Friday, September 10, 2010

On Generalists

My pastoral mentor always took great joy in being a generalist and commended that to me. I must admit there is an appeal to it, although I personally would still like to specialize in New Testament Studies myself.  As a pastor I need to be aware of a whole range of issues and topics from apologetics, attacks against the New Testament that are in vogue (say by Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels), to current church and leadership trends.

The tendency is for academics to lament that pastors are not conversant enough 'in my field'--which one sneakily suspects means read my book, or Ph.d. dissertation. While it is noble to push pastor to read and reflect on current theological issues or sociological issue in this or that specialization, as a pastor, I often cannot help but want to drag such arguments out to the woodshed. More than once I have thought to myself 'I will master your field" when I see you becoming conversant with at least one of the vast arrays of literature on one thing outside of your field. Maybe I have just a bit of sour grapes. 

Honestly, I wish was more well read. I've dabbled in Barth, I've toyed with Muller's Post-Reformational Dogmatics and what this has done for studies in Reformed Orthodoxy. I tried to stay current on the emerging church when it was still emerging, and worth having on one's radar. Last year I enjoyed teaching Sunday school on the early church from the first century through the fifth because I dabbled in the works of Irenaues, Tertullian, and Nicene Orthodoxy. I love wrestling with issues in the New Perspective on Paul, or Old Testament historiography. If I were Pauline I might say "If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more." I however, in a sort of Augustinian/Lutherain guilt (what Stendahl called the 'Introspective Conscience of the West), fully admit I am not near the widely read generalist that I would like to be, yeah, even need to be at times.

Enough of my lamentations, it is simply nice to see Carl Trueman, a specialist in church history, lauding the need for generalists. It is possible for the pastor to become so specialized that in pride or in ignorance he looses the ability to speak at everyday level with every day issues. We forget that the issues we are wrestling with--like the challenges of postmodernism to the issue of meaning in texts--probably isn't a question that a person every day asks themselves. This is of course not to deny that your people need to know and hear that the Bible is true.

Ironically, in a single conversation with two individuals who were with an English major at a local university and a career newsperson, respectively, I asked a question about how the recent ideas of postmodern literary theory that questioned objectivity challenged their job since we had been talking about presenting news reports objectively. To me, this is a nice issue, and one that my study of presuppositional apologetics, as well as a layman's familiarity with postmodernism and philosophy prepared me for. And while I got a descent answer, I can't help but think my question came out as more than a bit esoteric. 

I wholeheartedly concur with Carl Trueman. It is possible to overspecialize. Consider though how a little knowledge of status quaestionis and some astute cultural observations an unmask pretension, in a sort of 'emperor has no clothes moment'. Trueman writes:
Ironically, this cult of the specialist has arguably been enhanced by some of the attempts to dethrone it.  Take those strands of postmodernism that sought to expose truth claims and specialist guilds as masks for power bids and manipulation.   On one level, such criticism often had a certain validity to it: experts can sometimes operate as little more than a playground bully with PhDs, using qualifications and institutions to  throw their weight around willy-nilly; but at another level, the postmodern critics were vulnerable to two obvious criticisms.  First, perhaps more than anyone else, they developed their own highly technical vocabulary and barbaric prose style which served to do little more than obfuscate and confuse those outside the circle of  the illuminati and keep themselves beyond the type of critical scrutiny to which they so mercilessly subjected others.  Second, in relativising everything, they ironically left everything exactly where it had been before: the people in charge were still in charge, since relativism provides no solid foundation for revolutionary change.
The implications of all this -- the cult of the specialist, enhanced as it is in an ironic twist by postmodern impotence and intensified by the deluge of information and the pressure to publish in academic circles -- poses an acute problem to the church: how can we respond?     My belief is that part of that response needs to be the reassertion of the importance of the generalist, both in the church and in the seminary. One does not necessarily have to be a Milanese fashion designer to see that someone in the street is badly dressed, or even completely naked. 

Issues like postmodern theories of truth(s) are important. Pastors should think about them. Pastors should be ready to interact with college students who are facing atheist professors who have hardly questioned their own presuppositions. Pastors should be able to commend the Scriptures as historically reliable. But pastors need to be generalists in fields that include counseling in order to 'bind up the broken hearted.' He has to be able to eulogize a deceased parishioner in a way that gives the clear simple comfort of the gospel without being in love of the sound of his own voice. Pastors need to be able to talk to five year olds as well as seventy-five year olds. This is essentially the point that Trueman makes in part 2 of his essay. "Rather, my focus is on what we might call the catechetical aspects of the Faith or perhaps less pompously: the basics of Christianity.   In my experience, questions that touch on, say, how to understand the Bible relative to guidance, suffering etc. are always more common than questions on Scorsese."

