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    Entries in gospel (10)


    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.



    The Task of Christian Leadership

    In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes:

    It is not the task of the Christian leader to go around nervously trying to redeem people, to save them at the last minute, to put them on the right track. For we are redeemed once and for all. The Christian leader is called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in daily events the fact that behind the dirty curtain of our painful symptoms there is something great to be seen: the face of Him in whose image we are shaped.

    Rest. Not anxiety or nervousness. Confidence in the Redeemer. Confirmation of the gospel, so that others might affirm it, as well as witness to another reality called "kingdom" (even in the face of this mess we call the world and ourselves). Intimacy with Jesus, into whose likeness we are being conformed, as we are being made new each day.

    2 Corinthians 4:16 reads:

    So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

    The Christian leader is set free to love their neighbor. To set aside their fears. To invite others into God's presence. To announce good news. And to be honest about themselves.

    Too often, we think that is our task to redeem. Instead, it is to be redeemed, and live into the fullness of everything that means, not only in our proclamation, but in our life.


    Christianity and All Forms of Work

    Janitor brushing the walkway

    Christians have varying attitudes toward work, but many fail to make a connection between their form of work and belief in the gospel. If work is to be Christian, it is thought, it will fit within a particular kind of subculture, somehow distinguished from other businesses, not only in terms of form but also in content. But if you work as a handyman or craftsman, you are left out in the cold. How does one work as a "Christian" floor tile expert, or "Christian" roofer? Nothing about those particular fields of endeavor is uniquely Christian, at least in terms of the finished product.

    This week, I'm meditating on work, using Timothy Keller's book, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work, as a guide. In his chapter "A New Story for Work," Keller makes a helpful distinction concerning how Christians should view the gospel as it pertains to their work. Instead of the gospel serving as something to "look at", Keller suggests Christians should see the gospel as something to "look through."

    Keller states:

    [W]hen we say that Christians work from a gospel worldview, it does not mean that they are constantly speaking about Christian teaching in their work. Some people think of the gospel as something we are principally to "look at" in our work. This would mean that Christian musicians should play Christian music, Christian writers should write stories about conversion, and Christian businessmen and women should work for companies that make Christian-themed products and services for Christian customers. Yes, some Christians in those fields would sometimes do well to do those things, but it is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities. Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you "look" at everything else in the world. Christian artists, when they do this faithfully, will not be completely beholden either to profit or naked self-expression; and they will tell the widest variety of stories. Christians in business will see profit as only one of several bottom lines; and they will work passionately for any kind of enterprise that serves the common good. The Christian writer can constantly be showing the destructiveness of making something besides God into the central thing, even without mentioning God directly.

    Keller goes on to argue that while the Bible is not "a comprehensive handbook for running a business, doing plumbing, or serving patients, it does speak to an enormous range of cultural, political, economic, and ethical issues that are very much a part of how we all live." Looking through the gospel at any field of endeavor can make a tremendous difference for how that particular work is undertaken, with the applications as diverse as the fields themselves and the practitioners who peer through a gospel lens, seeking to do their jobs under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

    How might understanding the gospel as lenses to "look through" influence how you approach your work?

    You Might Also Be Interested In:

    Gardening and Culture Making :: The Pattern for all of Work


    Book Review :: Embracing Obscurity by Anonymous

    It isn't often that a book arrives by post penned by an anonymous author. The last time that happened? Well, never. So when I was asked to review Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God's Everything (B&H Books), I was intrigued, for we exist within a Christian subculture in which those who produce media want to be noticed, whether we are wordsmiths (written or spoken), film makers, or musicians. Bloggers are not immune. In fact, in the blogosphere, vainglory reigns supreme. Platform building, audience, click-throughs, exclusive interviews, and "first reviews" take pride of place. Everyone wants to be famous. In this respect, we aren't much different from the world, and I must confess I know these pains firsthand.

    EO begins with a strong declaration of our problem, and a little bit of math. The author writes, "We're intoxicated with a desire to be known, recognized, appreciated, and respected. We crave to be a 'somebody' and do notable things, to achieve our dreams and gain the admiration of others. To be something--anything--other than nothing." Yet, the author notes, on a planet of "Seven billion, twenty five million, four hundred twenty thousand, three hundred ninety," it is difficult to stand out. We are all relatively obscure.

    The author names up-front that remaining anonymous in publication is not a gimmick or a hoax, but is a genuine effort to live in accordance with the primary message of this book: embracing obscurity. Humility and lowliness are supreme values for the author, as well as the intention of deflecting glory to a greater source, God himself. The author writes, "It's about making Him, not ourselves, look good." Yet this is a paradox, one that can be seen in the life of Jesus himself, who in his very life gave glory to God in all things, and in succeeding, was elevated to the highest place.


    Following a diagnosis of glory-seeking and a declaration of our relative unimportance concerning the broad numerical scope of humanity, EO explores our notions of identity and definition, and our understanding of Jesus as a humble, servant king. EO then expounds a liberating Christian approach to true significance, success, servanthood, and suffering. Lastly, the author examines important concerns such as the mysterious nature of Christian witness, a pastoral admonition for a humble posture if recognition does come, and a brief treatment of our ultimate hope in Christ. Throughout, EO illuminates every point through exposition of the Bible, and remains close to the text.

