Monday, July 30, 2007

Off the shelf: The Most Famous Man in America

This is a whopper of a book about a whale of a man. Clocking in at nearly 500 pages, this book almost matches its subject in girth (at least in later life).

I was drawn to this book for one main reason: Henry Ward Beecher's father, Lyman Beecher, pastored the church which I serve (what was once Second Pres, Cincinnati and is now Covenant-First Presbyterian). I was looking for information on Lyman's tenure here.

However, when I skimmed the book in the bookstore, I put it back as not worth my time. I'm glad I changed my mind on it, but first I have to tell you what bothered me so. The author, Debby Applegate, seems to have a clear confusion about my religious tradition - Calvinism (though I prefer the moniker "Reformed Christianity"). Again and again, Applegate paints Calvinism as the most dour and rigid form of Christianity imaginable. She paints adherents as part of a mirthless parade of vinegar faced parsons and school marms who scowl at the notion that someone somewhere might be having a good time.

I know, it's a familiar charicature; I come across it all the time. I just get tired of it. If these folks would but read Calvin or Edwards they might get a different picture. All the same, I sucked up my objections, realizing that for better or worse, Applegate (and others) have formed these opinions based on the very 19th century reports of the people who rejected the Calvinistic doctrines of their fathers. We shouldn't lay too much blame at Applegate's feet, but rather look to the Beecher children, to Melville and Hawthorne and Emerson. All great writers indeed, but none of them had positive experiences of Calvinistic christianity.

Applegate relates Lyman's treatment of Henry's older sister Catherine. At the time, she was as yet "unconverted" and engaged to be married. Her fiancee tragically died in a shipwreck, but rather than extending words of comfort, Lyman pressed the opportunity to urge for Catherine's conversion. She and her father would get in shouting matches about theology, neither giving quarter to the concerns of the other. Catherine was no intellectual slouch either, so the combat took place in high planes of rhetoric and logic. Ultimately, Catherine did convert, but she over the years became a hard bitter woman. Is it any wonder in such an environment that Henry would consider rejecting the doctrines of his youth? As Applegate says on the book's website:
As Henry’s famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, put it, orthodox Christianity of the time was “calculated, like a skilful engine of torture, to produce all the mental anguish of the most perfect sense of helplessness with the most torturing sense of responsibility.” This was the doctrine preached by Henry’s father, that Puritan stalwart, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and it nearly turned Henry and his eleven siblings away from religion forever.
I don't understand Reformed Christianity this way -- I find it quite liberating and refreshing to bask in the sovereignty of God and the riches of God's grace. I find it freeing to not have to rely on any goodness on my part to win my salvation, and I find it hopeful that Christ's work and grace forms the basis for all my moral improvement. However, it seems that 19th century presentation of Reformed Christianity was in some cases a bit...different.

Applegate has a keen sense of the story of Beecher's life -- she foreshadows early on the dysfunctional relationships that drive Henry Ward Beecher into the arms of adoring parishoners. As the book continues, the tension mounts, coming to a climax in the sordid details surrounding Beecher's adultery trial. Along the way, Applegate gives us broader glimpses into the cultural landscape of the time. We meet a young Mark Twain, a hoary headed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and even Walt Whitman, ready to burst onto fame. We learn how oratory and the lecture circuit was the main form of entertainment in those days, and Henry Ward Beecher was a master. We're reminded that Harry Potter wasn't the first blockbuster book that caused a sensation in the streets -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was just as famous for its day, spawning an empire of merchandising and adaptations to the stage. (Heck, it even helped start a war, let's see the boy wizard do that!). We get glimpses of the early women's suffrage movement and we see the US flag being raised over Fort Sumter at the conclusion of the Civil War. Applegate gives us a taste of the breathtaking press of history in the 19th century, as though the century were too small to contain all that happened in it.

