Thick Theological Anthropology

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay

But it’s obvious that thin communal commitments do not lead to, and are not even conducive to, a thick theological anthropology, and it would be foolish to expect people held together by such weak confessional ties to share views that only make sense within the robust account of human life generated by historic Christian orthodoxy.

Alan Jacobs, “thick and thin”

Jacobs is comparing his experiences at Wheaton College, which has a detailed Statement of Faith that guides their common life, and his experiences at Baylor University, which does not.

I work at Baylor and I love Baylor, and I am fully on board with our Christian mission. But Jacobs is right–if the theological commitments that define the community are thin, consensus is, too, and all the more difficult to establish, maintain, and sustain.

Generally speaking, it is important for any community to agree upon what a human being is, what a human being is for, what it might mean for a human being to live a good life, and in what way human beings are flawed. If these questions are largely left untouched, the divergences carry you far afield from one another, as each faction retreats to its corner with those holding a common opinion.

What Will the SBC Debate This Round?

Photo by Matthew Payne on Unsplash

The Southern Baptist Convention will gather for their annual meeting this week. The headlines will likely stress points of contention, as they normally do. I’ve yet to encounter a media write-up of a denominational gathering that emphasizes an emerging spirit of unity and cooperation, a bold vision for mission and ministry, or an optimistic outlook for what the future might hold. These gatherings are framed a certain way by design.

It is helpful, however, to know what is going on.

Trevin Wax has written a summation of the issues as he sees them heading into this annual meeting. For the complete account of his opinion, click here. He cites three primary concerns, which I’m going to rephrase parenthetically:

  1. “Do Southern Baptist churches unite primarily around doctrinal consensus or missional cooperation?” (What is the basis of Southern Baptist unity?)
  2. “Should we engage secular sources of knowledge with a fundamentalist or an evangelical posture?” (What is the Southern Baptist criterion for knowledge, or what is a sound Southern Baptist epistemology?)
  3. “How politically aligned must Southern Baptists be in order to cooperate together?” (How should Southern Baptists vote?)

Denominations, including the Southern Baptist Church, have been in trouble as institutions for quite some time. Each denomination has its own reasons for decay, and its own narrative as to why they’ve experienced numerical decline. But the broader trend is that all institutions, religious and otherwise, are moving through a kind of crisis.

Trevin Wax ends his blog post by appealing for prayer for the Southern Baptist Church. I echo that appeal. No matter our denomination, we are all in need of divine help, and while it is presently en vogue to attack, critique, and tear down our institutions, that destructive impulse must be resisted. If our institutions are reduced to rubble, we will be poorer for it. Instead, we need renewal. We need to build. And if that is to happen, and happen well, we will not be able to do it on our own. We’ll need Providence, the guiding might of God’s hand.

Jesus Art Can Go Many Different Directions

When you bounce around the web like I do you can come across some pretty weird stuff. Some, I even share.

Stephen S. Sawyer has made plenty of Jesus art, including this piece, which I think is a play on cigarette packaging. Or maybe air filters? Tattooed Jesus and boxing Jesus, above, are by Sawyer. I’d really like to see Jesus go to work and pound someone with the mercy glove, perfectly tailored to fit his strong right hand.

Those muscles? They tell me fish from the Sea of Galilee have incredibly high protein content. Wow!

Did you notice the scar on Jesus’ side, where he was pierced? That’s a cool detail. But if you’re going to include that, don’t you also need his brow to bear the marks of the crown of thorns as well?

As for beefcake, pumped up, “Hans and Franz” Jesus, I don’t know the artist. Hear me now but believe me later: the theology is a mess. Jesus defeated death by going through it, not by overpowering it. He submitted himself to it, receiving it as the consequence of our sin, so that he might stand in our place and make atonement for us. The idea of Jesus breaking the cross with a mighty flex makes a mess of the whole story. We can receive strength because Jesus took our weakness upon himself.

Education: More Than Social Connections

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

This much discussed report by Bari Weiss, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” is worth a look. Her findings are troubling. Disturbing. Unsettling. But are they surprising? I don’t think so.

There’s a long debate that spans history about education–what it is, how it is done, who is responsible for doing it, and what its proper end should be. One end of education is socialization. The advancement, preservation, discovery and transmission of knowledge, imparting wisdom, and moral formation are other ends. Some educational traditions and institutions combine aims.

