In Memory of Chris Mitchell

I recently saw Richard Linklater’s amazing film, Boyhood, which–filmed over twelve years, with the same actors–captures the passage of time and the process of growth like no other film I’ve seen. I’ve also recently been in Europe, where history and the links between what is and what was are impossible to miss.

Because of this I’ve been reflecting on my own personal history: How I’ve come to be who I am, planted where I am. The thought experiment of backwards-tracking the dominoes of one’s trajectory inevitably leads to rabbit trails and spider webs of limitless complexity. But isolating certain threads can make the process more manageable.

In Oxford last week, I reflected on one such thread: my fondness for C.S. Lewis and the important role he’s played in my life. As my family and I toured Magdalen College, walked along Addison’s Walk, sat down in the Eagle & Child, snapped pictures in front of the Kilns and and marveled at the beauty of St. Mary’s church, I thought of the profoundly shaping times I spent in each place as part of C.S. Lewis Foundation events. But I would never have gotten involved with the C.S. Lewis Foundation, and probably never have come to adore Oxford and Cambridge (and England generally), had I not worked for four years as a student worker at the Marion E. Wade Center while an undergraduate at Wheaton College. And my experience at the Wade–a place where my love of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton and others blossomed–would not have been what it was without the friendship of its director, Dr. Chris Mitchell.Chris-Mitchell_faculty_square_300

Perhaps it is fitting that it was in a London hotel room on July 11 that I first received the news of Chris’s passing. I couldn’t believe the e-mail I was reading. I couldn’t believe that I would never see Chris again. Just a few weeks earlier I had passed Chris on the campus of Biola and we’d made plans to get dinner this summer with our wives, as we’d done once before since he and Julie moved out to California last year. I couldn’t believe that, just like that, he was gone.

The shocking e-mail on July 11 reminded me of another rather shocking e-mail that I’d received in January 2013. It was from Chris Mitchell and the subject heading read “Coming Your Way.” In the e-mail he broke the news that he was stepping down as director of the Wade Center and accepting a teaching position at the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola, where I’ve worked for the past six years (!!). I was elated. I hadn’t seen Chris for several years but was excited by the possibility of re-connecting with him in California. And when he arrived on campus, we did.

Now that Chris was a Biolan, I immediately asked him to write a cover story on C.S. Lewis for the Biola Magazine in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. In spite of being crazy busy winding up at Wheaton and moving across the country, Chris agreed. You can read the excellent piece he wrote here.

Chris was a man I respected deeply: A faithful Christian, a top-notch scholar, a family man, a lover of life. He’s the type of man I aspire to be.

You could talk to Chris about anything. Literature, theology, relationships, scotch. When I worked as a student at the Wade Center in Wheaton, he’d often chat with me about movies because he knew that was one of my passions. Even though he was the director and I was merely a student working just a few hours a day, Chris always made me feel more like a colleague than an underling. One time he asked me to do some primary research in the letters of Lewis and Tolkien to help him with a paper he was writing about the relationship between the two authors. I remember feeling so honored by that, so respected. Chris always cared for people in a way that encouraged and valued them. It’s one of the reasons why he’s such a natural and beloved teacher, and why it’s so sad that he only got to bless the students of the Torrey Honors Institute here at Biola for one year.

I’m grieved by the loss of Chris Mitchell, as everyone is who knew him. He had much life still to live. And yet I know that his joy, frivolity and energy for life is infinitely amplified in his present state.

On the night I heard of Chris’s death, I thought of the line from Lewis’s Till We Have Faces when Psyche says that “the sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from.” As much as I’ll miss him, I’m comforted by the fact that Chris has reached the Mountain and is now in the presence of Beauty’s true source.

Best Films of the First Half

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We’re midway through 2014 and so, as I do every summer, I’ve compiled my list of favorite films so far this year. I have yet to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which doesn’t come out until July 11 anyway), which I assume will make my year-end list.  I love Linklater and last year at this time I already knew his Before Midnight would be one of my top films of the year.  In general it’s been a fairly standard first half of the cinematic year: a few great films but not a lot of memorable ones. I’m excited to see what’s to come this fall. Here’s what’s stayed with me so far in 2014:

1) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my full review)

2) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my full review)

3) True Detective: OK, I know this isn’t a film per se. It’s TV (well, HBO). But who can tell movies and TV apart anymore? This eight-part epic takes the police procedural to the next level, mixing the ominous tone of Zodiac with the potboiler plots of C.S.I., but with far more grit and misanthropy. Though at times a bit too bleak for me, the show’s finale (“Form and Void”) puts the whole thing in a new perspective and adds major theological gravitas to an already philosophically bent show.

4) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

5) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my full review)

Honorable mention: Cold in July, Ida, Night Moves, Mad Men, Mitt

Note: THE IMMIGRANT, TRUE DETECTIVE and especially UNDER THE SKIN  contain sexual material and nudity and should be approached with caution for those sensitive to this type of content. 

Carl Lentz, CNN and Hipster Christianity

Earlier this week a segment aired on CNN about “hipster pastor” Carl Lentz, the heavily tattooed, dynamic personality who has helped make Hillsong Church in NYC the sort of place that piques mainstream journalists’ interest and occasionally draws paparazzi (celebrities sometimes attend). Back in March, CNN sent its correspondent, Poppy Harlow, to L.A. to interview me for the story. They filmed about 45 minutes of her interview with me, in which I spoke mostly about the general topic of “hipster Christianity” since I wrote the book on the subject. Only a few lines from my interview made it into the final segment. Watch it below (my part comes in about 5 minutes into the segment) and then I’ll share a few further reflections on the matter:

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/living/2014/06/02/ac-harlow-pastor-carl-lentz-long.cnn.html

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A few brief reflections:

  • I have nothing personal against Carl Lentz or Hillsong NYC. I’ve never met him and never attended his church. When CNN interviewed me for the story I made it clear to them that I was speaking about the broad trend of hipster Christianity and hipster pastors, but that I knew little if anything about Lentz specifically. Naturally the way the piece is edited it seems like I’m being pit against Lentz as a skeptic or critic, but really I’m just skeptical of the broad trends of churches trying so hard to be cool and pastors aspiring to be hip.
  • In general I am a fan of the Hillsong movement. Hillsong has planted thriving churches all over the globe and that is something I absolutely applaud. I’ve visited two Hillsong churches (London and Paris) and in Hipster Christianity I wrote very nice things about my experience at Hillsong Paris.
  • It’s interesting to me that the media is so fascinated by Lentz and Hillsong NYC, as if Lentz is the first hipster celebrity pastor and Hillsong NYC is the first megachurch to succeed in NYC. During my interview with Poppy Harlow I tried to emphasize that this was not a new trend, that hipster pastors are a dime a dozen and that “cool” has been the holy grail of American evangelicalism for quite some time now; Lentz is just the latest example. I suspect proximity has something to do with why Lentz is such a darling of the media (here’s a Details profile of him that also features quotes from me). The media is in NYC. So is Carl Lentz. But so are many other well-known pastors, many of whom are arguably more widely respected and influential (I’m looking at you Tim Keller). For the media, though, a bearded Bieber friend is a more compelling story than a balding Bible scholar.
  • In response to my comments in the CNN piece, some people tweeted things like “Don’t you see that it’s just a different medium? The message is what matters.” I would agree that the message is crucial, but I would also say the message cannot be divorced from the way it is communicated. Marshall McLuhan was on to something when he said the medium IS the message. The form matters. We can’t pretend that the gospel presented via tweet is the exact same thing as the gospel preached from a pulpit, or face to face around a dinner table. Likewise, we are foolish to think that a church that looks and feels like a nightclub, with a pastor who struts around like a runway model, in no way changes the “message” of what is being communicated about the gospel. Likewise, an Anglican church with pews and robes and hymns, with no screens or smoke machines, colors the message in a totally different (not necessarily better) way. The gospel is not just an ethereal set of words and ideas; it’s something incarnate, living, embodied. The look, feel, touch and sound of it is inextricably linked to (if not the substance of) its meaning. The message inheres in the medium. That is one of the biggest points I wanted to make in Hipster Christianity

Films About Faith That Are Actually Good

There have been quite a few “faith” oriented films to come out this year, including the excellent Noah but also quite a few terrible Christian films: God’s Not Dead, Heaven is For Real, Mom’s Night Out, Son of God. And coming this fall: Left Behind, Nicolas Cage style.