So here's to being a generalist. Should pastor read and study: yes. Should pastors neglect warm devotional communion in favor of rigorous academic wrestling? May it never be. In the end, a pastor has to be prepared for a wide array of challenges.

Read Trueman's essay, and watch for the continuing series.
Here is also part 2.

On the Burning of Books

Like anything in today's high-tech fast passed world, if you wait you miss out. I had planned to write a blog post of the burning of books in Acts 19 reflecting on how and why it is different then this Sept. 11, fiasco. Tony Reinke beat me to it.

Here's a helpful excerpt:


What were these books? According to Eckhard Schnabel, they were occultist documents that described how to make amulets to protect against demons and how to make love charms (Early Christian Mission, 1221). The books gave directions for casting spells on others, either for good or ill, and they would have been quite expensive, which highlights the effect of the gospel upon the wealthy inhabitants of Ephesus. That Paul went toe-to-toe with the owners of documents, which later led to a book burning, tells me they qualify as religious texts, and probubly [sic] comprised the pop religion of the day.
From this account here are six points to ponder:
1. The Ephesian people burned their own books. These new believers renounced their past. This was not an act of Christians barging into homes to ransack libraries for kindling, or weeding out the public library, or buying up all available copies from the local bookshop. They gathered the valuable books from their own houses.
2. No Christian leader encouraged the book burning. At least the text doesn’t say it. Or would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry? Perish the thought. There there is no indication that Paul advised the people to burn (or sell) their occultist books.
3. The books posed no threat to the gospel. The gospel overcame the magic power of the books. The gospel is like a hurricane and nothing will stop its wind, certainly not a book of demonic spells.
4. God’s display of power convinced the people that their books were worthless. There was no need to address the value of the magic books directly. Once God’s power and his gospel were seen in the city, the matter was settled.
5. The book burning was a display of godly sorrow. The recently converted Christians wanted to confess their sin before “all.” The high value of the books (50,000 days wages worth!) made a strong statement. It was an act of personal sorrow for their own sin.
6. The burning illustrated the victory of the gospel. The magic books were burned because the gospel was spreading like wildfire: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20).
These six points should make us very hesitant about burning other people’s religious books.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Qu'ran Burning

I know a lot of Christian blogs have already commented on the fiasco of the Qu'ran burning church in Florida. Yesterday I received a call from the Pocono Record and was asked my opinion on the events. In the discussion I was asked something like 'How hard is it to follow the rules of the country from the rules of the church.'

A thorough answer would take us into a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. I didn't get into it but I made some general comments about how in America most times country and church are not in tension. Of course, if our culture wants to act a certain way that is contrary to the Bible, then of course we have to follow God not man and nonviolently resist evil.

Here's the article. I am quoted in this excerpt:
The Rev. Tim Bertolet of the Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church in Mount Pocono said it could cause unnecessary trouble for Christians in Muslim-dominated countries.
"In addition to putting our military folks at risk, people assume in some of these countries that (the Quran burning) represents what all Christians think about Islam," Bertolet said.
Some local religious leaders compared the Quran burning to the proposed mosque at ground zero in New York City, near the former site of the Twin Towers.
For all the American people who said, "How could Muslims do that?" there are just as many Muslim people asking the same thing about Americans.
"It's certainly in their rights to build it," Melman said. "But it's needlessly provocative. If the point is to reach out and build bridges, that doesn't give the right message. It's the same situation in Florida. (Jones) is certainly legally within his constitutional rights to do it, but it's needlessly provocative."
Bertolet said he heard a Christian Internet broadcast Wednesday trying to instill tolerance instead of immediately denouncing an entire religion.
I honestly don't remember if tolerance was quite the word I used. Too often it has connotations I am uncomfortable with such as treating all religions as true. I do believe however Christian should have love for all people because all humanity is made in the image of God. Christ died to save people from every tongue, tribe and peoples. 

I believe that burning the Qu'ran is a stunt. Certainly Christians should be opposed to evil wherever it exists--but lets face it, too many Christians get their kicks from tearing down sinners in much the same way the Pharisees did. Yes of course, Jesus was not 'tolerant' by modern standards of political correctness, Jesus was not wimpy and weak on sin. But he was also gracious and merciful. 