She also reminds us of a few trends in evangelicalism that perhaps we need to be reminded of, for instance, the early interest in promoting education: “In the twentieth century, evangelical Christians came to be characterized as reactionary and anti-intellectual, but in the 1830’s they were the nation’s most ardent advocates of education, believing that ignorance and sin went hand in hand.” (78)

Sadly, Applegate spends little time examining Beecher's theological slide. She seems to take it for granted that it was revolutionary and thus a good thing. Christianity Today reviewer John Wilson nails it, I think:

Applegate exaggerates the extent to which Beecher's emphasis on God's unconditional love was a novelty and mischaracterizes the religious landscape in other ways (for example, you'd never intuit from her account the perfectionist strain in early Methodism that led to the Holiness movement). Still, she's one of those rare writers who manage to combine in a single book the virtues of scholarly and popular biography, immersing themselves in the archives without losing the human touch.

Tim Challies looks at it a little differently:

This biography would have been more interesting to me had it dealt with Beecher's contribution to the theological downgrade in the late 19th century. Sadly, the biographer's ignorance of Christian theology meant she had little to say in this regard and instead she focused on moral scandal.

I'm afraid that I have to chime in here too -- We get none of the nuance of the complex nature of the religious landscape of the era. Applegate mentions the 1857/8 New York Prayer revival, but little else about revivalism. We hear little to nothing about old Princeton orthodoxy as maintained by Charles Hodge and AA Hodge. We hear nothing about that other rotund megachurch orator, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Of course, Applegate hardly had room to squeeze in another page, but clearly the religous landscape was not so black and white as it seems in this book (from stern orthodoxy to light and airy newness).

All told, the book is an entertaining read and useful in understanding history. Applegate is a fine stylist, and I look forward to reading more of her work (She really ought to try her hand at fiction -- for she has a natural instinct for drama). But I would suggest taking religious inspiration from other sources.

Soli Deo Gloria

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bits and Pieces -- articles worth a look for July 26, 2007

First up -- Rod Dreher links us to a great article for parents. The article is titled "Raising Children Who Believe", and while it is written from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, there are lots of great points for our consideration:
As parents, we need to make a vice-grip-firm commitment that above job, above our social life, above all the things that vie for our time, we will prioritize our families.....

I'm naive, but not naive enough to believe that. There may be bumps yet to come in our lives. But as we confess at our weddings, "The prayers of parents establish the foundations of houses." These years are not kickback time, but they are a time of thanksgiving.
Next comes this posting at Phil Cooke's weblog -- a video that explains Fair Use copyright law. However it does so in such a way as to practice the fair use law. Helpful for all pastors who regularly cite films, books, and other material in their work. (And pretty doggone funny for everyone else)

Here's a post on the idea that american individuality has culminated in each person being their own personal brand -- a concept pioneered by Tom Peters in his A Brand Called You concept. I'm going to have to ponder this idea -- is it making people the ultimate commodity, or is it recognizing the unique God-giftedness of each person.....I'll be interested in your thoughts:

Individualism today means so much more than having a micro brand. For most it's about using the web to flatten the playing field so they have the freedom to chase passions and live their lives, their way. Sometimes this comes even as one continues to work inside a ginormous company. Hence the rise of corporate blogging, The Four Hour Work Week, Web Workers, 20% time and a workplace that need not have a place.

Individualism is as old as American ideals, though it's certainly not a global phenomenon. However with the Net Gen taking over the work force, the value of personal brands will continue rise and perhaps be a prickly force to be reckoned with. This means big changes in the workplace and a critical importance for everyone to be team players even as their stars rise online. It also means that personal brands will become unofficial spoksepeople at times (perhaps involuntarily).

Thats all for today.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Questions a Pastor Gets -- on Multiculturalism

These are the kind of questions that a pastor gets: “What kind of biblical support can you find for multiculturalism?” Bear in mind that the context of the question is a Christian who is involved in a multicultural arts ministry, so we’re talking here about multiculturalism in context of praise of God.

