You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege. The animosity directed toward NFL players kneeling at the anthem, protesting police brutality and structural racism, is the sort of acrimony we reserve for infidels….
This response to the kneeling controversy tells us something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities.
The tropes of “God and country” or “faith and the flag” are almost always instances where country and flag domesticate faith in God. Or, to put this in terms that religious folk should understand: These liturgies of civil religion are covert modes of idolatry. The rank and priority are reversed; our political identities trump all others.
This is how stadiums became temples of nationalism. When the Constitution functions like Scripture, and the pledge serves as our creed, and the flag is revered like the cross, and the national anthem becomes our hymn, and the hand over heart is a sacred expression like the sign of the cross, then a swelling patriotism becomes our religion and dissenters are heretics.
About a year ago, I raved to everyone about the great book from James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom. He suggests that a Christian anthropology which sees humans as “knowers” or “believers” (which is often implicit in many Reformed circles/studies on worldview) misses the deeper aspect of humans-as-lovers. What we desire drives what we are.
from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith:
Such a rationalist response is inadequate and mistargeted because it continues to assume a flawed anthropology*.
*Smith would explain that this “flawed anthropology” is our tendency in Christian circles to define people as thinkers or believers (thus ministers try to change beliefs and worldviews) instead of recognizing that humans are, at heart, lovers and desirers and worshipers. What we LOVE determines what we believe and how we act.
Smith’s thesis is that our desires are “trained” by our practices, not by our beliefs. We live (subconsciously) according to our notion of “the good life” — we bend everything toward achieving that life for ourselves, and how we define “the good life” depends entirely on what we love.
Before reading any further, you need to read Joel Stein’s short essay at the end of this week’s issue of Timemagazine:
“Christian Improv: What’s Funny At Warren’s Church”
Stein’s snarky commentary on his experience with the Saddleback improv comedy team brings into the light the underlying failure of the modern Evangelical “redeem the arts” movement:
If you build your reformation on a shaky foundation, you merely produce more fodder for scorn.
I try to write with charity toward my non-Reformed brethren. The Kingdom is big enough for all of us — the central tenets of the Gospel, around which we unite, are simple enough for a child to comprehend and require none of the rancor which usually accompanies fights within Evangelicalism. But this topic will reveal the Reformed anchors in my theology. You’ve been warned.
Stein’s experience with the Saddleback group illustrates the classic problem Christians encounter when attempting to do anything more than retreat into a holy huddle of irrelevance. We must interact with culture and the people who produce it. How does a Christian do this while maintaining his faith?
Richard Niebuhr made the classic statement of the 5 possible options for Christians interacting with culture. Most Evangelicals find themselves at either position #4, Christ Against Culture, or #5, Christ Transforming Culture. To quote from an article written by professors at Calvin College, the 4th option centers on tension:
I was raised in View #4.
Most Reformed folks (myself among them) choose option #5 because of our understanding of God’s goodness in creation, the damage of sin and the Fall, and the spectacular redemptive power of the Gospel:
The idea that we can somehow divide up this world into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ seems silly if you agree with the underlying presupposition that creation was entirely good before the Fall broke it. The structure of created things, as Al Wolters explains in Creation Regained, has not changed — sin cannot destroy what God created good. But thedirection of human endeavor and artifacts has changed. We humans can now use the things of this world to rebelagainst its Creator or glorify Him.
The battle against sin lies in the direction of things, not their structure.
(Aside from putting improv comedy after the sermon … I have to admit, that kinda ruffles my feathers) Does anyone else see the crying shame in all of this? Prayer is no lucky rabbit’s foot, some sacerdotal blessing required for success, no “lucky potion” a la Harry Potter! My hamburger would be just as much a joyful gift from the Lord whether it had been “blessed” or not. And the preshow shot of Cuervo would have been just as holy as the burger.
Sin is not in things; neither is holiness. Sin is an aspect of the doer. And on that score, Stein and his Christian partners for the night are equals, apart from saving Grace.