Citizens of the kingdom of God are to be peacemakers, bringing people to the God of peace (who will crush Satan) but also bringing humans together in peace where possible. Paul tells us as much as possible to live at peace with all people. I fail to see the peacemaking ability of burning to Qu'ran.

On the Pocono Record's blog, one comment from a 'Point-Blank' was directed specifically at my quote:
"The message was that instead of burning the Quran, we should be picking it up and reading and trying to understand it," he said. "Then, in a loving way, have a dialogue about it."  
.. Are you kidding me? In a loving way? Would that be before the fanatic pulls out a knife or gun and threatens you for even questioning the word of allah? Again I say, are you kidding me? Who believes any of this nonsense, keep your religious beliefs to yourself..

To the extent where my quote could be misapplied to assume I am a loosy-goosy theological 'liberal' or universalist, I would reject it. However this would be my followup, which I posted online:
Since I was the one quoted in this article let me expand my thought and perhaps further incriminate myself as one who believes this nonsense, as you so delicately put it. I was not asked my views of just war or personal self-defense, all topics the Bible has much to say about. Instead I was asked as a pastor how a Christian responds to this Qu'ran burning event.  
First, Christianity is about truth. The heart of Christianity is the message that it calls ‘the gospel’ which simply means good news. At the heart of this message is the Lord Jesus Christ who in the face of insults, mockery and abuse laid down his life not merely as an example to us but also bear the punishment for sins.  
Christianity centers on a person. The person is proclaimed in a message. As such Christianity believes in the power of words.  
Hopefully all of us have enough sense and logic in us to honestly admit that when it comes to Christianity and Islam they cannot both be truth. One or the other can be true, or they can both be false. If we want to say that they both have elements of the truth in them, then by extension neither would be entirely true or the truth. But if something is true, as I believe the gospel is, it should be commended to all.  
There are two ways that Christians commend their message: (1) They should be always willing to give an answer for their hope. Paul himself went into the Athens and stood on the Areopagus, quoted pagan poets (and this is important:) whom he had read and was familar with, and then proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I am sure Paul looked more than a little silly since Greek philosophy and religion had long since rejected bodily resurrections. Nevertheless, he knew what others believed and he proclaimed the truth with words.  
A Christian has nothing to fear by actually reading the Qu’ran so that he might intelligently respond to it and give a reason for the hope that he has.  
(2) The message of Christianity is to be followed by a life of love. Jesus said the greatest command after loving God was to love our neighbor. When asked who is our neighbor, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan--and Jews had about as much love for Samaritans as Americans have for Osama Bin Laden. As Christians our message is best commended when it is followed by care and love. Right or wrong we all have seen people call Christians hypocrites for their failures to show true love.  
But I think the real travesty here is that we see Islam and Muslims as evil and wicked but not ourselves. In the Bible Christianity teaches that evil resides in each one of us, at present we are not ‘all basically good.’ The apostle Paul--arguably the greatest and most loyal follower of Jesus ever--said ‘here is a trustworthy saying Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.’

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Beck's Restoring Honor Roundup

Here's a sort of Round-up of reading for the whole Glenn Beck, 'Restoring Honor' rally. I certainly haven't read all that it is out there. And I'm not really posting for the politics. This is the stuff I think one should read mostly to contemplate these events on a theological level.

If you haven't read it: you should read Russell Moore's essay.

Trueman links to the essay and adds this great line worth quoting: " If liberalism is the accommodation of the gospel to culture, then they don't come any more liberal than Beck and his merry band of evangelical followers." A nice witty dig for those who distain "liberalism" but get sucked in by Beck.

Over at Honey and Locust is a good essay that in my mind shouldn't get missed in all the internet chatter.

Here's an excerpt:

The problem? A great majority of his followers are professing Christians, who, if united with Beck, cannot “turn back to god” together. Glenn Beck’s “god” is not the God of Christianity, no matter what he may say on his television show. His repeated attempts to get evangelical Christians to overlook the differences between Christianity and Mormonism appear to be working, as more and more professing believers are willing to pray together with him and call his message of Christ’s atonement “the gospel”.
My rebuke is not for Glenn Beck, but for those Christians who are so willing to accept a different gospel. (Incidentally, I believe this was also the purpose behind Russell Moore’s article, not political motivations as some have suggested.) I feel like channeling Paul’s letters to the Galatian and Corinthian churches:
Oh foolish Galatians Americans! Who has bewitched you? I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed! (cf. Galatians 3:1; Galatians 1:6-8; 2 Corinthians 11:4)

