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    Entries in Ethics (3)

    Thursday
    Sep072017

    The Cross and Cultural Engagement

    On Tuesday afternoon I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore was speaking at Baylor University, offering a lecture titled “Is There a Future for Evangelical Cultural Engagement?” The lecture was sponsored by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

    I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Moore, who has been unafraid to offer his viewpoint on race, politics, sexuality, and religious liberty. His stances have been cheered and jeered, and his opposition to Donald Trump caused a stir within the Southern Baptist Convention and nearly led to his ouster. This profile in The New Yorker shows how Dr. Moore holds conservative theological positions while casting Christian witness in a different light than his predecessors at the E.R.L.C.

    Tuesday’s lecture was bookended by references to “Outlaw Country,” noting how the unique contributions of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson preserved something of the soul of country music as Nashville trended toward a popular sound. Dr. Moore had a convenient opening: Willie Nelson attended Baylor for two years before dropping out. Moore’s point was simple: outlaw country may have been out of step with the mainstream but had staying power due to its continuity with the historic country music tradition and the excellence in songwriting and musicianship of its best exemplars. Even though the outlaws were relegated to the margins, they stuck to their guns, excelled in their craft, and made a lasting contribution to the history of music. They also inspired another generation of musicians.

    Moore invoked the outlaws as a parable for modern evangelical Christianity, observing that popular trends in society and culture have drawn the attention of evangelical Christianity, causing some to be seduced in pursuit of influence, power, and success. Dr. Moore noted how market-driven impulses within evangelicalism have been both a source of strength and weakness. Churches have wanted to reach as many people as possible with the gospel and have developed programs, sermons, and outreach initiatives to meet felt needs. But along the way, these churches have minimized their prophetic witness within the body of Christ by neglecting church discipline and teachings on repentance and sin while amplifying screeds against those outside the body of Christ. By giving people what they want, churches have compromised their own message in order to keep insiders happy and blame outsiders for their own failures.

    Dr. Moore argues that the way forward for evangelicalism rests not in cultural relevance or better programming, nor in the reformulation of certain classical doctrines of the Christian faith, but rather in the preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christianity, according to Dr. Moore, must be unapologetically and self-consciously cross-centric and cruciform. There must be a focus on the meaning of Jesus’ death and the redemption accomplished on Calvary, as well as a clear calling to every disciple to take up one’s cross as they follow Jesus.

    Dr. Moore has maintained that the Christian message is peculiar, strange, and odd. But its peculiarity gives it power. On the cross we see both the love of God and humanity’s deep need for redemption. We also see the meaning of Jesus’ call to discipleship, and how he precedes us in death that he might raise us up from death to new life before God, all for God’s glory. While some churches may continue to be seduced by the notion that they can achieve relevance through better print materials, a more polished worship band, an innovative program, or slicker marketing, it is instead upon the gospel of and about Jesus by which the church will either stand or fall.

    This claim seems so elementary that it is obvious. But it is not so. Cultures ebb and flow, and across church history there are examples of Christianity being widely embraced and, conversely, being persecuted and marginalized.

    Dr. Moore is right to remind us that there is a future for evangelical cultural engagement, grounded at the point where timber met stone and flesh was pierced for the sins of the world on the top of Skull Hill.

     

    Wednesday
    Mar052014

    Future Hope, Our Horizons, and Present Holiness :: A Review of Skye Jethani's Futureville

    Our approach to eschatology has changed. Or at least it is shifting. In articles, books, sermons, and conference presentations, I have noticed that the collective future of the human race is a common theme. That future is no longer spoken of, at the popular level, with a strong emphasis on the unfolding of events running parallel to a charted assembly of Bible passages, or within the framework of a pre-, post-, or a-millennial system. Instead, there is general interest in how we move from the garden to the city, how the vision given at the conclusion of the Book of Revelation is realized, how the death and resurrection of Jesus is itself a hinge, and how the present work of Christian people takes shape in light of our future hope. Along the way, some traditional theological constructs are alluded to and set aside as necessary ground-clearing before raising a related, yet unique edifice. Skye Jethani's Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today by Reimagining Tomorrow runs along these lines, and is one more contribution to this conversation.

    This is a book about today, how one lives, and the reality that we all live now in light of some vision of the future. Our choices reveal our orientation. This is true for all people. As Jethani writes:

    This book is not about the future. It is about the present. It is about determining what sort of life is truly meaningful. It is about rethinking the way we relate to the world and our purpose within it. How we decide what matters today, however, cannot be separated by what we believe about tomorrow.

    This is good and right. But our orientation toward the future is complicated, the result of factors within and outside our control.