Christians open themselves up for ridicule and criticism NOT when they sit down at a table with unsaved friends and order a glass of wine. There is no evil in alcohol; there is little righteousness in prohibiting it (except in those rare instances when you are knowingly avoiding putting a stumbling block in front of a friend’s conscience). To fight a “war of righteousness” against alcohol centers the battle in the wrong place.
Christians are not always criticized for our standards of sexual morality per se, for supporting pro-life positions or encouraging abstinence. Stein hints at a different root when he says Christians aren’t funny “because they’re sad about having had sex with only one person.” Don’t fixate on the sex part of the comment — realize instead that he’s talking about a lack of joy. The crying lack of biblical, frank teaching on sex for Christian (whether child or adult) underscores Christian adults’ fears of sex in general–our collective incapacity to deal with what God intended to be a remarkable gift and source of joy for a married couple.
Unbelievers are drunk on sex. Christians prudishly avoid talking about it, thus making sex all the more appealing to their kids (who wonder why no one will talk about enjoying it). Neither position is correct. And I have come to understand that Law-hedging is actually far more dangerous than wallowing in sin. At least the “sinner” knows he’s living a debauched lifestyle. Self-righteous fence-builders can define the Law so outwardly and precisely that masturbation in front of the TV and blow-jobs in the parking lot are OK for a virgin, as long as “the sex act” was not committed.
Stein’s article hits us on the head with a true assessment — Christianity can’t handle the reality of sex or many other things, even to joke about them (after all, as the Moscow, Idaho folks say, “Laughter is War”).
And it’s because we’ve misdefined SIN.
More to the point of redeeming the arts, we Christians have a lot to learn.
The first, and most important, is to recognize that getting our foundational theology RIGHT at the outset is the most important. You don’t redeem the arts because they’re nice, or because they used to be a Christian thing, or because we’re tired of being made fun of by the world. If those are your best reasons — not an integrated, holistic understanding of the imago Dei and a Reformational worldview — you’ll always be the butt of this guy’s well-aimed (and deserved) jokes.
If I create something (a song, a post, a painting, the plans for a new kind of business) and fail to recognize the imago Dei at work behind that creativity, I do not yet understand how to redeem the arts.
If I limit my artistic themes to what is considered “safe” by today’s “churchianity” culture (thanks, Sam, for that term), I am treating as taboo that which God does not. If His themes in Scripture are any indication, artists have the freedom to conquer nearly anything in His name.
If I cannot recognize the difference between the artist and the object, and recognize that Truth, wherever I find it, is God’s Truth, I am not yet ready to “redeem art.”
If your conscience won’t let you do improv comedy any better than this, find a better hill to claim for God. Don’t stoop to the unbeliever’s viewpoint on any form or content — but don’t be prudish either. Define sin and righteously correctly.
Redeeming art badly is NOT enough.
[written during my 3rd year of Covenant College MEd summer coursework; class was Epistemology with Bill Davis; worth reposting]
You’ll find me doing several of these, I’m certain . . . I chrew through information verbally (although I learn best visually – go figure) so these daily review sessions are how I cope with all the data of my day. Here are some thoughts from my classes today: I’ll try to put “fun stuff” in orange …. the yellow stuff is discussion. Feel free to ignore it . . .
First of all — our class is one huge comedy club, I swear. But in a good way. . . . We had very profitable discussions today mixed with much laughter. And I don’t think I’ll need the dart gun in class this week– unless we decide to shoot Dr Davis for the sheer love of causing trouble. He’s too clear of a thinker to provoke any frustration in me. Brilliant guy. OCD about being orderly, which is good for a guy who spends his life organizingideas. Oh, and I decided he looks like Kenneth Branaugh, but with much darker hair.
Anyway, two major lines of thinking from today:
1. A person’s worldview is the filter which sorts the raw data of our lives –what we observe or what happens to us — into a story which we call experience. This worldview is often defined as “presuppositions”–statements about how the world works. But Davis pointed out that a worldview includes two more foundational aspects: cognitive vocabulary and affections.