Thankfully there have been several really excellent “secular” films that have either directly or indirectly explored Christianity, God, faith and morality, and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of them for Christianity Today:

Locke (dir. Steven Knight): Full review. Excerpt:

As the film progresses we realize, as Locke does, that as much as we desire full control, there will always be things outside of our power. Men want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They want to earn it. But sometimes being a man means embracing one’s limits, humbling yourself, and accepting the reality of a higher sovereignty.

The best moments in Locke are the brief glimpses we get of the man’s vulnerability. They are few and far between, but thanks to the film’s close-up camerawork and Hardy’s astonishing performance, we can’t miss them. They reminded me of epiphanies in other films where the “I’ve got it all under control” man comes to a humble awareness of his own limitation: the final moments of All is Lost; the “I wanted to be loved because I’m great” moment in The Tree of Life when Brad Pitt concludes, “I’m nothing.”

These are moments of grace. They are moments when the reality becomes clear that “self-made” can only go so far, that we can never truly survive on our own, and that that’s a good thing. We need grace. And while grace cannot be earned and must accepted from a humble posture, grace is not opposed to effort, as Dallas Willard says

The Immigrant (dir. James Gray). Full review. Excerpt:

immigrantWhen Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) gets arrested and briefly jailed midway through the film, one of his other prostitutes laments to Ewa that “we are nothing without him.” Ewa (Marion Cotillard) emphatically replies, “I am not nothing.” Even the most depraved and lowly creatures have dignity, Ewa’s faith leads her to believe, and she sees this in people even when they themselves do not. When Bruno is at his lowest moment and says “I’m nothing,” Ewa repeats her earlier comment, but this time to him: “You are not nothing.”

Both Emil (Jeremy Renner) and (in the film’s closing moments) Bruno appear at times to be Christ figures of sorts. Yet it is Ewa herself who ultimately presents the film’s best picture of Christ-like love and sacrifice. Everything she does in the film is not for herself, but for the sake of her sister. She lays aside her innocence and opens herself to the profoundest humiliation, so as to liberate her imprisoned sister. It’s an imperfect parallel to be sure, but Ewa’s journey reminds me a bit of what Paul says of Christ in Galatians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.”

Christ, of course, went further. Unlike Ewa, who grasps on to her belief that “I am not nothing,” Christ relinquished all claim to pride and status (Philippians 2:6-8) and became “nothing” on a cross, for our sake. God vindicated Christ’s humility by exalting him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9-11).

Other recent films I recommend that deal with matters of faith, God, and morality: Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski) and Night Moves (dir. Kelley Reichardt).

 

Visions of Ecumenism

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In the Spring of 2010 I attended two conferences in the span of a week–Louisville’s “Together for the Gospel” and Wheaton College’s Theology Conference with N.T. Wright. The juxtaposition of the two gatherings–each fruitful and rich in their own right–gave me much to ponder. I was inspired to write an article for Christianity Today about the two events and the challenge of unity within the body of Christ.

The question of unity is again on my mind after attending another two conferences in a week’s span: last week’s Q Nashville and Tuesday night’s “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola. The latter event, which featured Peter Leithart, Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman discussing ecumenism and the question of whether Protestantism should give way to “Reformational Catholics,” can be viewed in its entirety here.

Q Nashville, a gathering of more than 1,000 Christian leaders (though you’re hard pressed to find the word “Christian” on the event’s website), is a fascinating artifact of “post-evangelical” evangelicalism of the tech-savvy, coffee-guzzling, pristinely branded sort. It was my first time at a Q event, though I’ve written occasionally for Q Ideas over the years. Despite a surfeit of M83, open bar tipsiness and TOMS paraphernalia (all of which makes me a bit uneasy given my history of critiquing style-centered Christianity), I quite admire Q’s vision to collectively “advance the common good.”

Q’s visionary leader, Gabe Lyons, was shaped by the late Chuck Colson, one of the original signatories of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. It’s not surprising that Lyons has picked up his mentor’s ecumenism and re-packaged it in the form of Q, the very name of which reflects the second syllable’s sound of eCUmenism.

