Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Argo movie reminds us of something

Argo, the new movie about the Iran hostage crisis (how well some of us elders remember) is not only a terrific thriller but also extremely funny--a refreshing and unusual combination. Alan Arkin has been a favorite of mine for ages, ever since his very first movie, The Russians Are Coming (see it!), and this is one of his most amusing performances.

But the reason for this blog is to remind us all that MI5 and CIA derring-do can be more pernicious than glamorous. In 1953, Great Britain and the United States collaborated to engineer a coup to remove Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran and Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1951.  This was not Winston Churchill's finest hour, nor Eisenhower's, nor the Dulles brothers.' Why did we do this? You can look it up in Wikipedia, but the principal reasons were 1) Mossadegh, a reformer, had the temerity to nationalize the British oil companies, and 2) United States was in a state of paranoia about Communism. Mossadegh, an elegant and educated man, was held in solitary confinement for three years and then under house arrest until his death.

Many years later, Madeleine Albright, no pushover, made a statement regretting this action. It can certainly be argued that many of our problems today date from this atrocious intervention on the part of the two Western powers. The movie Argo spends only a minute or two, at the very beginning, reminding us of this, but it's clearly laid out, and that's all it takes to start one thinking.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

God and the media

There is no more heartbreaking situation in the church today than the utter failure of the mainline churches and the conservative evangelical churches to communicate with one another. They might as well be in opposite planetary orbits. And the situation is getting worse.

This thought is occasioned by the uproar concerning Richard Mourdock, the Republican Senate candidate from Indiana, who said that a life conceived by rape was "something God intended to happen." I was in the car most of yesterday and listened to the satellite cable channels. One of my favorite stations is POTUS (Politics of the US, or President of the US), but yesterday I was so angry listening to it that I wanted to pull over and telephone them (I would have, but I have tried that several times before with NPR and never got on, so I've given up). Pete Dominic, the afternoon host, is an immature hothead, but intelligent, so I listen to him occasionally. Yesterday he was taking off after Mourdock, with good reason, but the level of contempt for belief in God was at such a high level that I was shocked. A good many conservative/fundamentalist Christians called in, trying to explain what Mourdock might actually have meant, and it was rather touching to hear how hard they were trying to testify to their faith in God. They never got half a chance, though, because of Mr. Dominic's volleys of disgust. He wasn't just arguing with the Mourdock stance. He was heaping contempt upon the very idea of faith in the God of the Bible, and he obviously thought his point of view ("God is in everything...God is love...God is my family...God isn't some dad in the sky who controls everything...") was the only one that could even conceivably be held by an intelligent person. His hapless callers, who tried hard to be polite, were utterly squashed.

The problem here is that the callers represented a simplistic, almost rote form of Christianity where the Bible is not really wrestled with, but used as a source of slogans and platitudes. This large population does not seem to be familiar with the idea that even for the most faithful Christian, problems and challenges arise that seem to have no clear resolution in this life. It is interesting that these callers almost always seem to be white. African-American Christians (according to my observation, at any rate) tend to have a much more profound, even sophisticated, understanding of the mystery of evil--for good reason. When black Christians speak, there is more respect--partly out of political correctness, but partly out of their credibility as sufferers.

In any case, there are two major problems here. One is that the representatives of the media almost never pay any attention to serious, responsible Christian thinkers (notable exceptions in the print media: David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Nicholas Kristof). They pick on the easy targets.( This is also true of the "new atheists," as has often been noted.)

The second problem is that the Christian churches are making very little serious effort to present themselves with strength. We are so busy distancing ourselves from one another that we make to impression whatsoever except with our scandals and our schisms.

If I were young enough and in a position to be a church leader today, one of my top priorities would  to try to have regular conversations, maybe even pulpit exchanges, with 1) an African-American pastor in a non-mainline congregation and 2) a pastor in a conservative evangelical/ nondenominational church. I have one particular friend/colleague/conversation partner in the second category, and we argue about many things, but there is no doubt in the minds of either of us that we both love and are loved by the Lord. If there was a crisis I could call upon him, and he upon me.

The "Christian Right" thinks that the mainline, "liberal" churches are enemies, not really Christian. The liberal churches think that the congregations on the right are somewhere between uneducated and downright dangerous. There is some modicum of truth in both views. Given the present situation, however, with both groups regarding one another with mistrust and disdain, the credibility and influence of the Christian faith can only decline.

As a postscript, I once again recommend David B. Hart's little book, The Doors of the Sea (Eerdmans), as the best discussion of the problem of evil and suffering presently available. If only every serious Christian could read and ponder it, we would not have so many people saying such inane things about rape and abortion, and we would not have such a gap between Christians.        