You have to learn terms for foundational concepts like “sin” “evil” “happiness” “worth” “justice” etc before you can organize what the world throws at you. Whether your idea of “sin” matches the biblical one is a totally different matter. And this vocabulary is still developing all through the middle school years — which is why many kids aren’t ready to think about worldview presuppositions until at least middle-teens. (Although my 8th grade classes have, to this point, been populated by several 13/14 year olds who were already thinking pretty deeply about the world and their place in it.)
More importantly, people value what they love. Want to know a kid’s worldview . . . What does he/she talk about all the time?
And people listen to the people they love. A student’s worldview is developed by what s/he sees modeled in adults around he/r–adults s/he cares about, especially. A teacher who talks about living all of life to the glory of God but who lives a disjointed life full of frustration, unable to connect life’s experiences to the great Metanarrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation– that teacher is screaming “The Christian Worldview Does’t Work!”
ick. my reactions to life and in the classroom reveal my own inconsistencies
2. On the topic of the image of God: Davis had a slightly different view of the imago Dei. I’m going to try to represent it here, but if you hate what I say, realize that I might be messing it up…
We tend to define God’s image as a human’s capability of reasoning, making moral decisions, and maybe being creative. That’s a leftover from Aristotle and the medieval theologians. Problem is, what happens when a human ceases to function like that? Does an advanced Alzheimer’s pateint lose his status as image-bearer when he can no longer express rationality, decision-making, or creativity? Um . . . no
So Davis proposed a “covenant model” of the imago Dei: Moses’ language in the Pentateuch often borrows heavily from the Near Eastern suzerainty treaties of the ancient world. In these treaties, a sovereign would make a covenant with his people. Part of that covenant included appointing a representative who would carry out the work of the king in that region. The word for that representative is the same word that Moses uses for “image” in Genesis 1.
So …. what if the image of God in us is actually more a task than a set of characteristics? The task: fulfilling the creation mandate — exercising dominion over this planet and culture as the representative of God. In that case, the image lies in humanity as a collective — both male & female — and not so much in individual people. BUT theequipment for that task — the fact that humans are rational, creative, moral, spiritual, communicative, etc etc — is distributed to individuals so they can carry out this mission.
Hmmm. It’s an interesting concept. Some implications:
- If our task is given to humanity as a collective, we must rely on one another’s gifts. Individualism breaks down pretty fast when you realize there’s no way you can do this alone. That’s a vital lesson in the classroom too –and I’ve watched kids balk when I assign them a group project and give the whole group the same grade. GASP! Welcome to life, folks . . . sometimes the group has to sink or swim. And if God gifted you with a particular ability, you can’t sit back and say, “Hey, I don’t think that guy’s doing enough work over there!” Are you going to do that when you grow up and your pastor asks you to take on a ministry?don’t shoot me … just think about it
- The Fall did not delete God’s image in man: the responsibility to fulfill the dominion TASK. But the Fall didbreak our equipment (creativity, morality, rationality, stewardship, etc …)
- Unbelievers as well as believers are held accountable for this task — it’s not like people don’t become image-bearers until they receive the Holy Spirit. And all humans are equipped for the task — broken, perhaps, but still equipped — and common grace allows unbelievers to contribute in positive ways to dominion activity. Again, it’s twisted, but it’s definitely there. Even public educators.
OK. That’s enough for now. I still have a pile of reading to do for this course, so I’m gonna sign off for now. And there’s talk of some entertainment tonight with the 4 guys across the hall — maybe a poker game or something. We’re hoping to plan a soccer game for tomorrow, but the Edge kiddos have descended upon us in great hordes. AAAARRRGGGHHH! You can’t walk anywhere without running into a pack of adolescents clogging up the campus arteries!!!! And I bet they swallowed the soccer fields too… LOL