Q espouses an ecumenism that is manifest primarily in its form: The events deliberately shirk labels (“Christian,” “evangelical,” etc.) and favor “common good” language, purposefully amassing diverse speaker lineups (in Ted Talk bursts of 3, 9 and 18-minute talks) that represent a wide swath of Christendom and even some allies-for-the-good from outside the faith. I don’t think I’ve been to a Christian conference with as much variety in terms of content (everything from peaches to Avatar to neuroscience and puppetry) and background of presenters. At Q Nashville there were liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Palestinians, nuns, priests, Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Canadians, Australians, comedians, feminists, complementarians, activists, educators, Carrie Underwood, Rachel Held Evans, Russell Moore and so on.

It was nice to see. Though the Q audience was by no means a representative sampling of Christianity today (non-white, non-western and non-iPhone Christians were underrepresented), the ethos of it all was decidedly striving toward a more unified and ecumenical Christianity, reflected in an “Evangelicals and Catholics” together panel discussion, an interview with a nun (one of my personal highlights) and a generally positive attitude toward our friends in Constantinople and Rome (though in a pre-conference poll, 16% of the Q attendees said they don’t consider Catholics to be Christians in any sense of the word).

Enter Peter Leithart, whose provocative essay last November on “The End of Protestantism” launched a conversation that culminated in this week’s happier-sounding “Future of Protestantism” event at Biola University.

Leithart shares the ecumenical optimism of Q, albeit more rigorously ecclesiological in nature.

“Division cannot be the final state of Christ’s church,” he said in his talk at Biola. “Jesus prayed that we would be one, and this unity that he prayed for must be visible enough for the world to notice… The promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”

Leithart spent some time explaining why “swimming the Tiber has become a popular evangelical pastime.” He noted the “fox-hole ecumenism” of the culture wars, uniting Catholics and Protestants around issues like abortion and gay marriage, as well as a growing openness to learning from each other’s traditions (e.g. “Protestant pastors reading papal encyclicals for edification.”) All of this was  present at Q Nashville, for example.

Leithart noted a “growing revulsion at the divisiveness of Protestantism,” a revulsion that he says is not war weariness or relativism but rather, at its best, a recovery of the New Testament. “Evangelicals are increasingly convinced that unity is a demand of the gospel and that we are complicit in a profound unfaithfulness if we acquiesce in permanent division,” he said.

I’m not sure I know who the evangelicals are he is referring to here: the ones who are increasingly repulsed by Protestantism’s divisiveness. Perhaps the Q crowd?  Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman both seemed to suggest that many everyday evangelicals aren’t familiar enough with Protestant history to self-identify as such, let alone participate in these “is the protest over?” discussions.

Do the “grand gestures of intellectual ecumenism” really help the evangelical who “may have never heard of Aquinas but needs to be able to give an answer for the hope that they have to the people working next to them on the factory floor”? Carl Trueman pondered this at the Biola event, suggesting that unity is vital first and foremost on the local level (let’s start with unity among the growing throngs of Presbyterian sects!) as worked out in practical pastoral ministry. And it begins with a more robust historical rootedness and grasp of our own tradition, understanding what we believe and why.

Sanders–self-described “content provider for Trinitarian evangelicalism”–concurs, both in the necessity of evangelical awareness of our “Protestant heritage of creed and confession and catechism” and in the “first-things-first” need to get our own house in order on a whole host of issues, beginning with Trinity 101. A family reunion between Protestants and Catholics would be nice, but it’s not a priority given all of our other issues, Sanders believes. In his list of “things to worry about among evangelical Protestants,” bad attitudes toward Roman Catholics doesn’t make the top 10. And even if it did eventually move up the list, could Catholics and Protestants really sufficiently agree on things like Scriptural authority and salvation by faith to warrant the forming of one unified, post-Protestant body? 

Sanders thinks not. In theory Catholics affirm, with Protestants, the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith. But they “affirm them badly,” says Sanders. “[Catholics] can dialectically juggle away the authority of Scripture into a wider manifold of authorities… They can mix salvation by faith with all sorts of badly ordered distractions.”