Monday, October 15, 2012

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

After two weeks of intensive preaching, lecturing, and teaching from the Bible "on the road," I am more convinced than ever that people need (and want) to hear from the Epistles, not just the Gospels. (Not to mention the Old Testament--my new book And God Spoke to Abraham is intended to be a strong protest against its neglect). There has been for some time a strong tendency in the mainline churches--certainly in the Episcopal Church--to preach exclusively from the Gospel lesson appointed in the lectionary.  One problem with this is that there is, over time, a certain sameness. People become inured to the shock value in the teaching of Jesus, especially since the sermons of today generally tend to be bland and inoffensive. (Theologian Joseph Mangina, in a recent article in The Living Church, refers to "mind-numbingly dull" sermons).

Another serious problem is that today's sermons on the Gospel readings tend toward a "low" Christology. It is virtually impossible in a brief sermon to interpret short passages in their full context. It was quite a surprise to me, some months ago, to read the Gospel of Matthew all the way through (for the first time in a while) and to realize how "high" its Christology is. If Matthew is taken only in segments, the overall design of the Gospel disappears. It used to be taught that Matthew was a minature Torah, divided into five "books" of teaching. Now, with the more canonical and literary approach that is once again favored, it is recognized that the structure of the Gospel includes the genealogy and the birth narrative. This raises the ante considerably and throws into high relief the Christological affirmations that occur all through Matthew's Gospel.

The most conspicuous passages of high Christology in the New Testament are the Prologue of John, the second chapter of Colossians, the first four verses of Hebrews, and the so-called "Christ-hymn" of Philippians 2. Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh, has written a small book with a clever title,  How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans) I read it recently. It's a condensation but also an expansion of some of the ideas in his massive study,  Lord Jesus Christ. His essential argument is that we can trace the confession of Jesus of Nazareth as pre-existent Son of God and Lord of the universe to the very earliest years of the Christian movement, immediately after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Philippians 2 is a particularly compelling example, since Paul clearly expects the Philippian Christians to recognize the hymn that he quotes in praise of the crucified and exalted Christ.

During my travels I had a conversation with a married couple, devoted members of their Episcopal church, who have been listening to Bishop Spong's tapes in their car. I was startled; I keep thinking that Spong is long past his sell-by date. His notions, marketed as cutting-edge, are in fact so far behind current scholarship (not to mention the needs of the church) as to be almost ludicrous. Yet the influence of the Jesus Seminar and its many affiliates, which many of us foolishly thought could be safely ignored, have made deep and lasting inroads into the faith of the church, and the results are clearly visible. People no longer know what they are supposed to believe about our Lord and Savior, and are made to feel foolish if they cherish the age-old affirmations.

There are many reasons for the decline in church attendance and fervor, but this uncertainty about the original confessions of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and only-begotten Son of God is the most potent. Moreover, unlike the other factors such as demographics, competition, distractions, the new atheism, cultural shifts, the Internet, etc., this particular factor undermines the church at its very center and core.

Will Willimon, the celebrated preacher of the Duke University Chapel, is back at Duke after a decade as a Methodist bishop. He is now teaching homiletics at the Duke Divinity School. In his best (in my opinion) book, Conversations With Karl Barth About Preaching (Abingdon), he declares that preaching must become much less "evocative" and much more catechetical. Younger Christians and seekers don't know anything at all about the Bible, the church's traditional confessions, or the history of doctrine, and he thinks that they know they don't know. In fact, he writes that "the younger the congregation, the longer the sermon" needs to be. I wonder if the Episcopal Church hasn't made a serious mistake in moving toward services with three Scripture readings (plus a Psalm). No one can absorb more than two at a time. By the time music, announcements, and a full communion service are figured in, there is almost no time left at all for a sermon. Bishop Sisk of New York (not the most likely person to offer this thought) recently mused that the American Episcopal Church experienced its greatest growth during the period when Morning Prayer and longer sermons were the norm in many parishes. Tim Keller's remarkable Redeemer Church (of which the Bishop of New York had never heard until as recently as three years ago) has grown by preaching, and its church "plants" (50+ and counting) have grown by preaching. The African-American church has always lived by preaching.     

The Christian gospel swept the Roman Empire through the apostolic preaching. It displaced the religions of the Ancient Near East by its proclamation of who Jesus was. The Eucharist by itself would not have accomplished this. Opening the Lord's Supper to the nonbaptized, as many parishes are now doing, has the whole thing backwards. A good prayer for the church would be that God would raise up more preachers--more people going into ministry who love to communicate the great news about Jesus of Nazareth, who he was and what he did, and his identity as the Son of the One God, the Holy One of Israel that Isaiah proclaimed in such elevated and unexcelled terms. Why would we want to dilute this message into a tasteless, bland, nutrition-free brew instead of the potent, nourishing, living water of the gospel? The subject of our preaching is the greatest news the world has ever heard.