search this site

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Get the eNews

* indicates required
Email Format
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    find ben simpson on facebook
    twitter updates

    Entries in Christianity (92)


    It's Jesus Calling...

    I do not enjoy talking on the phone.  Often I avoid it.  Allowing calls to go to voice mail is a gift of technology.  I do not have to answer, I can review the message, and I can call at my convenience.  I own the phone.

    Those in the Benedictine tradition would challenge this.  John Ortberg brought this to my attention.  Just as Benedictines greet every guest as they would Christ, so too can one answer the phone as though it is Christ who is calling.

    With this at the forefront of my mind, I'll never answer the phone the same way again.


    Ancient Practices and the Porous Self

    In a 2008 article written for First Things, Alan Jacobs turns his attention toward Hugh Halter, Matt Smay, Brian McLaren, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, examining contemporary authors in Christianity that harken back within their published works to an "ancient faith."  In the three books linked above, each author turns the attention of the reader to the past, and in one way or another seeks to reclaim some old facet of the Christian Tradition they believe has been lost.  Having read McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove, I was intrigued.  Like many reformers of old, I too have longed for a re-emergence of Christian faith as it has been expressed and lived in the past, a purer, even "mythic" faith that taps into that same energy discovered and exploding forth from the pages of the New Testament.

    I first encountered this article, entitled "Do-It-Yourself Tradition," in Jacobs' collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.  This selection is an excellent critique of contemporary popular writing that attempts to point us back to the past.  Jacobs exposes critiques of the church that are too simplistic, outlandish, and historically ill-founded (and not exclusive to the authors cited above), while calling the reader to a deeper, more analytic and theologically well grounded attempt to forge a way forward for the contemporary church.  Jacobs calls his reader to be more daring, more brash in their attempts to re-enliven Christianity.  A tweak here, a tweak there, a practice now and again with a dash of spiritual razzmatazz won't do.

    You can read the article here.  As he reaches the end of his argument, Jacobs interjects a small amount of contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis that may be the greatest contribution given therein.  In his concluding remarks, Jacobs states:

    The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa—that can be illuminated by God—may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

    The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we'd rather remain within our buffers—if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies—from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads—may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    While I have spoken often of the spiritual disciplines as "tools," Jacobs posits that they are indeed much more.  I think he is right.  I also think he is right to point to the changing existential dynamic that may be taking place--the reinsertion of the porous self--within history.

    If Jacobs is right, and the current technological conditions are opening avenues for the reestablishment of mystery and deep spirituality alongside the minimization of those "buffers" we place around ourselves to insulate us from transformative spiritual fanaticism, a new day may be dawning before us.  Jacobs is then right to see ancient Christian practices as "an indispensible source of hope" and "the hope of life to those who are perishing."  He is right to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that we may need a new St. Benedict.

    The project of "new creation" is larger than we have imagined.

    As conversations continue regarding the future of the faith, between myself and colleagues and friends across denominations and non-denominations, we are in need of honest historical reflection concerning where we stand, as well as sound, well-informed philosophical and theological reflection that can set us on a truthful trajectory toward the fullness of the Kingdom coming.  Along the way, we'll also need practitioners--pastors and church leaders--for the outcome of our ruminations cannot remain in the abstract, if we are to truly see a renewed and more hopeful Christianity.


    Common Language, Common Faith

    This isn't a youth ministry blog, per se, but over the years I have had the bulk of my ministry experiences within the crucible of children and youth ministries, working diligently to teach, exhort, rebuke, correct, and train children in the way of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.  The work has always been tough, and also fun.  It has been fun to be around the young, listening to their questions, playing their games, reading together and striving to understand the Scripture and what God might be saying.  I've never felt called specifically to youth or children's ministry, but I have been incredibly blessed as I have pursued my calling among youth and children.  I don't think you have to be called to those areas to be engaged in ministry in those areas; oftentimes our dismissals of these opportunities to be around children and youth have much more to do with our insecurities and our preferences than they do our abilities and our proclivities for guiding others in the way of the Kingdom.  Many of my greatest insights have come in conversation with a teenager or a two year old.  I've received more grace from the young than from any other segment of the church.

    Over the years, I have noticed that one of the challenges currently facing children's and youth ministries is the lack of a common language for following Jesus, and thus the establishment of a commonly understood faith.  Oftentimes our youth ministries are driven by a hype and happenstance, marketing married to therapeutic or avoidance strategies for common teenage ills.  We speak to youth and children in terms of revolution, in order to stir zeal and build excitement about the faith.  We legitimize this by saying that if we do not do this, then other cultural forces will, and the assumption is that we will then lose.  We then speak to adults with well formulated principles that will help us live "good lives," which commonly reflects middle-class sensibilities, and the epitome of what might be called the American way of life.  In one sector, we want people who will turn the world upside down.  In another, we want people who will settle in as good Christians, be nice, etc.  No wonder the young, who hang with us, feel as though they are aliens when they reach maturity.  Classic bait and switch.

