewed cross-culturally. Every culture is equally at home in the Church, yet every culture will be called to some sort of transformation through the Gospel. For example, we can be American and fit fully within the Church. But the Church will call us to lay down some aspects of American culture. The Church, when functioning properly, will always be making us feel like foreigners, like pilgrims, in the midst of our world. Being at home in the Church will always mean being at least slightly out of sync with the world around us.

This tension is real, and we must feel this tension constantly if we are going to life faithfully in the world as the Church. Andrew Walls insists that while the Indigenizing (at-home) Principle and the Pilgrim (out-of-sync) Principle are in tension, we shouldn’t be trying to find a balance between the two, as though we should be less than fully at home in the Church, or only sometimes out of sync with the world around us. We can never have too much of either principle, we can only have too little of one or the other.

The goal is to see the Church as a place where we can be fully at home—fully accepted, fully interconnected—regardless of our past, or our culture, or our personalities. And the goal is also to be constantly challenged by the Church to perpetual growth, to never-ending transformation, to the perpetual renunciation of idols that we have subtly soaked up from our culture. We always need both.

This is the mystery and miracle of the Church. The Church is a place to be part of the family and a place to be a pilgrim. It’s a place that reassures us that who we are is enough while also calling us to be more than we ever thought possible. It’s a place of comfort and belonging to a tired and hurting world, and a prophetic voice calling the world to repentance and change. Nothing in this world can be or do what the Church is and does. And this is why the Church is and always has been indispensible.