Here’s how my mind works – I immediately start thinking about possibilities. I translate immediately into theo-speak, and I think about cross-cultural mission and the call of God to the nations. I think of All Hail the Power of Jesus’ name and the great lyric from that hymn “Let every kindred, every tribe on this terrestrial ball, to Him all majesty ascribe and crown Him Lord of all.” (sheesh, I wish I could write like that). Quite simply, I jump right to a redeemed multiculturalism within which our Lord is praised in a variety of tongues and through a variety of cultural forms. This, I feel certain, is paddling down my questioner’s creek.

It takes a few days of pondering to remember that the term “multiculturalism” carries a dark scar inflicted by the culture wars of the past few decades. The scar was inflicted by ideologues who used multiculturalism as a club in their postmodern power games. Their core argumentation: If all language and communication is simply an exertion of power, and the dominant western culture has wielded power for so long, it is high time to wrest power away through other cultural idioms.

We find in the ideological form a default assumption that the mainstream of western culture and as suspicious as that month old box of leftovers in the back corner of the fridge. From these circles we hear fly accusations that the accomplishments of the broad western culture are injurious to humanity and the earth. We hear calls to dismantle the establishment. Ideological multiculturalism seems to hint that all cultures are basically equal, with the exception of the dominant western culture that needs to be swept away. In my mind I see images of chanting students with their “Hey Hey Ho Ho Western Culture’s got to go”. I hear the whenging of radical muslim elements in Minnesota with their “give us pork free shopping lines” and "no alcohol in my cab". I shudder at the controversial antics of professor Ward Churchill, who clarions from the rooftops that the United States has been a force for injustice in the world and that 9-11 was but our getting some comeuppance:

The implications of this were set forth in stark relief during the aftermath of 9-1-1, when it was first suggested that a decided majority of those killed in the WTC attack might be more accurately viewed as “little Eichmanns”—that is, as a cadre of faceless bureaucrats and technical experts who had willingly (and profitably) harnessed themselves to the task making America’s genocidal world order hum with maximal efficiency—than as “innocents.” (from an article in the Alternative Press Review)
Such ideological multiculturalism spoils the party for other stripes of multiculturalism – the aesthetic lovers (who are fascinated with art, music, food), the sociological thinkers (who are most interested in comparing and contrasting behavioral norms), and the global citizens (who are very interested in how economics affects and flows across all these different cultures). There is blend and overlap – but the ideological multiculturals have given the term a very bitter taste indeed. Faced with such ideology, many find it tempting to ditch the whole concept like we would a badly cooked omlette and run to Mickey D's for a mcmuffin and hash brown.

Christians, however, don’t have the option to toss multiculturalism like yesterday's trash. Rather, our calling is to proclaim the reign of Christ over all cultures. This is unmistakable in scripture. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when Egypt and Assyria will come to the Lord.

“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of
Egypt, and a pllar to the Lord at its border….In that day there will be a
highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into
Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. IN that day
Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the
earth, whom the lord of Hosts has blessed, saying ‘Blessed by Egypt my people
and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel, my inheiritance.” (Is 19:19,23-25)
The ancient enemies of Israel being brought into the fold. They are still considered as individual peoples, but they are united in worship of the living God. There is necessarily change (the pillar at the border, signifying a new reign), but there is also a seeming continuity of cultural identity. It is a picture redeemed multiculturalism.

The Pouring forth of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is another fine picture – the gospel being proclaimed in every tongue so that all might know the great works of the living God. Though the multiplicity of tongues doesn’t directly say that all cultures as a whole will be redeemed, it does function as a stone in the foundation, a point in the case I'm making here. Consider also Peter’s dream in Acts 10 – it is a dream showing that all foods are declared clean. However it is a dream that is immediately applied to Peter’s evangelistic efforts – he’s not just sent to Israelites but to the Roman centurion Cornelius. Move on to the struggles outlined in Acts and Galatians about the “judaizing” controversy. Gentile converts (that is, people of other nations) were not required to become culturally Jewish. They maintained their cultural identity.