But questions of whether a Protestant-Catholic reunion is feasible or necessary aside (important questions, to be sure), Leithart’s passion for ridding Christianity of tribalism (both Protestant and Catholic varieties) is admirable, if a bit naive. As Doug Wilson noted in his comments on the “Future of Protestantism event, “if you take tribalism out of Protestantism, you are removing something accidental to it, but if you do the same to Roman Catholicism, you are removing something essential to their central claims.” Nevertheless, Leithart’s vision for “Reformational Catholicism” is inspiring, at least to me.

When I think about the times in my own Christian life when I felt the Spirit of God most powerfully, loved the Bride of Christ most profoundly and glimpsed the “city yet to come” most clearly, I recall most readily the moments where I worshipped and fellowshipped alongside believers who were very different from me and yet were clearly family.

I think of some of the conversations I had last week at Q, like with a young pastor in Nashville whose church is Pentecostal liturgical, where hand-raising and creed-reciting are not at odds.

I think of the time I served at a Presbyterian church plant in downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo and experienced the challenging beauty of urban ministry in a multi-cultural context.

I think of late nights in Oxford pubs with Christians from Vineyard, Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Orthodox backgrounds, and sharing communion with the same group in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, all as part of a conference inspired by Mr. “Mere Christian” himself.

I think of the awkward-but-wonderful experience of worshipping in Spanish-language churches in Buenos Aires and French-language communities in Paris, singing familiar hymns in different languages.

I think of the church where my wife and I are currently members, a suburban warehouse non-denom congregation pastored by South Africans and heavy on the Word, the Spirit and global church partnership.

Or I think of the surrealist oddity that is the “Pope Francis sends message to Kenneth Copeland” YouTube video (you must see to believe), a stranger-than-fiction artifact of a “now and not yet” church unity.

These moments are not without the awkwardness and difficulty that inevitably accompanies the convergence of vastly different people and perspectives. And yet they are all beautiful. There’s something about the coming-together of diverse people around the cross, for the sake of the gospel, that is incredibly powerful, fundamental and formative. As Leithart says, “the promise of unity is internal to the Good News.”

Whenever I can participate in or even just glimpse this sort of unity–this Gal. 3, Eph. 2, Rev. 5  gift of unlikely and in process family–I am thankful.

Peter Leithart’s “Church of the Future”

A fascinating event took place on Tuesday night at Biola University: “The Future of Protestantism.” The event was the culmination of a conversation sparked by an essay Peter Leithart wrote for First Things last November entitled “The End of Protestantism,” which then prompted a rebuttal from Biola’s Fred Sanders and then a rebuttal to the rebuttal by Leithart. All are well worth reading.

The “Future of Protestantism” event gathered Leithart, Sanders and Carl Trueman together on one stage to debate exactly what the event’s title ponders: what form should Protestantism take going forward? Is the “protest” of the Reformation still necessary or should unity as the one body of Christ be the goal as religion in general becomes marginalized in the secularizing west?

Leithart’s perspective is that Protestantism, insofar as it is defined in opposition to Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy), should end. It’s time for unity, he argues; unity is internal to the gospel itself.

“For either side, to persist in a provisional Protestant/Catholic self identification is a defection from the gospel,” says Leithart. “If the gospel is true, we are who we are by union with Jesus, in his Spirit, with his people. It then cannot be the case that we are who are are by differentiation from other believers.”

I’ll talk more in-depth about the challenging question of unity, as well as Sanders and Trueman’s responses to Leithart, in another blog post. But for now I want to consider the meat of Leithart’s proposal as articulated at Biola, which I think has merit and should be respectfully considered by even the most Bible-thumping and Sola-centric of Protestant evangelicals.