    To illustrate, Jethani begins his analysis with the narrative of his own upbringing, compared to that of his grandparents, showing how his outlook on family, relationships, marriage, career, church, and more have been absorbed. His grandparents were shaped more by the Great Depression. In 1939, people of that generation were given an alternative at the New York World's Fair. For those living today, we need something even more compelling, more robust. Jethani believes Christians already have been given such a vision, "we believe that a meaningful life is one spent participating in what God is doing--God's mission. But the scope of God's mission is defined by what we believe the future looks like, by what will endure. So we cannot begin to define how we should live in this world without exploring what we believe about the world to come."

    Once Jethani has fixed the gaze of his reader upon God's future, and set their orientation toward the fulfillment of all history, he fills in the details. He tells the story of the Bible, from garden to city, and points us toward our hope, named in Revelation and made certain in Christ, as the moment God makes his dwelling place among people. But Jethani also names the alternative narratives, or dangers, that both compete and pull us off track. He names how assumptions we carry with us after the Enlightenment, and secular applications of evolution as an all-encompassing theory, can lead us toward destruction. He names how theological pitfalls, such as the belief that God will evacuate the faithful from this Earth, and discard it as inconsequential, can lead to apathy and disengagement with our neighbors and the created order, which we are called to steward. Jethani treats the Christian doctrines of resurrection and vocation as antidotes that combat the impulse to discard our weaker members or distance ourselves from the world's hurting, and lend dignity to Christians in their present work and calling. His thoughts on order, beauty, and abundance call faithful Christians to work for the common good of all people, to love their communities, to create in ways that point to the Creator, and to share resources with all who have need.

    The final note sounded is that of ultimate hope--Christ. Christ has redeemed the world, and is working within it through his people to set it to right, until the day he comes to bind up wounds, heal the brokenhearted, give judgment on behalf of the poor, reprove the wicked, and establish peace. Until that day, "we pray for the eyes to see the evidence of the garden all around us in the lives and faithfulness of Christ's people and their works, and we seek to cultivate those glimpses for others as we listen to and obey his calling for our lives."

    Futureville is a well told, compelling theological narrative, marked by sound exegesis and clear illustration of theological truth. Jethani is also vulnerable and transparent, open concerning his own journey. Some readers may disagree with his overall framework, or take issue with his presentation of some Christian theological pitfalls. But, overall, I found this book instructive. Christian people are in need of a vision encompassing the need for personal piety and social engagement. We need a vision that inspires us to work for the good of all people--even those who do not believe like us. We need to see Christ as the redeemer of all things, including souls, yet extending to all of creation. We need to see that the world, though fallen, was created by God and named good. We need an imaginative horizon that enables us to conceive where our world might be headed--and we need this horizon to be defined by the gospel of and about Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

    Most of us doubt we have much power to shape or impact the world in a grandiose way. But Jethani's work reminds us that in our careers, families, churches, and communities, every interaction has the latent capacity to bring healing, flourishing, and a future that more keenly resembles the reality Christ will establish as normative at the end of the age. Let us be agents of hope, faithful and true, committed to Christ, and vehicles of his grace.

    Friday
    Oct022009

    Is Language All We Have?

    Those who share the sacramental language, those who share sacramentally in the language of the future, form a community, or, better, a movement within the world.

    -Herbert McCabe, OP, Law, Love, and Language

    What is the relationship between ethics and language?  Great question, particularly for Christians.  Ethics is my discipline.  I'm fascinated by the logic leading to ethical decisions, particularly how Christian people engage in moral reasoning.  It is a complex field, full of twists and turns.  Many would think that this wouldn't be the case.  The interplay between sources of moral reasoning--Scripture, reason, tradition, experience--are weighted differently depending on whereabout in the Kingdom one is examining an ethical question.  Different groups employ different criteria for different purposes, and at times come to different conclusions.

    This summer I read Herbert McCabe's Law, Love, and Language.  In that particular book, McCabe examines those approaches to ethics that rely on law or love as central principles of moral reasoning, and finds each coming up short.  Love becomes too vague, and law fails because of a certain rigidity that comes with the assumption that humankind has unity "by nature", rather than as an ongoing goal of history.  

    McCabe believes that "Ethics...is the study of human behavior as communication."  It is not a study of moral platitudes, nor a study of a particular virtue we are called to embody with our lives, but is a way of communicating.  This way of understanding ethics does not exclude such moral principles, or laws, which add precision to our definition of love, but encompasses both law and love through understanding Christianity as "essentially about our communication with each other in Christ, our participation in the world of the future."  This yields "a way of life, a way of discovering about the depths of life, out of which decisions about our behaviour will emerge."

    If this is the case, language matters--our spoken words and our unspoken forms of communication (our practices)--for the life of the Christian community.  In fact, you could say that it is all that we have.

    Is it?