    The overall structure and primary theme of EO is sound and pastorally helpful. If I may borrow a medical analogy, if the diagnosis is obsessive glory-seeking and idol-worship at the altars of fame, success, financial security, beauty, or countless other false gods, this book has the ability to point to the cure of many ills. Why? Because this book points to God as the source of all we have, the one deserving all our glory, and the fount of all dignity and worth.

    God is great, and we are but bit-players in his grand drama. Granted, that is an overstatement. And perhaps this is where EO exhibits its shortcomings. In an effort to demonstrate just how obscure, how insignificant and how small we are in comparison the largesse of our world, EO whittles us down too far. When John the Baptist was approached by his disciples concerning the crowds that were leaving him and gravitating toward Jesus, he replied, "He must become greater; I must become less." Not nothing, less. And Jesus, by virtue of his "obedience unto death--even death on a cross" was not relegated to the obscure, but was instead lifted to the highest place, as Paul says in Philippians 2. These themes are explored by EO to a degree (Phil. 2 is a key text for Chapter 3), but the implications for us are not drawn out as well as they could've been.

    Human beings have dignity and worth not because of what we do or achieve, but because we are first created in God's image (Gen. 1:27) and are being restored by virtue of Christ's work on the cross (2 Cor. 5:17, amplified by the argument in 2 Cor. 1-4). We are being "made new" by virtue of Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and through the power available to us through faith in him. We are, therefore, of inestimable worth.

    We may be obscure in relation to the relative population of the earth, but we are not obscure to the One who really counts (a point made in Chapter 4, "Embracing Significance", but not carried strongly enough throughout). We are being redeemed and remade in to something that exceeds all we dare imagine. Instead of "embracing obscurity," we are called to embrace Christ, in whose eyes we are already famous, not because of anything we have done, but because of what he has done so that we might be made his possession (Hebrews 12:1-2). Embracing Christ leads to a life of humility, of lowliness, of service to others, for we have first been humbled and brought low in our calling to serve Christ the King.

    Humility, hiddenness, full commitment, service to others, secrecy, peace, and contentment are all needed in greater supply for those in Christ. The writer of EO and I are in agreement that those resources are available. This book points a way, and should be read critically and with care. As I said, many admonitions here can be helpful, but need further nuance.

    It may be that my differences with the author of EO boil down to semantics and rhetorical presentation, and are therefore differences of degree, not kind. As a charitable reader, I would like to think so. But in charity, I also must say the points emphasized above were not made strongly nor consistently enough. I believe that "becoming nothing" or "embracing obscurity" are themes that depart from robust thinking on what it means for us to be redeemed and sanctified, and thus are in need of redefinition, or a different scaffolding, if they are to stand.

    This does not mean that another book must be written, but that this book must be complemented by the witness of a community, a group of friends. Pick it up and discuss it with other Christians, and you will profit.


    Believe, Assume, Deny: The Progression of Losing the Gospel's Centrality

    Though I'm a little late to comment on this entry, Justin Taylor has featured a brief treatment on the rapid loss, decline, and eventual death that takes place in the lives of even once thriving congregations, warning that the same can happen to any thriving church of our day.  Of note, I believe, is his citation of Don Carson, who has written:

    In a fair bit of Western evangelicalism, there is a worrying tendency to focus on the periphery. [My] colleague . . . Dr. Paul Hiebert . . . . springs from Mennonite stock and analyzes his heritage in a fashion that he himself would acknowledge is something of a simplistic caricature, but a useful one nonetheless.

    One generation of Mennonites believed the gospel and held as well that there were certain social, economic, and political entailments.

    The next generation assumed the gospel, but identified with the entailments.

    The following generation denied the gospel: the “entailments” became everything.

    Assuming this sort of scheme for evangelicalism, one suspects that large swaths of the movement are lodged in the second step, with some drifting toward the third.

    . . . What is it in the Christian faith that excites you? . . . Today there are endless subgroups of confessing Christians who invest enormous quantities of time and energy in one issue or another: abortion, pornography, home schooling, women’s ordination (for or against), economic justice, a certain style of worship, the defense of a particular Bible version, and countries have a full agenda of urgent, peripheral demands. Not for a moment am I suggesting we should not think about such matters or throw our weight behind some of them. But when such matters devour most of our time and passion, each of us must ask: In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?

    The question with which Carson concludes is crucial: "In what fashion am I confessing the centrality of the gospel?"  It is true that there are many other matters, doctrinal and otherwise, that can consume our time and attention as we conduct our ministries.  But we must always return to the heart--the undeniable core of the faith--that being, the announcement of the forgiveness of sin through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the inbreaking reality of the reign of God, and the future hope of eternity with God.  It has been my observation that the denomination of which I am currently part, The United Methodist Church, is unclear on even this.  More attention is given to methodologies or techniques for church growth, or advocacy on the part of this or that social cause.  Perhaps this is only reflective of my region, or of the websites and blogs that I frequent.  But I fear that United Methodists are unclear on the gospel, both what it is, and how to articulate it.