What does a unified, post-Protestant church look like? This was the substance of Leithart’s talk. He suggested we shouldn’t focus on the future of Protestantism as much as the church of the future, “a city yet to come.” His vision is for what he calls “Reformational Catholic” churches, and during his talk he offered a partial wish list of attributes he dreams of for this future model of church:

  1. Churches where “faith without works is dead” is heard as frequently as justification by faith
  2. Preachers who preach the whole Bible, in all its depth and beauty, and who draw on the whole tradition of Christian commentary as they prepare their sermons and teaching
  3. Pastors who form friendships with the local Orthodox and Catholic priests, knowing that they are one body
  4. Seminaries where theologians are encouraged to follow Scripture wherever it leads, even if we have to admit that our opponents were right all along
  5. Churches whose worship centers on the Eucharist, celebrated at least weekly
  6. Churches whose members know Psalms as well as any medieval monk, where hymns and prayers and praise are infused with the cadences of the Psalter
  7. Churches with enemies enough to make imprecatory psalms seem natural
  8. Churches whose musical culture is shaped by the tradition of church music
  9. Churches where infants are baptized and young children participate in the eucharistic assembly
  10. Churches whose pastors have the courage to use the tools of discipline with all love, gentleness, kindness and patience, but to use them, rather than using love and gentleness as excuses for cowardice and lethargy
  11. Churches that honor the discipline of other churches, knowing that they are one body
  12. Lutheran pastors who teach obedience, as Luther did
  13. Anglicans who exercise discipline
  14. Jolly Presbyterians with a reputation for levity
  15. Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition
  16. Baptists who love hierarchy
  17. Liturgical Bible churches
  18. Cities where all the churches pray and worship and labor together, where pastors serve the interests of the city, speaking with a single voice to civic leaders
  19. Churches that take the pedophilia scandal, the upheavals in the Anglican communion, the persecution of Orthodox believers as crises among our people, not problems for someone else over there, knowing that if one suffers, all the members suffer
  20. Churches that recognize that they are already members of a Church, where there are some who venerate icons, some who believe in transubstantiation, some who slaughter peaceful Muslim neighbors, some who believe in papal infallibility and Mary’s immaculate conception, knowing that we are one body

This last point is particularly controversial, I suspect, as it is precisely on the basis of things like icon veneration and papal infallibility that so many Protestants are dubious of full communion with their Orthodox or Catholic brethren.

Leithart’s vision of “Reformational Catholic” churches, however, invites such differences and internalizes them as “in-the-family” issues that must be reckoned with and hashed out together, as one body, rather than tossed aside under the banner of irreconcilable schism.

“If Rome is simply outside of us, we can leave it to its errors,” said Leithart. “But if we are one body, Rome’s errors are errors in the church in which we too are members. Brothers correct brothers, and it works both ways.”

What do you think of Leithart’s proposal? Is his 20-point vision of “Reformational Catholic” #futurechurch compelling? Realistic? Naive? Within reach? Are there unreconcilable differences that make such a coming-back-together untenable?

The Roman Road and The Tree of Life

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I grew in Oklahoma and Kansas, in a very conservative Baptist church culture. My family went to church twice on Sunday and at least once during the week. As a kid I was heavily involved in Sunday School and Bible clubs, memorizing scripture for various rewards: stickers, medals and recognition.

One thing that was ingrained into my Bible memory from an early age was something called “the Roman Road.” The Roman Road, as I understood it, was a series of 6 or 7 Bible verses from Romans–though I think John 3:16 was also in the mix–that collectively spelled out exactly what individuals like me needed to do to get saved.

As a kid I knew the Roman Road well–I had it down pat–but I had no concept at all about what a “Roman road” actually was or how it played into the historical narrative of the world in which Jesus lived. I had no idea that “Romans” was actually a letter written by Paul to actual early Christians in an actual city called Rome.

The Roman Road I knew was about decontextualized concepts packaged for an individualistic purpose, not enfleshed reality within a big picture story. Christianity was about feelings and morals and me escaping hell. The phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism,” coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe the faith of today’s American teenagers, was a pretty accurate description of my youth group upbringing.

It wasn’t until years later that I had any idea that the broader story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, was indispensable to my understanding of God … and that the most important thing about the Bible was not my individual salvation, but rather the bigger story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.

Fast forward to January of this year: My wife and I were in Rome as part of a two week trip to Italy. It was amazing. We were walking among ruins of buildings that stood in Jesus’ day. We saw structures that Paul saw, the prison where Peter was held, the location where Paul may or may not be buried; we learned about the actual Roman Roads that were a key part of the infrastructure of the Roman empire which aided in Christianity’s fast growth.