And even though they maintained their cultural identity, that cultural identity takes backseat to their primary new identity as children of the Living God through the grace of Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28).

So in redeemed multiculturalism, we see that individuals from every culture are welcome, by the grace of Christ, they are grafted into the community and maintain some of their individuality. But a necessary element of the grafting is that there is change. Just as the Holy Spirit sanctifies an individual spirit, that sanctifying change washes back and affects the culture that the person is from. Redeemed multiculturalism realizes that every cultural expression finds its fulfillment in Christ alone.

Redeemed multiculturalism also looks for the redemptive element in other cultures. The sterling example of this is Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17. He sees that the city is full of idols – he realizes that idolatry is sinful and he’s troubled. But he looks for the redemptive element and proclaims “Men of Athens, I see that you are religious people.” He saw the altar to the unknown God, and he proceeded to say “let me tell you about that unknown god.” (read the full story in Acts 17:16-34).

Scholars have also shown that Solomon appropriated pagan wisdom in compiling his proverbs. Proverbs 22:17-23 closely parallel the first two chapters of the Egyptian wisdom book The Wisdom of Amen-em-ope. Similarly, many scholars believe that David adapted a hymn to the pagan god Baal when he wrote Psalm 29. There are also similarities between Psalm 104 and the Egyptian “Hymn to the Aten” – it could be that the ancient Israelites adapted that hymn. Now in any of these cases, the adaptation could have gone the other way (adapting from Israelite culture, rather than Israelites adapting from the culture around).

Such adaptations should not threaten Christians. They demonstrate the old doctrine of common grace -- the idea that all truth, goodness, and beauty find their origin in God. The fact that Biblical writers appropriated previous pagan writings and used them to point to the covenant God gives great hope. We see that God’s common grace is all about us. Everything in the world points to the triune God, if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I'm cautious to point out that just because there are redemptive elements in cultures, that does not mean that all cultures are equal, nor do they share in. Don Richardson, a missionary to New Guinea, wrote about his experiences in Peace Child. He tells the story of a hard society in which betrayal and duplicity is honored. It was a society that led to lives being nasty, brutal, and brief. But there was one custom that was redemptive -- when two tribes were at such war that everyone was threatened to be wiped out -- one chief would offer one of his own children to be raised in the other chief's household. That child was the Peace Child. It would bring about the cessation of hostilities. Richardson was able to latch on to that single cultural metaphor as a means of explaining the gospel of God's Peace Child, sent to end hostilities between God and humanity.

I hope these thoughts help my friend sort through some of theological challenges around multiculturalism. See my review of Lamin Sanneh's Whose Christianity is it Anyway for some more thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Now Playing: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I'm going to stop reading newspaper reviews. David Germain, an AP syndicated reviewer whose work runs in our local daily newspulp, gave us some of these lovely tidbits:

...Harry Potter seems to be living the same school year over and over. And it's starting to wear thin.....

...The fifth adventure for the teen wizard, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is another visual marvel, yet it suffers from a problem similar to other sequels this summer: We've seen it all before.....

...sticks safely and at times monotonously to the Potter formula...

...The movie gains in momentum but loses a lot of the fun and wonder of previous installments.....

...At times, Order of the Phoenix is as dry as studying Latin grammar by rote. A climactic tussle between Harry and Voldemort's forces is among the most impressive visual creations in the Harry Potter flicks; yet dramatically, it's mostly another tease in their endless grudge match.....

...Familiarity is not quite breeding contempt for Harry and his friends and enemies. But it's starting to breed indifference.....

Given such a ho hum reception, I anticipated that I would be as disappointed by this film as I was by the third film.

It seems that Mr Germain and I saw two different films.