It is hard to read Weiss’ reporting on Harvard-Westlake, an elite private school in Los Angeles, and not conclude that socialization is of vital importance, if not for the school, then certainly for the parents. These parents choose to send their children to this school, even if their children tell them “they’re afraid to speak up in class.”

The parents are afraid to speak up, too. They’re concerned about the ideology that is being taught but not enough to go elsewhere. They’re willing to suffer discomfort to gain the connections. It’s a trade.

Weiss also reports on dynamics at a comparable East Coast school; the same logic holds.

These parents, who insisted on maintaining anonymity for this report, may not like what’s taking place at their schools. But they’re willing to accept it if they continue to believe that participation in these schools will help their children–and them–to benefit socially.

Ideological trends tend to continue until people find the courage to object. What is allowed will continue.

Alan Jacobs raises the right question, “But there’s one question that I think everyone reading such stories should ask: Will the students believe what they are taught?

Weiss reports, “The idea of lying in order to please a teacher seems like a phenomenon from the Soviet Union. But the high schoolers I spoke with said that they do versions of this, including parroting views they don’t believe in assignments so that their grades don’t suffer.”

They already don’t believe it; they know how the game is played.

Jacobs observes, “I suspect that such a system is less likely to produce True Woke Believers than to produce young people who are thoroughly cynical about education and about the dishonesty and hypocrisy of educators. And that might be a worse outcome.”

I think he’s right on both counts, concerning both what such a system will render and that such an outcome is worse.

Ronaldinho: Mastery and Freedom

Ronaldinho’s juggling, particularly his play off the crossbar, demonstrates incredible skill, mastery with the ball, and evidence of consistent, steady, diligent, and focused practice. I showed this clip to my kids and we talked about how one comes to possess such mastery in sport and in other arenas of life.

If you watch the entire Ronaldinho highlight package, you will see a player who demonstrates freedom on the pitch, the kind of freedom that arises from command and discipline over skills and competencies that he has come to possess through the means and modalities of training.

I once heard Dallas Willard say that there is much we can learn about spiritual formation from sport, particularly when an athlete is seen to perform at the highest level. Any person who displays such grace, creativity, fluidity, and effortlessness, any person who delivers in a clutch moment or who displays brilliance does so largely because they have been well prepared by training, practice, and the exercise of various disciplines that have become part and parcel of their chosen sport.

There is natural ability, of course, and intelligence. But that natural ability has been harnessed, refined, and channeled toward particularly ends, which the occasion of a game creates space to then reveal.

So it is with the spiritual life. I don’t know what the equivalent of playing with the crossbar might be. But there is a parallel.

Mature people, who in their spiritual lives have grown in likeness to Christ, awe us not because they appear to work so hard, but because they make it look fluid, natural, easy. They are free, free in their spirit to respond freely to the Spirit. Their mastery stems from being mastered by the Master, schooled in holiness by Jesus himself, who freely gave himself so that we might be redeemed.

Nothing about this reality comes without great cost. The Christian claim that we can live lives that are pleasing to God is not rooted in human potential, but rather a divine act, a work of God, and the operations of grace. Humans respond. God has enacted the reality that we can receive and enter. The transformation that results is driven by the Spirit’s action.

In pastoral experience, and in personal experience, I’ve come to see that this transformation takes place over time. And even as one grows, as one matures, there are missteps and mistakes, failures and outright rebellions. But as one continues to trust Christ, as one continues to grow in their knowledge of him, they come to see that it is undeniably true that if it is the Son who has set you free, you will be free indeed.

Caption This

Bible nerds might say Psalm 119:105.

Matthew 6:19-24?

Stories, proverbs, aphorisms, histories, epistles, myths, fables, tales, narratives, cultural assumptions, sayings are not only conveyed by the written word. The spoken word and visual media, photographs, electronic media, memes, other conveyances of the digital age, etc. all shape our vision, defining what we see.

What do you think of this image?

What does it capture?

What does it miss?

I think of Christian spiritual formation and the discipline of study and of the reading of Scripture, though I think the gaze shouldn’t be downward, but outward. Notice that the light is directed first toward the reader and taken in before it is directed outward, and that there is no light at all until the book is opened.

Other thoughts?

Church Attendance is Down. How Far Down Is It?

Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

The Baptist Standard has done a nice job piecing together data from LifeWay Research on church attendance trends in the wake of the pandemic. What did they find? Church attendance is down. That’s no big surprise. How far down is it?

A few key statistics:

A majority of African American Protestant pastors (60 percent) say their congregations did not meet in person last month.

Mainline pastors (31 percent) are more likely than evangelical pastors (7 percent) to say they did not physically gather in September. Denominationally, Methodists (22 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (23 percent) are more likely to say they did not meet in person than Lutherans (12 percent), pastors in the Restorationist movement (10 percent) or Baptists (9 percent).

Social distancing may be easier in churches, as most pastors say their congregation has less than 70 percent of pre-COVID crowds.

One in 10 churches (9 percent) say their attendance in September was less than 30 percent of what it was in February before the pandemic spread to the United States. Another 20 percent say attendance was between 30 percent and less than 50 percent of what it was.

A third of pastors (34 percent) say it has reached 50 percent to less than 70 percent of previous levels. For 1 in 5 (21 percent) attendance is between 70 percent to less than 90 percent.

The mainline/evangelical split isn’t a shocker. What’s sobering is the percentage declines in attendance, especially considering that most church buildings do have space to make accommodations according to social distancing guidelines and that sensible measures such as wearing masks or tailoring liturgy to limit congregational singing are both reasonable and quite easy to implement. Several churches in our area, including the congregation I am part of, have chosen to meet outside, even before the cooler temperatures of autumn had arrived. Some mornings it was sweltering, but we gathered anyway.

This survey doesn’t tell us everything, only a few tidbits about who is meeting, who is not, and a few implications. I wasn’t surprised, nor did I really care much, to be told that one of the biggest changes church leaders have made in the wake of the pandemic has been to forestall a capital campaign or a building improvement project. That means very little to me.

There are wider considerations. Not every state has had the same regulations in place; politics, I’m certain, are a factor, and there is something to be said for church leaders who have actively promoted public health measures. Some states have employed Draconian measures; technocrats have tossed aside liberty. Government can overreach, and in some places, it most certainly has.

Polity differences matter, too. Baptists people are congregational, and thus, their people are more likely to put more pressure on their pastors to meet. Methodists, on the other hand, have an episcopate structure. Parishioners in those contexts may care that there church isn’t meeting, but know their pastor serves under the appointment of a bishop and cabinet. Decisions to refrain from meeting could be more regional than they are local.

African American pastors and their churches may not be meeting due to disproportionate effects the pandemic has had on their parishioners.

There are discipleship factors as well, though they would be nearly impossible to sift. For some, the pandemic might have relieved social pressures that kept some active in church, while their normal preference would’ve been to invest their time in other ways. COVID-19, then, has been a wonderful excuse not to meet, an easy out.

Down here in Waco most church leaders I know are back to meeting in some way, shape, or form. People wear masks, remain physically distanced, and have asked volunteers to increase efforts in the areas of sanitation. That’s good. That’s wise.

But I also know that people are tired of COVID. They’re ready to get back to normal. I think it will be tough to strike the right balance, to remain vigilant, while also opening avenues for congregational togetherness, fellowship, and corporate worship.

I’ve heard some really silly biblical arguments as to why we should be gathering in spite of the risks, fatalistic accounts that negate human responsibility and involve strange and sinister conceptions of God’s sovereignty. I’m well aware that there are biblical commands to meet together routinely, and there are Old Testament commands that contain wisdom with regard to the observance of a weekly day of worship. But Sunday gatherings for worship are more the product of church tradition than they are an explicit biblical command, and the nature of our public gatherings can widely vary based on the leading of the Spirit and the needs of the community. Much more could be written on this topic, certainly.

On the other hand, some people think that it is wisest, and that there is little harm, in foregoing the worship gathering. I disagree. I think there is a level of risk, but not enough to forego public gatherings tailored to our present moment. My read on our region is that we are in a place where it is reasonable to meet together weekly, to do something. If churches aren’t meeting regularly, then pastors should be adjusting their approach to ministry, shepherding their people by reaching out, making phone calls, maybe even stopping by on doorsteps and having front yard conversations from several feet away. Zoom has limits. Physical presence matters.

The months ahead could look very different, not only because of a change in weather, but also due to a change in political climate. But the losses that have taken place this year will require hard and diligent work to recoup. The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few. Pray that God would raise up workers to labor in his field.