Monthly Archives: April 2014

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?

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The Roman Road and The Tree of Life

tree-of-life73

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.” 

Empty Yourself

Gaugain

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. It’s Paul exhorting the Philippian church to emulate the humility of Christ–a countercultural concept especially within the intense honor/status culture of Philippi, a Roman colony. But it’s also a passage that speaks clearly to all Christians today. Christ-like humility is the way we should live. It all comes back to this.

In a culture that beckons us to broadcast ourselves, pose for the Selfie, maneuver for maximum online exposure and obsess about our social media followings… It all comes back to this. Amidst our impulses to privilege our success,  our security and our every whim and inkling in the direction of the great idol of happiness, it all comes back to this.

Humility. Pouring ourselves out for others rather than pontificating on Twitter or posturing on Facebook. Serving the needs of others before sulking about what we don’t have. Seeing ourselves rightly and privileging the Other in a culture that worships the sovereign self. As Spurgeon once said, “Humility is to make a right estimate of oneself.”

It’s simple, and yet it’s always a struggle.

If the most fundamental and original sin of mankind is pride, the most fundamental virtue is humility. It’s Christ-likeness in microcosm. It’s not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought. It’s giving ourselves away for Christ and his gospel, which is also to say giving ourselves away for others.

Life is short. The universe is huge. I am but a tiny particle in a millisecond of God’s ongoing epic. No matter how great I think I am, my life is but a vapor in the wind. Humility isn’t just a virtue I’m called to; it’s reality.

On this Good Friday, I think John Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer” offers a beautiful articulation of what it means to humbly serve our Servant King:

I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.