The film I went to struck just the right blend of wonder and danger, turmoil and security, hatred and love, loyalty and expediency. Admittedly, this was a compact film -- condensing 800 pages into the shortest film of the series. However, the director made every scene count. Such as the entrance of the maniacal Delores Umbridge. The scene begins with 10 seconds of wizarding school fun -- children laughing as they enchant a paper airplane to become a bird and fly about the room. Even the music bed is charming. And then the airplane bursts into flame as Umbridge enters and starts laying down the law. We get the whimsey and wonder and delight of students, and the oppressive nature of Umbridge all conveyed neatly and beautifully in less than half a minute.

And I laughed in this movie. The jokes were subtle and fast coming. This was in no way an oppressive film. I'd also commend the editing (the montage of Umbridge taking over the school had me laughing harder than I've laughed in a film in quite some time), the costuming (nice flourishes and touches -- Bully Draco dressed in stylish black suit with mock turtleneck, all of Umbridge's costumes), even the scoring worked effectively to establish the balanced tone of whimsey and danger.

And there is danger. Harry does have to face suspicion, opposition from Umbridge, and indeed the minions of Voldemort. And along the way, we see him shine as he learns to trust in and depend upon his friends. He comes into his own as he instructs his friends in how to defend themselves against evil forces.

The series as a whole is about friendship, loyalty, and love. Voldemort has no close friends -- he is alone and worships only power. Harry, Dumbledore, and the rest all put great stock in their friendships and they sacrifice and are willing to suffer for their friends. In this film, this theme of friendship comes to the center with full force, as summarized in the closing line of the film -- as Harry and his friends are heading for the trains that take them home at the end of the school year, Harry comments about their struggle against Voldemort: "We've got something he doesn’t have. We've got something worth fighting for."

The power behind the words only came from the well produced film that preceded them.


Other Harry Potter Links at the Eagle and Child

Film Review: Goblet of Fire
Book Review: Half Blood Prince pt 1
Book Review: Half Blood Prince pt 2

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace -- chapter 2 The priesthood of Christ

Previous Posts

About James Torrance
Chapter 1 -- Trinitarian vs Unitarian worship

This chapter starts with a story. I like stories.

It's Torrance's story about meeting a man on the beach. Torrance had just come out of the ocean on his afternoon swim and an elderly fellow who had been strolling the beach struck up a conversation. When the elderly fellow found out that Torrance was a pastor, he began to pour out his heart.

This man's wife of 45 years lay dying from cancer, and he had been walking the beaches in desperation, trying to figure out how to live without her. His father had been a minister, but he had drifted from faith. "... I was remembering how my father was a man of prayer and had wonderful faith when my mother died. I wish I had that faith. I have been walking up and down this beach trying to pray, but I can't!" came the man's plaintive cry.

Did Torrance give a lesson on prayer? Did he remind him of the words of the Lord's Prayer or the Prayer of Jabez? No

Torrance reminded him that Jesus knew all this -- and that scripture tells us that when we don't know how to pray, Jesus himself prays for us. He reminded the man of Jesus warning to Peter that Satan would sift Peter like wheat, but Jesus said "But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail" (Luke 22:31). He reminded the man that Paul in Romans 8 tells us "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." He reminded the man that Jesus died that we might live and nothing shall separate us from the love of God. Then he prayed with the man right there on the beach.

The next day he met the man again. This fellow had gone home and told his wife everything, and she wanted Torrance to come. Of course he did. Torrance told her about the Trinity -- not in theological terms but in terms of the loving God who sent his Son to die that we might have forgiveness and the Spirit who draws us unto that Son so that we might enjoy eternal life. He spoke about Christ as our great high priest praying for us.

A few weeks later, Torrance received a note from the man saying his wife had died "safe in the arms of Jesus"

Immediately after the story, this quote: “It seems to me that in a pastoral situation our first task is not to throw people back on themselves with exhortations and instructions as to what to do and how to do it, but to direct people to the gospel of grace3 – to Jesus Christ, that they might look to him to lead them, open their hearts in faith and in prayer, and draw them by the Spirit into his eternal life of communion with the Father.” (45)

That's the best part of the chapter -- Torrance then goes into an exploration of Christ as our high priest. I've been preaching through Hebrews on Wednesdays, so I've been immersed in the priesthood of Christ. Torrance takes time to distinguish between contractual repentence and evangelical repentence -- in contractual repentence, we repent that we might be forgiven. In evangelical repentence, we repent in response to the great grace extended to us in Christ's work. As Steve Brown says "Grace always rolls downhill"

Torrance does give two great flashes of insight.