    How might this be overcome?  Is it possible to have a consistent, clear, and unified approach to being a disciple of Jesus that can transcend the categories of age?

    Some of you reading this will reply that the answer here is undeniably yes.  I'm working on a way to bring this to bear on our ministry.  I'm exploring a way to talk about Kingdom and Christ and the Bible and the whole lot in a way that children and parents can talk to and with one another about their journeys as Christians, finding continuity and dreaming together of what a common vision might be as they live their life together as a small outpost of Kingdom living.  Rather than fostering division and layering our discourse, I'm trying to imagine what it would be like for us to minister to parents and their children together, so that they might have common ground, while all the while recognizing developmental and life stage difficulties that will continue to keep them distinct.

    Do you know of anyone who is doing this well?


    Carrots and Sticks? Anything but.

    The Religion Newswriters brought to my attention a recent Time Magazine treatment of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In the article, titled, "Rob Bell's Hell: A Threat to the Evangelical Business Plan," it is argued that the consternation concerning Bell's theology is not only rooted in a passion for orthodoxy, but fear and trembling over the prospects for fundraising in an evangelical world without hell.

    In my opinion, Time's coverage has it wrong.  The presentation of the Christian gospel, as it is preached by evangelicals, is a stereotype, a misrepresentation.  I could even call it bad reportage, and intentionally misleading.  It's common for people to dismiss Christianity in this country due to concerns that preachers are only out for your money, and will threaten and coerce you by holding damnation over your head in order to pry your earnings from your tightly closed fists and into the coffers of the church.  This myth continues to serve as a buffer between the public and the actual claims of Christianity, which is why some churches have even chosen to remove the offering from the liturgy during worship services.

    Bill Saporito, the reporter presenting the story, does well in outling Paschal's Wager, a very famous rational argument that posits believing in God is the most rational choice, even if no god exists.  In the event that one is correct, an eternal reward ensues.  If there is no god, one has lost nothing, and likely has gained from living a life of humility, charity, and goodwill.  He quotes two philosophers who are experts in "game theory," a subfield of rational choice theory.  But he fails to directly quote ONE evangelical leader saying anything, directly or indirectly, with regard to heaven and hell as the end game of the Christian religion.  The end of Christianity is neither heaven or hell, but God, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I won't deny that there are preachers and ministers, and subsequently lay people, who present Christian faith in terms of carrots and sticks.  Hell is there to scare us into shape, and heaven is there to draw us toward choosing to live a good life.  But the Christian religion, whatever else might be said about it, is grounded in a different mechanism: grace.  On Good Friday, we would do well to remember that Christianity centers upon the cross and resurrection of Christ.  Heaven and hell are not earned, they are rather subsidiary doctrines standing beneath assertions pertaining to creation, fall, atonement, and eschatological hope.  Christ died for us, to reconcile a lost and fallen humanity unto God, so that the two might dwell together in peace, and, in doing so, extend that same peace to all of creation.

    It isn't surprising that the carrots and sticks treatment appears in Time.  As an aside, it was a prevalent framework for religion that I encountered while in the Religious Studies department at The University of Kansas.  I was often perplexed when this framework was applied to other religions, Buddhism in particular, where the ultimate goal of religious practice is not heaven and hell, or union with God, but rather enlightenment, entailing that we ultimately escape from the suffering of the illusion that is this life through ascent to a unified and all-encompassing state of consciousness.

    As a final word, it is not heaven and hell that motivate me in giving of my finances to the ministry of church, but rather looking upon the cross, seeing the immense cost that Jesus was willing to pay for me, for us, on Good Friday.  In contemplating that scene, how can I not give?  How can I not give of my own resources to help others in knowing God, having their physical needs met, justice being served, setting apart leaders to pray for us, etc.?  I don't buy my way to heaven, or out of hell.

    Jesus did that, after proclaiming, "It is finished." And he did by grace.


    Awesome Time at Barclay College

    This week I was a guest at Barclay College, and had the opportunity to speak to the student body twice in chapel and once as part of Dave Kingrey's Systematic Theology class.  April 5-7 has marked Barclay's Spiritual Formation Conference, centered on the theme, "It's all Good."  Jimmy Taylor spoke this morning in chapel, focusing on "The Good and Beautiful Community."  I had an incredible visit to Haviland, Kansas, which is a small prairie town along Highway 54 west of Wichita.  Dave Williams, the college chaplain, received me very graciously, introduced me to a broad range of people, and made sure my experience was in line with the best of Christian hospitality.  I connected with a few students via Twitter, who were quick to make fun of me as soon as I revealed my handle, and I had numerous other good conversations with students on campus as well.

    You can listen to my talks either via a live stream at the Barclay Chapel website (direct link: April 5, April 6 - had trouble accessing these on my Mac, worked fine with my PC), or via the links for download below (right-click and select "Download Linked File As..." to obtain the file).

    Thanks to those at Barclay for hosting me graciously.  I pray that the student body and the faculty was blessed as I was.