All of it was real; tangible; a reminder that the Bible shouldn’t be read as just isolated ideas and ethereal concepts, but a tangible narrative that actually happened, in actual locations, with actual people whose stories are part of a continuum in which I am a part.

Going to the Vatican Museum was also powerful: Seeing the entire history of Christianity told through art, culminating in Michelangelo’s breathtaking Sistine Chapel roof. Then walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, built on the site of the Circus of Nero, historically believed to be where Peter was martyred. It was all a reminder of the grand drama of history that surrounds and gives meaning to the theology behind our faith.

Walt Russell, a New Testament professor of mine at Talbot School of Theology, likes to say that western Christianity often erroneously reads the narrative of Scripture through a vertical framework: It’s about us as individuals, and God above, and how we can “get right” with him through the atoning work of Jesus.

The way Scripture ought to be read, says Russell, is not primarily vertically but rather horizontally, as one big narrative that begins in Eden, builds through Israel, climaxes with Christ, includes the church and moves forward until Christ returns.

Yes, our individual stories matter, but mostly because they are subplots and microcosms of the BIG story God is telling. Each of our lives can be a reflection of the redemptive story God authors on a massive scale. Each is a compelling chapter in the epic of creation.

A movie that I think illustrates this well is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Malick’s film is essentially about the birth and death of the universe, with an intimate story of a Texas family in between. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of the micro and macro… a “small s” story of the O’Brien family’s struggles with grief, love, sin and redemption, set against the “Big S” backdrop of God’s handiwork in the cosmos. One minute the film shows us the intimate moments of a mother grieving the loss of her son; the next minute we’re taken on a 20 minute tour of the creation of the universe.

The elliptical structure of the Tree of Life reflects its title, which is a nod to a biblical image–the “tree of life” that appears both in Genesis (in the Garden of Eden) and in Revelation 22 with Eden restored in the new creation.

All of our stories, like that of the O’Brien family in The Tree of Life, take place between these two trees: Paradise lost and paradise regained. All of our stories groan for restoration, for a return to the garden.

This unsettledness and in-betweenness fuels our desire to make art and tell stories, to express the the longings of life between the two trees.

Story is an incredibly powerful force in our world. It’s our DNA as human beings. It’s realm Christians must exist within, and be excellent within. And yet I’d suggest that the trajectory our culture is on when it comes to story is something we should resist. The more fragmented and isolated and self-oriented our stories become in this “iWorld,” the less impact they will have.

Our stories matter not because they are our stories, but because they are God’s. And this is countercultural in our self-obsessed, YOU-Tube, I-Phone, FACEbook culture. When we have the vertical orientation of seeing our story only in terms of “me and Jesus,” we miss out on the grandeur and drama of the big story, and our narrative impact will be relatively minor.

But when we situate ourselves within the horizontal story, connecting ourselves to tradition and meaning and struggle all the way back to the fall and forward to restoration, our storytelling will pulsate with a transcendent energy.

These are the types of stories we need to tell.

We transcend the “iWorld” when we begin to see how our own “ordinary” stories rehearse and reflect the Extraordinary story of God;  when we can see the Roman Road not a conceptual roadmap for individual salvation, but as a real historical plot point in God’s ongoing narrative.

For Christian storytellers it’s crucial that we can give eloquent form to the big story. If we are educators or pastors or parents, we must teach our students, congregations and children the BIG picture of God’s story, grounded in theological depth and historical breadth. Part of the reason so many young people are abandoning Christianity in America is precisely because the Christianity they’ve known is primarily about disconnected “moral lessons” and a vague, de-storied therapeutic Deism that is untethered to anything other than individual salvation and individual happiness.

It behooves us push back against this. It behooves us to re-story the church.

Artists of faith play a crucial role in this too. We must resist the tendency of contemporary art-making to be primarily about SELF expression for the sake of self expression. Instead we must paint, photograph, film, compose, create and re-create work that glimpses the greater narrative — a narrative that includes us, but is bigger than us.

It’s a narrative that is marginalized in a world overwhelmed and exhausted by a million stories a minute; but it’s a narrative we need more than ever.

Note: The text of this post is from a talk I delivered at the 2014 Razor’s Edge Conference, which was themed, “Transcending the iWorld: Extraordinary Stories in a Fragmented Age.”