The first arises from evangelical repentence. Christ says "I forgive" before we even repent. Torrence asks us to imagine what we might do if someone told us they forgave us when we didn't think we'd done anything wrong. Odds are we'd be offended that we were being unjustly accused, and who is this smug person offering us forgiveness in the first place when we were justified in our actions to begin with, thank you very much. Odds are, in our offence we'd wind up rejecting the very forgiveness offered (oh we might graciously say something to the other person, but inside, the inner dialogue would reveal the dare they judge us so!). Without the regenerating grace of the Spirit, enabling us to see that we have done wrong, we will reject the freely offered grace.

The second arises from church history. Arius, the great heretic, apparently derived some of his thinking from the role of Christ as high priest. His thinking was that Christ could not at the same time be fully God and offer prayers to God on behalf of the people. If Christ was high priest, he couldn't be fully God. The insight here is that the great heresies (and thus the great doctrines) arise from issues that revolve around relationships -- in this case the relationship of Christ's divine nature and his human nature.

Christians cling to these great doctrines, for they define spiritual health. We cling to the Trinity as one God in three persons. This shows that the very nature of the living God's identity is in relationship of self-giving. We cling to the full humanity and the full divinity of Chrsit, for that is the key to the resolution of justice and love. We cling to the mystic union of the believer to Christ, for that is the ground of all Christian unity, all Christian growth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bits and Pieces July 11, 2007 (Hint It's all about romantic realism)

It's been a while -- I was on vacation for two weeks, but now I'm back in the saddle. Here's a few points of provocative reading/digesting for you.

John Schroeder muses on the moral obligation of happiness. It's a great article and I think he's right on:
Heaviness, unhappiness, is indeed a burden to those around us, and therfore certainly represents a lack of virtue because of that burden. By contrast, lightheartedness, happiness is a measure of faith: Heb 10:34 - For you showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one.Of
course, many of us so doggedly pursue faith as to take all the joy out of it. But that is the beauty of being Reformed - even our faith is supplied, we do not pursue, we accept. And in accepting, we gain happiness.

Lest you think he's being hard on folks -- remember that John has been through a traumatic time these past few months in the loss of his father. He says in a companion post on Pessimism:
Regular readers know the bleakness of my life in recent weeks, but I hold to my Lord and therefore I HAVE HOPE. If my hopes are not realized in accordance with my expectations, still I will have hope for my hope is not in my expectations, but in my Lord.

Which segues nicely into Marvin Olasky's column in the latest World magazine -- in which he talks about "romantic realism" -- the reality in the scriptures that the fallen world is a painful, mucky, and difficult place and yet we have hope and confidence that all will be well and all will be well and all will be well:
The basic idea is that Christianity is the only religion that is both gruesomely accurate in its depiction of abundant sin but also hopeful in its showing that humans are not alone—for the bridegroom, Christ, does not give up even when repeatedly spurned.

My favorite authors depict life as both horror film and the romance of God and man: See Whittaker Chambers' autobiography, Witness (1952), and Jose Gironella's novel, The Cypresses Believe in God (1955). It's exceedingly rare that a movie combines both sides successfully, so I happily settle for both violent guy films (like The Departed) that depict the ravages of sin and some goofy chick flicks (like You've Got Mail) that show the comedic ravishing of hearts.

The Bible, of course, is the romantic realist book that best shows both graves and grace. It doesn't pretend that life is either heavenly or hellish, but shows how we're all thigh-deep in muck yet able, through God's grace, to see the sun. Jesus not only turned water into wine but turned Simon, who dreamed of fish, into Peter, a fisher of men—and he can do that to each of us.
This column alone was worth the subscription cost.