I weighed in on the theology of the even in a facebook post:
(1) I don't follow Beck very much on TV and on his show. He strikes me as a sensationalist who panders to the crowd when I do see him... but I'd say similar things about Keith Olbermann and some of the other pundits. 
(2) I tend to be somewhat libertarian and Austrian in my view of economics. That said I think citizens should stand up and care for the poor, seek better schools, show concerned for the 'outcasts' of society (concerns of the 'left') --I just think the government does a poor job of that when they don't treat all their citizens equally. I find both Republicans and Democrats pander to their special interest groups.
(3) I agree that people like Beck can put Christians to shame in terms of their religious fervor and passion for their beliefs.
(4) The one pagan that I can think of God using is Balaam in the OT, where he can't do anything but bless God's people. Equally Scripture warns of deception of false belief--so Paul tells us in Galatians that even if we hear another message from an angel and it's not the gospel, don't believe it. Paul also tells us Satan masquerades as an angel of light. I don't think Beck is the devil incarnate (although the left likes to think that). The point is just because someone calls us to return to 'god' doesn't mean it is good thing.
(5) The problem I have with this is "God" is defined almost by the least common denominator type approach. So before a common prayer Beck said " “We can disagree on politics. We can disagree on so much. These men and women don’t agree on fundamentals. They don’t agree on everything that every church teaches. What they do agree on is that God is the answer.”"
But this begs the question: which God? 'God' is not a name, its a description. The true God's name is 'YHWH' the 'I AM'. This God is one God in three persons. The true God is triune. He is eternal and unchanging. (I know you know all this)
But for the mormon, they consider that there was a time when God was as we are now. There will be a time when we will be like God. You can ascend on the scale of being, just a 'god' did before us. They also deny the historic and Biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
So rallies like this sound nice. I mean, who doesn't want the nation to return to God. Not me. But then you have to realize that we aren't all calling to the same God. This is why this stuff gets called 'civil religion' and at the end of the day 'civil religion' is not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are a lot of good, well meaning, gospel believing Christians who get sucked into this. A whole lot of people hear a person say like Beck say "God" and they automatically filter that through their grid of who they believe God to be. But we are not all coming to the same God because we don't all believe the same things about who the true God is. Even the way I believe we should come to God is different. So "God is the answer"--not only do we not agree on who God is but we don't even agree on what the question/answer is. When we don't even agree on what the real theological question/answer is, all we have then is vague sentimentalism. This sort of religiousism is no friend to Biblical Christianity. In fact it goes deeper and becomes a stealthful enemy, a wolf in sheeps clothing.
I get excited about the God of the Bible who is so awesome that He has planned things, including my redemption, from the foundations of the world. That the unfolding of my redemption reveals the person and character of this God--that He is one God but He is three persons co-eternal and co-equal in glory and majesty.
I would love to see America return to that God and believe His gospel. But generic calls to repent are just religious, and a 'civil religion' at that. It will keep us in darkness while we pat ourselves on the back for returning to the god of our own making.
Here's some remarks about the whole 'Civil Religion.'

I have not 'fact' checked this but it is an interesting perspective on Glenn Beck. This is part 1 and part 2 of an essay that I'm hoping to get to later. It is a Mormon perspective on Glenn Beck.

Caffeinated Thoughts has this great line:
The risk for Christians in going to the “revival” in DC is not that they will be converted to Beck’s Mormon faith.  It is that they will believe his pluralistic message: it doesn’t really matter which God you serve as long as he is politically not a progressive.  Jerry Falwell, Jr. was recently a guest on Glenn’s TV show.  He said this: “We can argue about theology later after we save the country.”   But Falwell is wrong.  We cannot save the country if our theology is wrong.  Revival comes when we who were dead in our sins are made alive.  When people like Glenn Beck and I believe the gospel Whitefield preached.  Beck has asked Christians to pray for him.  We do pray that this will be the loving message Falwell and historian David Barton give to Glenn Beck when they are on his program, rather than sit silently by while he mocks our God.

“The Native Americans were descended from an ancient civilization that existed on this continent in pre-historic and Biblical times. This civilization, had large cities and a very advanced culture, including a writing system and higher religious thought”
Beck went so far as to say, “The ancient Indians actually had religious writings which were a proto-Hebrew Bible”. He also offered the “fact” that the Native Americans were descended from the Jews.
"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...