Now I don't think I can tie the other kibble I've assembled here in, but let me at least try. In the face of a world of pain, we have some options... some other than the romantic realism that Olasky talks about. David Brooks has an insightful column showing that one mode of facing the world of pain is by becoming a hard bitten cynic (and he uses the lyrics of contemporary female pop singers to illustrate). Interestingly, his column highlights a social trend that has been painfully obvious for the past couple of decades. Garance Franke-Ruta comments on Brooks with insight, pointing to the loser behavior of single guys as contributing to this trend. All I could think of was A Clockwork Orange -- that's what Brooks is describing.

Well -- there may be more pieces to share -- but I'm out of time for this evening. Dinner guests are coming.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace -- chapter 1

Previous Posts
About James Torrance

Last year, I started into Reggie Kidd's With One Voice, in which Reggie makes biblical case for Christ as leader of our worship -- not Christ as example for our worship, but Christ leading our worship. He started his book with this wonderful quote from Ed Clowney “Our worship on earth is a participation in a gorgeous liturgy that Jesus Christ himself leads from heaven.”

James Torrance makes the theological case for that statement in his work Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. I'll be honest.....I much prefer Reggie's book. Torrance writes like a scholar giving a lecture. He gives us valuable background and contrast to help sharpen our minds as to why Christ as Liturgist is important. Reggie, on the other hand, is a scholar who writes like a poet -- giving us stories and pictures that help us live the truths he talks about. I would suggest that after you're done with Torrance, you immediately pick up Reggie's book and see what I'm talking about.

That said.... Torrance offers some valuable insights.
First, he addresses boldly a deficiency in much contemporary worship today -- a deficiency which he labels as "Unitarian Worship". This is the emphasis on the transactional -- the me and God. I show up with my faith, and I encounter God in worship. The problem with such worship is that it leads to radically impoverished spiritual life. We hear people saying "I didn't get anything out of it" or we place undue worry on the externals of worship. It often leads to people viewing worship leaders as performers on stage, and the congregation as the audience in the position of evaluation.

In contrast, he advocates a "Trinitarian Worship." that recognizes that we are not an audience, but rather a body. But that the body isn't led by the people on the platform. The body is led by Christ. Christ, serving as our prophet, priest, and king, leads worship before the Father. We, joined to him by the power of the Holy Spirit, are along for the ride.

This is where Torrance gives us wonderful stuff. He reminds us of the language that Luther and Calvin use for the atonement - the "wonderful exchange" -- we bring our raglike offerings, our small toys, our widow's mite, and Christ exchanges them for his spotless perfection and then offers that to the Father. Christian worship is “…our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession.” (15) Where our faith is klutzy and klunky and kitschy, Christ offers lovliness and pure fellowship. Where our voices ring like tin in the ears, Christ's voice boldly proclaims harmonious praise that is sweet to the Father's ear.

And in the exchange what Christ offers is what we offer.

Simply put, we're not acceptable to God because of the rightness of the worship we offer. We're acceptable to God solely on the basis of Christ. And it is Christ's good pleasure to take what we bring and breathe life into it by the power of the Holy Spirit. The very fact that we worship at all is a function of the grace of Christ.

And that helps us understand that worship is not just an event that occurs at the regularly scheduled gathering of the assembly. Rather, worship is something that is lived on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, Torrance bombards us with theological diagrams and dozens of names of theologians. This is fine for the theology-heads, but it is quite intimidating for other folks (I've had several people remark to me that this book made them "feel stupid").

That said, let me further apply the truth that Torrance hits on -- God doesn't accept us based off the breadth of our knowledge of the history of theology. But as we make stumbling efforts to understand, the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth and Christ brings the humble offerings of our desire to understand to the father.

More to Come on this one.

Soli Deo Gloria